The Return to Religion

There has been a slightly sombre note to the beginning of 2012. As I write, I’ve just watched snippets of the New Year messages from some of Europe’s leaders; most predicting a difficult year ahead, through stony and concerned faces. By contrast, there have been recent glimmers of hope in our own nation, whether Cameron declaring that we are a Christian country, or the Queen articulating our need neither for a philosopher nor a general, but a saviour.

It seems clear that faith has a role to play in breaking through austerity and offering hope in the stark unknown of the year ahead. But let’s be honest, anyone can offer a good bit of faith-based-rhetoric and I want to know if there’s any substance to it. Are people in this nation really trusting God and seeking out faith? Because, at the end of the day, I’m not looking for a good turn of phrase, but a turning of hearts.

I was thrilled, therefore, to read Peter Oborne’s piece in the Sunday Telegraph entitled “The Return to Religion” in which he writes that:

Church attendances, 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.

It seems that there is more to this than rhetoric. People in our nation are genuinely seeking God, which is reflected in larger numbers attending churches, beginning to reverse the trend of the last decade.

Oborne’s article focuses on churches in the capital, admitting that “the picture outside London is not quite as rosy”, but cites central-London churches from a range of traditions, which are bucking the trends and seeing many people come through their doors. Included are Anglican churches, Catholic churches, independent churches, Pentecostal prayer gatherings, Hillsong and even our very own ChristChurch London.

The whole article is well worth a read – it’s refreshing to see some good news and a positive portrayal of the church – but three things particularly stood out as I read it.

First, the resurgence isn’t confined to any one tradition, but it spans the lot of them. This is deeply encouraging, since one style of church cannot ever cater for all. I’m thrilled to see a rise in numbers in the established churches as well as those, like my own, who describe themselves as non-denominational. This suggests that the attraction is indeed faith (or God) itself (or Himself) and not simply one current, attractive model of packaging Christianity.

Second, the article notes the rise in churches participating in Social Action, saying:

More than 1.5 million people now use their churches as a base for voluntary work, according to the National Churches Trust […] This means that churches are starting to regain some of the social function they enjoyed in the Middle Ages. During the last century churches tended to be regarded as hushed and sacred places, but they are starting to use their amazing cultural heritage to stretch the Christian message.

This clearly only scratches the surface, since it refers to churches which use their buildings for projects, and doesn’t take into account the many churches who don’t own their buildings, but still run projects on the streets or in rented properties. It is encouraging to see that churches, once again right across the various Christian traditions, are embracing the mandate to care for the poor and to engage with culture.

And third, various leaders are recognising a hunger that transcends anything the world can satisfy, and a particular openness to the gospel at the moment. Consider these three quotes, which Oborne offers:

There will always be a hunger in people for more than shopping. The Church does not have to be trendy to meet that need. – Giles Fraser (Ex Canon-Chancellor, St Paul’s Cathedral)

From a sociological point of view […] the attraction is a longing for community and a search for meaning. We preach an orthodox Christian message. Do that well and you have to lock the doors to keep them out. – David Stroud (Leader of ChristChurch London)

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. – James Jones (Bishop of Liverpool)

The combination of these three factors is encouraging: churches across the traditions, recognising the hunger of the nation, and meeting its needs both physically and spiritually. In this New Year, with all the complexities and challenges it will bring for individuals and entire nations, it is my hope that these trends will continue and that many will find solace in God, through His Church in 2012.


Featured Image: Plus Haut by Iko

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