The latest research by Professor Linda Woodhead shows that for the White British population the majority now classify themselves as “no religion”. Where as once the norm was to tick “CofE” the new norm is “no religion”, or nones as she calls them. This is not the same as atheist nor does it reflect a lack of interest in things spiritual but it is a rejection of the Church.
Following on from her research Prof Woodhead suggests that one of the reason for the growth in nones is the growing divergence between the Church views and those of the wider society. In recent history she highlights, attitudes to remarriage of divorced individuals in church, attitudes to women in leadership, differences over equal marriage and Church suggestions that society is “anti-Christian”. She suggests that when the Church asserts its religious distinctiveness in these ways it fails to carry the wider society with it.
She highlights the contrast with those countries where there is a stronger overlap between Church and Society on such issues and where in consequence there is a higher participation in the life of the Church.
Some, of course, will argue that the approach of the Church should be distinctive and not blown by every changing idea of social norms. But if prioritising that distinctiveness puts people off engaging with the Church what does it achieve? Nones do not like being told what to believe or how to behave. Such conversations emerge best out of established relationships rather than being seen as the requirement of belonging. Similarly nones seem to have reacted against the more aggressive secularism as promoted by the likes of Richard Dawkins
To Prof Woodhead’s research I would add the off-putting nature of the demands that increasingly come with going to Church. With the encouragement to join this or that group, to be part of particular rotas, to sign up for regular giving etc, Church increasingly feels just like any other membership organisation. Gone is the ability to just go to church, let that one hour refresh, restore or encourage, a place to escape, pause, ponder and then return to engage the demands of one’s daily life. The Church can too easily move from being a comfort to the heavy laden to being another burden they have to manage.
Prof Woodhead sees the British Humanist Association as having very successfully appealed to the nones with the growth in popularity of non-religious naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals, with the Church of England in turn seeing the most significant drop in “market share”.
Can the Church similarly learn to appeal to the nones, throw off the cloak of religion, and make a more open and inclusive, and less demanding, offer? Cathedrals perhaps are best place to draw in the nones. Their history and heritage still have wide appeal and their worship offers space for those who just want to come on their own terms, only engaging further as and when they want to – pillars are wonderful things to hide behind until such time as you feel ready to show yourself.
Could it be that in its very religious assertion of itself, the Church is driving away the very people it wants to encourage? The Church ignores Prof Woodhead’s research at its peril.