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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.