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13 July 2011

The Church of Old England

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

By Nelson Jones

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.

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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.