Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.Isaiah 42: 9
This week I had a conversation with someone in-the-know who informed me that the average Sunday service attendance in the Church of England has fallen to 15 people. In 2019 one Diocese recorded an increase in ‘numbers’ and that was London, but even there the increase was marginal.
Whatever the accuracy of such figures and however we in the church dress them up, we can be in no doubt that the Church of England is in serious numerical decline. The true picture, according to my friend, is far worse than we want to believe it is.
Also this week I was part of another dialogue during which someone commented about the ‘encouraging Christian content’ in the popular BBC series, Call the Midwife. I confess to having never watched Call the Midwife myself, but I took it as read and tested the claim on my Thursday Communion congregation, which was met with full agreement. It might be that Call the Midwife, set in late 50’s/early 60’s London at a time when the church was strong and church attendance was at a peak, merely reflects the cultural tone of the era?
The Christian Story is one of life, death and resurrection. The Glorious story of Holy Week is replayed throughout the history of its people, The Church.
Much is made these days in palliative care of the importance of a ‘good death’, and quite rightly so. I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that clergy of my generation are called to be ‘midwives’, both of a dying and emerging Church. We are to be ‘midwives of the dying’, preparing a terminally ill form of church for a good and dignified death, whilst at the same time assisting in the birth of new forms of church for a new season and century.
The Church of England as we have known it is dying. This causes me and many others, lay and ordained, great sadness and angst. Death is never easy. Our first reaction is to resist it. At all costs. Yet we know that resisting death is a futile pursuit.
My father died in the Spring of 1996. A few months later my first son Ben was born. That’s so often the way. The old making way for the young. My father died knowing that his grandchild was on the way, and although in his heart he probably knew that he might live long enough to see him in the flesh, he was both thankful and grateful that his seed, his name and his legacy would continue. His was a good death.
Jesus Himself said this: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12: 24)
I am convinced that the old order of the Church of England needs to put its house in order and prepare for a good death, in the sure and certain hope that new forms of church will arise from the soil in which it has been laid to rest.
I shared these reflections with my – mainly elderly – Thursday BCP Communion congregation today, emphasising that I was doing so as an encouragement. As I did so I felt led to end the service by singing Samuel Stone’s classic hymn:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.