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 hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.