I don’t know if it’s the preserve of religious people, but we do like to talk about how things were better in the past, or to flip this, how things are now getting worse.
The Church of England narrative about financial decline (or to be more generous – let’s call it streamlining) is in full throttle. Dioceses like Leicester are cutting stipendiary posts and clubbing churches together in groups with a handful of stipendiary ministers and a team of other self supporting priests and lay people looking after groups of 20 – 25 churches – or ‘Minister Communities’. There will only be 80-90 paid posts in Leicester Diocese at the end of it (if I’ve understood it right). Bigger and less badly off Dioceses are sure to follow suit eventually, as the arc of decline bends towards us all.
Is streamlining a great opportunity or a calamity? If you recently joined the ‘Save the Parish’ movement, you probably think it’s a bad thing; if you’ve known for 50 years that nothing is halting the decline in church-going and we should have ‘closed the churches that aren’t working’ a long time ago, you’ll probably see it as a good thing.
Writing as a minister of a church built in the 1970s after a church that ‘wasn’t working’ closed down (and another was sold to a different denomination) I have a slightly different take on closing churches than I did in 2017 when I used to begin every Sunday by nervously counting the small numbers of rural worshipers that were coming through the door before the service started.
Sometimes, when I’m wading through the 28 attachments that just came from the school clerk of governors, whilst having my fourth conversation of the week about heating, lighting or parking, I imagine what it would have been like to be a parson in simpler times – say, in a Jane Austen novel. Apart from being the wrong gender, I think I would have liked it.
I would begin each day in my large study with vast Georgian sash windows, – a King James bible and a heavy set of commentaries on my Regency desk. I would then open the capacious front door of my ten bedroom rectory and wander down the lane to take tea with the Squire, before returning to the apple orchard and preparing a sermon. After my lunch was set before me by the resident cook, I would do a spot of light visiting and retire for the evening to a dinner of woodcock washed down with an excellent claret. Finally, I would snuff out the evening candle in anticipation of seeing the entire village in church on the morrow.
When I worked in a village, vestiges of this life were perhaps still 1% visible in daily ministry. People who never came to church and whom I’d never met before would ask why I hadn’t visited. Other residents kept a sharp eye on the graveyard and complained when the grass wasn’t mown, or when great aunt Ada’s gravestone fell down after 90 years neglect. They talked wistfully of the days when the church’s finances were taken care of by the local gentry.
There is something very beautiful about a village church that’s served its community well; that’s stayed open all hours, that’s christened, married and buried residents for hundreds of years, that is, when you wander in, quiet, solid, unchanging. Whether religious or not, you’ll feel the presence of something special, because of all those years of prayer, all those memories soaked into the walls and all those ancestors sleeping in the earth.
It’s a sad, sad thing to close a church that no one goes to any more, that cannot pay its bills or afford to fix its roof; that wanted to welcome all, but had no facilities to offer visitors who needed a cup of tea or a wee.
But times change. Only one in ten babies gets christened; weddings in church account for only 22% of all marriages, and stats for funerals also show the church losing out to the so-called secular providers. Churches that boasted three services a day now have one; others that had a weekly service are now down to a monthly one, and still others are closing.
So things are getting worse. Or are they?
Sometimes when I hear that things are getting worse, I wonder – who are they getting worse for? Are things getting worse for women, or minorities in general; or is going in the other direction for them? Was it the case that you as a woman could walk home late at night without fearing you might get raped, or is that just a now problem? Or is it that we hear on 24/7 media of the (still rare) occasions when this happens, and it feels very front and centre all of a sudden.
In the dingy 1970s when male police officers sat around smoking and making sexist jokes (think Life on Mars) was policing worse, or better? Was crime worse then (no cyber crime) or better? If you could live in any time in British history, when would you choose? For the first time in ages, life expectancy in the UK decreased last year, but if you choose the year before that, you should be okay.
Are we going to look back on the pre-pandemic years of the twenty-first century and say things like ‘back then, we didn’t even know so-and-so; we were so backward’. Will we evolve into a society that can finally handle the climate crisis and find a way to live more equitably, as some of the more hopeful dreamers dream? https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/
Maybe our grandchildren will look back on our time and say ‘thank goodness we didn’t live in the 2020s when they had all that poor air quality. People went about in cars; cancer was still a thing and you couldn’t even marry your same sex partner in church – can you believe it?!’
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this? Is the Spirit leading us into every greater truth year by year or is the light getting snuffed out bit by bit? Is it getting better or worse? Or are both these things happening simultaneously?
Maybe these times were living in are just one great big uncovering – of things as they really are – one slow but certain revealing before The Revealing – of the ‘desire of all the nations’.
Which in itself (if it were not by definition the final thing that ever happened) would be a supreme example of an event that people would refer to simultaneously as ‘the best of times and the worst of times’, depending on their viewpoint.