Since when did the Church of England decide to curl up in the corner and wait to die?

White Flag SurrenderLast night some bizarre rumours began to circulate on Twitter. Apparently the Church of England had announced that this country had become so clueless about Christianity that there is no point trying to convert anyone anymore. This, if true, would be a shocking volte-face from an organisation that has sent out thousands of missionaries over the years and is the home through Holy Trinity Brompton of the Alpha Course, so praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury which has seen 299,000 people attending 9,300 separate courses in the UK last year.

This apparent capitulation was mentioned in a Times article released yesterday entitled: ‘Losing our religion: Church acknowledges decline of Christianity’. Unfortunately due to their paywall not everyone has been able to read the piece and when firsthand information is unavailable, it doesn’t take much for the Chinese whispers to develop. Even the Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, put out a blog post defending himself after giving a quote for the piece worrying that the part on there being no point trying to convert anyone anymore because the people of England have gone too far away from the Christianity had been attributed to him.

Fortunately for Bishop Nick, this was not actually the case. The supposed source was a press release from the Church of England announcing their new Pilgrim discipleship course. The course has been designed in particular for new Christians who want to grow in their faith and become more mature disciples of Jesus. The press release mentions that the course offers an approach of “participation, not persuasion”. This would make sense as it is deliberately setting out to offer something different to courses such as Alpha which aim to introduce Christianity to those who are interested in finding out more about it. Pilgrim could be seen as a follow-on to Alpha for those who have already taken that step of faith. Harmless enough it would seem, but from these three words this sensational introduction to the Times article was generated:

‘The Church of England has admitted that the country has become a nation that knows almost nothing about Christianity and that there is no point any more attempting to convert anyone.’

‘An evangelism course to be launched next month pledges that there will be participation but no “persuasion”.’

Now this article was written by the very experienced Times religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill. If I was being generous, I’d say that she wrote it in a rush without checking things properly, but I think it’s more a case of making headlines and stirring things up. Maybe I’m falling into the trap by responding in this way, but some clarification is in order beyond dismissing such an utterly nonsensical statement.

Later on in the article it talks about The Church of England adapting its evangelistic methods to take into account the nation’s changing religious demographic, which contradicts the opening statement and gives a much better representation of what the Church of England is trying to achieve, leaving you wondering what the article is actually trying to say in its confused manner.

It’s not been a good week for journalism and although this is really just a storm in a teacup, it doesn’t say much about the quality of journalism that you would hope for from a supposedly more serious paper such as the Times.

As a final thought it’s worth commenting on the quote towards the end of the piece given by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society which is undoubtedly there to provide some ‘balance’. He says:

“I think they are desperate. It looks as if they have given up recruiting and are just trying to keep the people they have got. The Church is pushing against a tide of change in our society that cannot be stopped.

“It is very King Canutish. Young people today are living in a way the Church does not acknowledge, accept or fit in with. They feel completely detached from church. They do not feel guilty about not going to church. They feel no need to study religion. The Church is dying.”

Poor Mr. Sanderson has again demonstrated his ignorance when it comes to the Christian faith. Firstly he makes the schoolboy error of believing the headline rather than the substance. Secondly he appears not to be aware of what discipleship actually is. It might be worth him taking the time to learn that Jesus had disciples. Certainly he went around preaching the Gospel and performing miracles, but he actually spent much of his time discipling his followers; teaching them about his Father and the nature of his ministry. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells them to “go and make disciples of all nations”.

Discipleship is integral to the Christian faith and goes hand-in-hand with evangelism. it’s not a bolt on or an alternative and definitely not a sign of desperation. If there is a criticism of the Church of England it would be that it’s failed to emphasise and acknowledge the importance of discipleship in the past; something that the Pilgrim course is attempting to address.

One of the most exciting moves we are seeing in the Church both nationally and globally is its increasing confidence in sharing the message of the Gospel rather than keeping it hidden behind closed doors. Giving up and retreating into a corner to slowly fade away and die is the last thing on its mind – even for the Church of England.

Update: Ruth has given a response in the comments section below. Please do read her reply.

Categories: Church, Faith in society, Media

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9 replies

  1. It certainly reads like poor journalism. But then again it is headline grabbing. Trouble is will anybody read past the headline – I mean non-interested people? The new Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be bringing in the message of Christ rather than the intellect of Christianity. A good thing in my humble opinion. Jesus was all about “the people” as well as disciples. Something the institutional maintaining via the structure of the church has forgotten.

