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UK survey: why church pews are emptying

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 Contents - May 2005AD2000 May 2005 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Challenges facing John Paul II's successor Benedict XVI - Michael Gilchrist
'Santo Subito': the impact of John Paul II - Peter Westmore
News: The Church Around the World
Year of Eucharist: Religious education: Catholic youth have their say - Shannon Donahoo
Catholic beliefs and practices: the challenge ahead for Australia - Michael Gilchrist
The Da Vinci Code and the itching ears syndrome - John Young
UK survey: why church pews are emptying
St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, a spiritual oasis in London - Tess Livingstone
Bioethics: IVF and embryonic stem cell research: the social and ethical issues - Kerrie Allen
Letters: Appeal to the young - Justin Lynch
Letters: God's Champion - Robert Garrett
Letters: Theology at ACU - Henk Verhoeven
Letters: Overseas priests - Jenny Bruty
Letters: Priest shortage - Jeff Harvie
Letters: Heroic virtue - Bob Denahy
Letters: Catholic education - