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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.