Decentralise Not Decolonise

BY JAKE SCOTT

Anglicans are a dying breed. The 2011 census found that only 15% of Britons considered themselves to be Anglican – nearly half that at the turn of the century. This figure fell even further to 12% in 2018. The 2021 census will almost certainly return an even lower percentage, as young adults increasingly feel that faith has no place in their lives. Indeed, a poll in 2019 showed that a paltry 2% of millennials considered themselves Anglican.

Despite this, the churches that are still open in England seem in good health. This is a revival spurred on, somewhat surprisingly, by the coronavirus pandemic. The last year has seen many people turn to religion as a source of comfort in this time of isolation and uncertainty. The Pew Research Center in the United States, for instance, found that 10% of people in the UK believe their own religious faith has become stronger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenge for churches across the country, now, will be how to hold on to these new congregants, be they converts or people returning to the faith. As coronavirus passes, lockdowns ease, and peoples’ social lives become busier, churchgoing will go from a haven of comfort to a luxury once again.

One section of the population that the Church of England can learn a lot from is British Muslims. Islam in the United Kingdom is highly decentralised, but retains points of cohesion that are not a million miles from the Anglican faith: love for family; a rooted identity found in community and belonging; and, of course, a belief that faith is the source of moral goodness. Some might say this is in spite of the lack of centralisation; counterintuitively, however, it may be because of it that Islam in Britain is doing so well.

Despite the church’s attempts to be modern and engaging, many young people are drawn to the more traditional forms of worship. The “bells and smells” as it is known, and a love of classical church architecture have encouraged many young people to discover the faith. So much for the rock bands and the school halls; but the superficial elements of the faith, attractive as they might be, cannot hold onto converts alone.

But whilst the grassroots are reaching up, the leadership seems to be punching down. Take Archbishop Welby’s strange declaration last summer that there would be a national audit of symbols in English churches, as well as the Church’s desire to ‘consider monuments which have links to slave trading or the exploitation of people’. This is a reasonable cause, by all means, but is it really the place of the congregants to pass judgement on the faith? Or is it even the place of the Archbishop to do so?

Political Commentator and Anglican ordinand Calvin Robinson has done fantastic work in highlighting the institutional ‘wokeness’ of the Church leadership. The cause of altering the attitudes of the leadership is certainly an important one. But, given the rightly-identified institutional nature of it, I think the better strategy is to emulate the broader Muslim experience in Britain and alter the relationship between the community and its leadership. Especially because, if the Church carries on the way it is, it will fail to hold onto the newly converted, and it will survive only through the habitual churchgoers who won’t be here forever.

This strategy inevitably involves decentralisation. I cannot profess to know how far this is acceptable within the bounds of existing liturgy, but it seems to me that the faith is the only thing holding the Church together at this point, and everything else – the institutional wokeness, the mini golf courses in cathedrals, the Christ-centred and Jesus-shaped nonsense – seems to be pulling it apart.

Instead, if the Church wants to save itself, it should focus on the faith, by allowing congregations to worship as they always have, rather than forcing a political agenda on the good-natured, Anglican people of this country.

Jake Scott is Chairman of the Mallard and Doctoral Researcher of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham.