Church Attendance Swells in Britain's Churches
Michael Ireland : Jan 6, 2012 : Assist News
"I'm firmly of the view there's a spiritual impulse in everybody…People are aware there's a big shift in society coming along, even though they might not understand it. So I'm not surprised that the ground is now more fertile for the spread of the Christian message." -James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
(Islington, London, UK)—Church attendances in the United Kingdom, in freefall for so long, have started to rise again, particularly in Britain's capital city.
Numbers on the electoral rolls are increasing by well over two per cent every year, while some churches have seen truly dramatic rises in numbers, according to Peter Oborne, writing for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Oborne says change is afoot in Britain's churches. He says that with the chill wind of austerity blowing through the country, religion's warm embrace looks more and more inviting. Oborne welcomes the resurgence of a national pastime: churchgoing.
Oborne writes that for many years it was accepted that Christianity was all but dead, an anachronistic relic of the past whose foundations had been destroyed by modern science and rationalism, before being left behind by the cultural and sexual revolution of the Sixties. (Photo: geograph.org.uk)
"The figures seem to bear this out," Oborne writes. "Church attendance—which stood at around 50 per cent in the middle of the 19th century—had declined to around 12 per cent in 1979, or 5.4 million. By 1998 it had almost halved to 7.5 per cent and when the most recent census was conducted in 2005, it was discovered that only 6.3 per cent of the population, some 3.2 million, were regular churchgoers. The number of people calling themselves members of the Church of England has collapsed to 20 per cent, according to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, down from 40 per cent as recently as 1983. More than half of all Britons, according to British Social Attitudes, say they have ‘no religion' and never attend a religious service."
Despondent churchmen judged that there were just too many alternative attractions—Sunday shopping, sports fixtures and the relentless secularism of modern Britain. Only Islam, fuelled by immigration and more disciplined and certain faith, appeared to be growing, Oborne says.
But, as St Mary's Upper Street in the heart of London's secular Islington shows, there is still that yearning for faith, he writes. Over the last 12 months, attendance at the main Sunday service at the church (where Oborne's wife Martine is curate) has risen by nearly 20 per cent, from around 95 to 115.
"Though much of this is down to Vicar Simon Harvey's hard work and charisma, the growing popularity of St Mary's is part of a much wider and very striking phenomenon," Oborne says.
"Indeed, as the second decade of the 21st century gets under way, there is surely a change of public mood. There have been many wonderful things about the last half-century, but it is impossible to deny that it has been an era of materialism and selfishness. The religious impulse has not quite vanished, but the teachings of the church have been mocked and suppressed. It may be that in an age of austerity, we are collectively coming back to the profound and ancient verities of the gospels."
Oborne writes that even more phenomenal growth is being seen in the Pentecostal churches springing up on the suburbs of Britain's biggest cities, and attracting vast congregations of immigrants from African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. These Pentecostal churches meet a vast yearning for spirituality and cater for congregations of 10,000 or more. Recently, the Redeemed Church of God reportedly attracted an incredible 40,000-strong congregation for an all-night prayer meeting at London's ExCel centre.
Oborne states that Hillsong, a Pentecostal "megachurch" founded in Australia, attracts a global congregation in London and has seen its membership rise from 200 to more than 10,000 in 12 years. As with other growing churches, it is about more than Sunday worship. As its website announces: "We meet during the week in small informal groups, known as Connect Groups, we serve our local communities together, some people go to evening college to learn more about the God's Word, we socialize together, we do life together..."
This freelance exuberance has spread into Britain's cathedrals too, says Oborne. According to Lynda Barley, the head of research at the Archbishops' Council, attendance at Britain's 43 cathedrals rose by seven per cent last year, with 15,800 adults and more than 3,000 children attending Sunday service. More than 1.7 million attend Church of England services in the average month. (Photo: orthodoxherald.com)
Oborne says: "This figure could be larger, but it is still enormous, far more than the number who attend football matches, often assumed to be Britain's favorite weekend activity. But church people tend not to be as newsworthy as footballers. Their Christian values stand at an angle to the brash, thrill-seeking, instant consumer culture that has become dominant in Britain over the last half-century.
"These eternal values do not simply make themselves known through attendance at Sunday services. Churches are today finding all kinds of new ways of connecting with the local community."
James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, agreed: "I'm firmly of the view there's a spiritual impulse in everybody. But this impulse is episodic. For instance at times of bereavement or trouble, people open up and become more sensitive to the Christian faith. I believe the same happens with society. When the material world gets knocked people are forced to think again and that's when Christianity does have something important to say. People are aware there's a big shift in society coming along, even though they might not understand it. So I'm not surprised that the ground is now more fertile for the spread of the Christian message."
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