Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Church of England in Society

Dr Cartright: Can I have a word about a proposal I worked out before we were transferred to this department?
Jim Hacker: - And you are?
Dr Cartright: - I am... what?
Jim Hacker: - Yes, you are what?
Dr Cartright: - What?
Jim Hacker: - What?
Dr Cartright: - I am Dr Cartwright.
Jim Hacker: If I may put it another way, what are you?
Dr Cartright: I'm C of E.
Bernard: The Minister means, what function do you perform in the department?
- ( Yes Minister)

Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She is the co-author of “That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People.”

In looking at the Church of Denmark, she notes that “two-thirds of Danish babies baptised”, although in fact recent statistics show numbers have been dropping rapidly since their book was published.

But this is the passage I want to look at this

“Compare that with England where well under a third of the population identify as Church of England and just 1 in 10 babies are baptised. The only similarity between the two is a very low rate of Sunday churchgoing: around 1% of the population. But for these societal rather than congregational churches, Sunday attendance has never been as important as occasional offices.”

By a “societal church”, she means a church which forms part of the fabric of society. It is where many people go to get baptised, married or buried, and in Denmark and England, it is a national church, so that membership has been seen as almost a default position, as seen in the reference in “Yes Minister” opening this article, in Dr Cartright's reply.

But if people are declining to make use of occasional offices, such as baptism of a child, and either not doing it any more, does this signify a decline in belief or a change in belief? And it what sense might those who used to make use of occasional offices actually belonged to the Church in any sense as Christians, that is, followers of Christ. Is it more than the church has lost the monopoly on what many regarded primarily as just a naming ceremony?

This is a question worth asking, because the decline in baptism may represent a decline in belief, or rather than beliefs shaped around both folk religion and the need for naming ceremonies now find other sources of inspiration in which a christening is not so important.

So what we must surely do, and what the book fails to do, is to explore the state of belief in baptism among occasional users back in the late 1970s, for example, and here I am drawing upon Neil Dixon’s book “Troubled Waters”, published in 1979. It is one of the few books which actually explores what people believe in those cases.

He comments that:

“The Church has always assumed that parents who presented their children were in fact Christians. The nature of modern society, however, raises serious doubts about this assumption. According to Geoffrey Wainright, the empirical fact is that there are at the moment millions of baptized persons, baptized years ago in infancy, who have not the faintest existential notion of the worship, fellowship, service and mission involved in the Christian life; and the denominations of today add to their future number by continuing to baptize as infants people who stand perhaps even less chance of coming to personal commitment.'”

And he notes that the use of an “occasional office” might not actually be a good indicator of involvement in the Church, even though that enters the figures. As a strategy for a “societal church”, baptism had evidently led to a situation where whatever else it denotes, it does not denote much in the way of practicing Christianity, and hence the legacy for the future is poor.

“Though the demand for Christian baptism is gradually declining, it is still true that every year a large number of parents present their children for baptism and that the number of baptized children who subsequently lapse is considerable."

"In 1956, there were 602 baptisms in the Church of England per thousand live births, and though there is no means of knowing how many of their parents were then actively involved in the Church or how many of the babies then baptized are now themselves practising Christians, it is obvious enough that nowhere near 60 per cent of Britain's 22 or 23-year-olds are still actively involved with the Church of England. Ten per cent would be a more than optimistic estimate."

"If baptism is the beginning of the Christian life, it seems that it is also, for the great majority of the baptized, the last stage of involvement with the Church.”

And this was written in 1979, although he quotes Alec Vidler in 1940 saying that "“as a matter of course we baptize children who are born into households which even the most brazen latitudinarian would hesitate to call Christian”. This a a long term matter.

So what reasons did people have for having babies baptised? This book actually suggests that many people have a “vestigial sense of belonging to the Church”

Dixon notes that:

“In these cases there tends to be a strong conviction that the administration of baptism is not merely desirable but essential. It is `the right thing to do' to have the baby baptized. This conviction is surely no less real because many parents cannot offer any explanation for it.”

“But sometimes discussion reveals that the vestigial belief and sense of belonging are not the parents' but the grandparents' or those of other influential relations or friends. In such instances parents who are not themselves convinced of the necessity of baptism may request it in order to keep the peace within their family or circle of friends. Superstition may also lead non-practising Christians to request a child's baptism.”

And he cites some examples from real life cases by way of illustration, and notes that: “most ministers have encountered such superstition in one form or another, though many church-members may not be aware how widespread it is. The following quotations are a sample of superstitious statements made to ministers within the last four or five years:”

“In our family we believe in having them christened as soon as possible. They thrive better afterwards.”
“The hole in the head closes up when they're 'done'.”
“If they've been christened, they're not as likely to get measles. “
“My wife can't use the carving knife until the baby's been christened.”
“If you won't christen it, it'll never be able to see its grandma. She won't let it into her house until it's been done; and she won't come to our house either.”

And in conclusion he notes that:

“Here we have a superstitious desire to fend off measles, to close up the imagined hole in the head, or to allow mother and child to visit grandmother without fear of calamitous consequences is, it need hardly be said, totally irreconcilable with the Christian understanding of baptism. “

This was 1979, and as he notes, such notions, and other of the same kind, were fairly common among those using “occasional officers”. So part of the decline may be a decline in folk-religious beliefs like those note, and the passing away of the grandmother's generation.