  2. I’ve made a comment on this over at Nick Baines blog on the same issue which addresses some of your points and his. I welcome constructive criticism. I didn’t write the story in a rush. Quite the opposite as it happens. Also, it has become one of the most read stories on the faith page in recent days, and is even highlighted in Google search which is rare for Times articles because of our subscription terms. I wasn’t deliberately sensationalist or misleading, but was deliberately hard-hitting. At The Times, we like it if stories get a lot of hits. So am I to produce bland, soft news articles – more like puff features – in the awareness that you and others will like them but hardly anyone else will read them? Or do I continue to go in hard and thus generate interesting debate and lots of hits on my stories? Is it better to be talked about, or not? Is it better to be liked, or to generate lots of ‘hits’? To be ‘hit’? I am not aware that you have ever blogged or ‘talked’ about the many, many ‘good’ news stories that I write week after week, including today’s lovely story on the new girls’ choir at Canterbury which unlike the |Pilgrim story, actually made the main paper. In the present climate, it is vital that our stories at The Times get read and commented on. No-one, when I last looked, had commented on the choir story. The Pilgrim story is getting a fair few comments. The temptation therefore to phone Terry Sanderson, Richard Dawkins, Andrew Copson and lots of others on a list I am presently compiling to comment on future news stories is strong. I have learned a lot from this story, and one of the lessons I have learned that getting quotes from the National Secular Society generates readers and interesting debate. You might be interested to know, though, that I only turned to them for a comment after 24 hours of fruitless attempts to get a comment from one of the four authors of the Pilgrim course.

    • Ruth thank you for taking the time to reply. I would much rather you wrote pieces that get read! I often read what you write and have taken out a Times subscription so I can keep track of things and have a great deal of respect for you. This is why I was so surprised by your comment in yesterday’s piece.It is fair to talk about the decline in church attendance and those calling themselves Christian and I actually thought it was a good article apart from the first paragraph, so am glad that it is being read widely. I linked to it on Twitter yesterday for that reason.

      It is disappointing that you couldn’t get hold of any of the authors for a comment, although the one from Nick Baines was very worthwhile. I personally don’t have a problem with you or other journalists using secularists or atheists for quotes on religious articles because it does generate debate and open things up especially when some comments deserve to be challenged (and this can be from both sides).

      You will know this far better than I do, but to get people reading and talking you mostly have to provoke a reaction. I wouldn’t normally choose to criticise in this way, but on this occasion it felt right to do it. I am happy to be criticised in return. Religious news does not have to be tame and I would love to see your articles being read more and similar conversations happening. It is good to stir things up at times. I suppose the hard bit is knowing what to stir up and how to do it.

      I don’t usually link to Times articles on here because of the paywall. Perhaps in future I ought to link to your articles more. Today’s on the girls’ choir was very good and I’ve left a comment. Thank you for your work at the Times even if it doesn’t look like I’ve appreciated it today.

      • Thank you Gillian that is a really generous response. Thank you also for taking the trouble to comment on the Canterbury choir article. Keep blogging – you do a great blog here.

      • I can’t help wondering if Ruth actually wrote that first paragraph. I would suspect that it was in fact written or given a major edit by a sub-editor, who linked “The Church of England has admitted” with “there is no point any more attempting to convert anyone” in a way which was not intended in Ruth’s original draft. It would I suppose be unprofessional of her (and if any journalists have professional standards these days, she has) to disown publicly the work of a sub-editor on her article. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she is privately furious at this inaccurate statement being attributed to her authorship.

  3. I would have the thought that the point at which people know nothing about Christianity would be the exact point at which the gospel would sound like good news. I long for the day when people don’t know about Christianity, because it seems to me that what most people currently ‘know’ about it is poison to their souls- eg a history of concealed abuse, a history of bias to the rich. A characature I know but deeply damaging. When we are known because of love and a bias to the outcast, we will be worth knowing. And I think that is starting to happen praise God.

  4. Thank you Ruth for your kind comment too. I will do my best to keep going!

  5. Ruths article was a matter for prayer at a meeting of believers this morning here in Gosport. I would suggest to Ruth that perhaps the Church of England is asleep and needs to awake out of its slumber as current events world wide especially in the Middle East should be viewed in the light of the words of Jesus who said ‘You can discern the weather by the sky – but you do not discern the times,,The true church cannot die – Jesus said ‘I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it., T here is no greater authority than scripture and we would all do well to stand on it.

  6. “If there is a criticism of the Church of England it would be that it’s failed to emphasise and acknowledge the importance of discipleship in the past; something that the Pilgrim course is attempting to address.

    One of the most exciting moves we are seeing in the Church both nationally and globally is its increasing confidence in sharing the message of the Gospel rather than keeping it hidden behind closed doors. Giving up and retreating into a corner to slowly fade away and die is the last thing on its mind – even for the Church of England.”

    Dear Gillan, as always I think that you are right on with these comments. Whilst agreeing about the risks of complacency, there are many places where even the Church of England is doing some great discipleship and evangelism … often in unity with other denominations locally (including the Catholic church). I am privileged to live in such a place, Bicester in north Oxfordshire. John Innes.

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