The Church of Old England

The Church should embrace its ageing congregation and forget the awkward attempts to be trendy.

Is the Church of England dying on its feet -- or perhaps that should be, on its knees? Some Anglicans fear so. As the Telegraph reports, the Rev Patrick Richmond from Norwich has been warning the General Synod of a "perfect storm" on the horizon caused by ageing congregations (average age 61 and rising) leading to the church's extinction within a generation. Not only have congregations halved over the past forty years, the number of children attending regular worship has declined by 80 per cent.

"2020 apparently is when our congregations start falling through the floor because of natural wastage, that is people dying," Richmond declared. "Another 10 years on, some extrapolations put the C of E as no longer functionally extant at all."

Are congregations really dying off, though? Only if dead members are not replaced. Only if church-going (indeed, Christian belief) is a habit acquired in early childhood and, if lost, never regained. But neither is necessarily the case.

Ever since the Jesuits first said, "Give me a boy at six years old and I will show you the man", churches have been obsessed with getting them young. In the past, religions have primarily transmitted themselves from parents to children. It's still the case that (if you follow a religion at all) you are overwhelmingly likely to follow the religion of your parents. The fastest-growing religion is typically the one with the highest birthrate. But in a plural, predominantly secular society like ours lifelong church membership can no longer be taken for granted. It follows that an ageing congregation is not necessarily a dying one.

In fact, like Radio 4 (or indeed the Daily Telegraph) the established church has always been most popular among an older demographic. It's more than sixty years since Orwell used "old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning" as an image of an eternal England. They might no longer be maids, they probably drive, they don't even dress like Miss Marple any more, but women of mature years remain the backbone of the Anglican church.

The "average" 61-year old worshipper was born in 1950 and was a teenager during the sexual and social revolution of the 1960s; was a young adult in the Seventies and is now looking forward to retirement with greater financial security than either her parents or her children enjoyed or can expect. Active people with time and money to spare - exactly the sort of people the church should be trying to attract. Some will find their thoughts turning towards more spiritual matters after a hectic career and family life, and thus far more responsive to the church's message than the typical teenager, career-focused twentysomething or stressed-out parent. At the upper end of the age-range, people will be preparing for death and will be especially open to the comforts of religion.

Far be it from me to make suggestions to the C of E, but perhaps they should stop trying to attract the youth market - a declining demographic in any case - and instead specialise in serving the ever-expanding numbers of older people. Church has much to offer senior citizens - not just religious consolation but socialisation with like-minded folk, participation in parish committees and voluntary work, the opportunity to develop hobbies such as flower-arranging and singing, even a discreet dating service for the recently widowed.

A re-orientation towards age might help the C of E get past some of its more intractable problems. No more embarrassing attempts to be trendy. Fewer rows about sex, even. Rather than fretting about the absence of young people in their congregations, they might want to advertise the fact. Further opportunities present themselves. A sponsorship deal with Saga, maybe. Instead of trying to expand its educational empire still further, the church should be investing in care-homes. That's where the future lies.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.