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Church census likely to show again great need to turn tide of disillusion

By Alf McCreary

Published 05/11/2016

Dwindling numbers: a previous census showed falling Sunday attendances which Archbishop Richard Clarke described as a ‘wake-up call
Dwindling numbers: a previous census showed falling Sunday attendances which Archbishop Richard Clarke described as a ‘wake-up call

Tomorrow morning members of the Church of Ireland all over this island will be asked to fill in, anonymously, forms about their age and gender.

This will be the beginning of a census on Church of Ireland membership and will continue for the rest of this month.

The previous census took place in 2013 and showed that the average attendance over three Sundays was only 58,000 people - representing 15.5% of the Church of Ireland. This stark statistic poses the question: "Why are the other 84.5% of people not going to their church at least once in every three weeks?"

The Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke described this as a "wake-up call". Even worse, the figures showed that only 13% of those who worshipped on a Sunday were aged between 12 and 30.

This picture of older congregations and of a minority of regular worshippers raises serious questions for the future of the Church of Ireland and for the other main dominations.

Many people will hope that the figures for the 2016 census will be better, but no-one is sure if the decline in Sunday worship has bottomed out yet and what has caused it in the first place.

The reasons are complex, but the decline in the numbers attending worship suggest that nowadays people simply choose not to go because they do not feel the need to do so or because they have lost respect for the churches, or both.

There was a time when young people of my generation were made to go to church because everyone else did. In those days clergy would bluntly ask why an individual was not in church the previous Sunday and the implied reprimand was accepted.

This is not so any more. Indeed any reprimand about not going to church would be received badly, even with hostility. In some ways the churches are in an impossible situation.

Clergy are damned if they take a hard line on this, but if they don't ask about church absenteeism there is an assumption that they don't really care about their parishioners.

Perhaps this widening disinterest in regular worship and church affairs is part of the disillusion among people about the previously-respected institutions of society.

This is clear in the world of politics. The shock of Brexit was a slap in the face to the elite by ordinary voters who felt that they have been ignored by the Establishment. The same is true in the USA where the extraordinary support for the wholly unsuitable presidential candidate Donald Trump is a direct challenge to the American political hierarchy.

Whatever happens in next week's US elections, the questions posed by disillusioned voters will linger on. This election has been a wake-up call, in the same way that the Irish Anglican Primate described the wake-up call posed by dwindling congregations and few younger regular worshippers in the Church of Ireland.

So what can be done about it? The churches have not helped themselves in the past by lurid child sex abuse scandals, or in the present by a narrowness which tries to stifle dissent on controversial issues instead of trying to handle them with concern and understanding.

Every week I hear disturbing stories of people who have been turned away from the church by narrow clergy who refuse to baptise a baby unless both parents are "saved". Each week people tell me how they are bored by poor sermons or a lack of inclusiveness which makes them feel unwelcome because they do not agree totally with the party line.

There is no easy answer, but those in the churches who are trying to turn the tide of disillusion and disrespect from the population at large might reflect deeply on St Paul's teaching about the great virtues of faith, hope and love.

He underlined that the greatest of these is love. Sometimes I feel that too many clergy and laity in the churches have forgotten this as they apply the rules with verbose self-justification rather than with humility and Christian forbearance.

Belfast Telegraph

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