Sociologically, baptism functioned also as a “naming ceremony”, and it was this function which was probably most significant for many people. Most cultures have ceremonies around birth, marriage and death.

Naming ceremonies have not gone away, but they have now, as with funerals, also become ceremonies which do not require the church participation. As one site notes:

“If, like a growing number of parents, you would like to celebrate the birth of your child but have decided against a christening, alternatives such as a church blessing, naming ceremony or simple ‘naming day’ are becoming increasingly popular.”

“Anyone you choose can lead the naming ceremony! A grandparent, close family member or friend or even yourself! Alternatively you can invite a professional celebrant to lead the proceedings.”

And it gives an example:

“My partner Martin and I wanted to celebrate the arrival of our daughter, Cora, into the world. As we're not married it seemed hypocritical to go through a religious service in a church, so we decided to have a baby-naming day at home." A naming day is an informal occasion, gathering friends and family together to celebrate the birth and naming of your child.

What has happened is that the “occasional office” of baptism of a baby, which might only have had vestigial Christian significance, but which functioned far more critically as a naming ceremony has lost the need for a church setting and ritual. The church has simply lost its monopoly.

Indeed, the popularity of christening children has plummeted in recent years, whilst naming ceremonies are starting to become far more common.

One of the significant differences between a christening and a naming ceremony is that the former uses a liturgical form which lays out promises and commitments to those attending to commit to Christianity.

Indeed, the change from the old prayer book version, with archaisms, in which a mass of words descended on those present, to modern forms of service, actually caused some complaints because the degree of commitment in the three promises was spelt out with brevity and clarity.

We live in an age now which is largely devoid of commitment, so that naming ceremonies exist which remove any commitments or simply transform them into general promises to care for the child, which should be there anyway, declared or not. Any element of the sacred has long departed.

Take this example:

“Baby naming ceremonies are designed with couples to reflect their desires and needs whilst focusing on the importance of the child as an individual in their own right whose individual spirit and integrity should never be manipulated but rather their uniqueness fostered and appreciated in their own right.”

What remains in this description, when the ceremony has been stripped on any sacred elements, is a feel good ceremony of froth and bland cliché.

Is it any wonder that modern varieties of paganism are growing too, because they provide something more substantial and solid in the way of ritual, and something less fluffy. Modern pagan naming ceremonies focus on bringing the sacred into the naming ceremony, and give it a gravitas and depth that the non-religious DIY ceremony could never have - in calling on the gods to bless a child. They open up to the transcendent.

A similar transition is happening at the end of life, where funerals are often taken by a “celebrant”, often from the funeral director, and have no Christian trappings. A funeral becomes a “celebration of a life”, and while is positive, the traditional trappings of the Christian funeral service have been largely removed.

This is not just the explicit Christian elements removed, but those elements which chime with the death-averse culture in which we find ourselves which speak of mortality, of how anyone can be cut down, of how fragile and relatively short life is, and how we turn to dust. This is a reminder of mortality, and that is now a message silenced and unheard.

All is light, and the dark side of death is swept aside as much as possible. In celebrating a life, we can forget that "sunset touch" of mortality which pervaded the Christian funeral services.

So to return to the book, in which Linda Woodhead makes this distinction on kinds of church where she talks of the shift “from ‘societal’ towards ‘congregational’. The difference is that societal Churches go out into society; congregational ones try to bring society into church. Historically, the Church "of England" has always been a bit of both, but its centre of gravity has been societal.”

Yet as can be seen from real-life examples, a societal church is providing functions which people want – naming ceremonies – with rituals and commitments which they have in the past accepted for the sake of the naming ceremony for a variety of reasons, but to which they paid historically little more than lip service.

It is unclear what Linda Woodhead wants – does she want a return to such a situation? Increasingly those who bring children to be baptised are more likely to be those wanting to make a commitment, and who may be or may become practising Christians.

The Church has been moving in a variety of ways to accommodate the pressures of modern life, realising that an every Sunday commitment is not always possible with young children, and that monthly services, geared to both parents and children, may be a better way forwards. The traditional “Sunday school” has been replaced with “Messy Church”. Here surely is the future, a smaller Church, but more committed.

This will not be a “societal church”, but was that really a good thing? The idea of a Christian culture which permeated society was always a bit of a myth. Choice about churchgoing, or not, came from the seeds of the enlightenment, and not from within the church. People used the occasional offices of the Church because they were part of the culture, but that was ever only tangentially related to Christianity. The value of tolerance was primarily an enlightenment value.

Back in 1979, when Neil Dixon was writing his book, as he notes, it was a common and long standing attitude that one could “be a Christian without going to church”.

As he notes, many people believed at that time “that to be a Christian is to be a decent sort of person, obeying the law of the land (within reason), giving other people an occasional helping hand, and (though this is desirable rather than essential) believing in God. But going to church, reading the Bible or talking about Jesus Christ are hobbies for those who like doing such things. They are not necessary. One can easily be a Christian without them.”

The decline of the “societal church” has also led to decay in that belief, so that people no longer self-identify as Christians in purely this sense. Is that such a bad thing?

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