Sunday 10th September 2017
Ezek 33:7-11, Matt 18:15-20
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am not today going to preach on Hurricane Irma, on the situation in North Korea or any other big topical issues. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray for all those situations, we most certainly should, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t think constantly about how to react to world events and natural disasters as people of faith, because we should always do so.
But today I want to think about something which, at first glace, looks more parochial and churchy but nonetheless I think is important to address as it may give us both some comfort and some challenge, perhaps in equal measure.
Last week saw the publication of the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which asks the British public a whole host of questions about their views on life, the universe and everything.
One of the results of that survey which seemed to get a lot of coverage was the changing attitude of the public towards religion. And don’t worry I’m not going to make my usual joke that if you don’t like organized religion then welcome to St. Mary’s!
The headline outcome of that survey was that the number of Britons who now self-identify as having no religion is in the majority for the first time. Evidently 53% now describe themselves as having no religion and that has increased from 48% in 2015, only two years ago. When the survey started in 1983 the figure was 31%. So, it looks as though there has been a rapid acceleration of people saying that they have no faith.
Interestingly the decline has not been uniform across all denominations: the number who now identify as Church of England has halved from 30% in 2000 to 15% this year whereas the number of Roman Catholics has stayed at a fairly constant 10% over the last 30 years.
As you can imagine, and as you may well have seen, these results produced a flurry of reactions in the media, not least a rather vitriolic attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury by Quentin Letts, criticizing him for daring to speak about the economy rather than seeking to refill the pews.
But what should we make of these figures and how should we react to them?
There are a number of things to say but first I would offer the advice of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy “Don’t Panic” and also the advice of Dad’s Army, “Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring.”
Having established, I hope, that we are not panicking it may also be worth reminding ourselves that this is a survey not a referendum. The fact that the noes are now in the majority does not mean that they win and we all pack up and go home. Our faith, thank goodness, is not decided by the popular vote.
Living in a world governed by spreadsheets, by surveys and by money it is easy to get caught up in the numbers game. But here is one of those paradoxical Christian things: although I believe that God wants every single person in the world to enter into relationship with him, God wants 100%, I don’t actually believe that God wants us to measure the success of the church purely in numbers.
Although one must always be careful about quoting scripture out of context I am constantly reminded of the words we heard today:
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Jesus did not say that you have to have more than 50% of any given town, village or country present in order to constitute the church. If two people meet in the name of Jesus then there are actually three people present, because he is there too, and where Jesus is, there the church is.
I spoke recently about the persecuted church and how some people managed to keep their faith and the church going in the most extreme of circumstances – in the gulags and even in Auschwitz. It is important to remember that the church, or at least the active members of the church, was never in the majority in those circumstances. It may often have been just one or two people saying their prayers, serving the sacraments and seeking to live as the people God called them to be not because they hoped to be in the majority, but simply because they were seeking to be faithful to God’s call on them – here I am, a child of God, I can do and be no other.
In relation to the decline of those identifying as Church of England as opposed to Roman Catholic this seems to be a decline not necessarily of faith but of nominalism. As the established church in this country the Church of England has always been the default setting of those who are English but who may not think very much about faith at all. If you are Catholic or Methodist or Baptist then you know you are and you probably know why you are. But if you have no particular faith background then, if in doubt, you tick the CofE box on the form.
I suspect it is that kind of vestigial, nominal, Church of Englandism which is now rapidly changing as people realise they don’t have to tick that box. It is evidence that we are rapidly moving from being a society in which a veneer of faith was the default position into one in which being a person of faith, even in the Church of England, is a matter of active choice.
The optimist in me can’t help thinking that this could be a good thing. If people start to identify as Anglicans and come to church not because it is either the default or the establishment thing to do but because they are making an active choice to be part of the church and are responding to God’s call on their lives then this may be positive. I suspect that a small number of faithful, prayerful people with Christ in their midst can change the world for the better.
However this is by no means a counsel of complacency. On the contrary the most concerning part of the report was the decline in religious affiliation amongst the young. In the 18-24 age group 71% reported having no affiliation, up 9% in only two years. The church, in fact all the churches, have a problem with the young. They may be open to ‘spiritual experiences’ but they are increasingly not open to faith in any kind of organized way. I have already made that joke.
But even here we should neither despair nor panic. Yes, we should seek to find ways to proclaim the gospel afresh to each generation but that should never mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater and it does not mean pretending to be something we are not in the hope of appearing cool to the kids, because there is nothing sadder than that.
So what do we do in the face of all this?
- We have to trust in God’s grace. None of us can change the decline of Christendom or convert the world on our own or in our own power. Only God can do what he wants to do and God calls whom he wants to call. However:
- Picking up the theme from Ezekiel it is still incumbent upon each of us to remain faithful to our own relationship with God. If we do what God asks us to do then we are not to blame if people choose to do otherwise. We must live out our Christian lives to the best of our ability and calling;
- We must continue to meet together, even if only in two and threes, because that is how we make Christ manifest in the world;
- We must pray continually for the world and the society in which God has set us. The place and time of our birth and our lives were no more an accident than were Jesus’. God choose you to be in the world at this place and time and to be a visible part of the church – there is no one amongst us here today who cannot spend more time in prayer for the world.
- Finally we must be authentic. The world loves nothing more than to tear down the church and individual Christians on the grounds of not living up to their calling and faith. Yet how powerful in the Kingdom of God is an authentic Christian. I suspect that an authentic Christian is someone who does the first four things I just mentioned:
Trusting in God’s Grace, Remaining Faithful to God, Make Christ Manifest in the World and Praying.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, if we can do those things we need never worry about spreadsheets or surveys and, even more importantly, need never worry about giving an account of ourselves to God Almighty about the way we have lived our life and followed our faith.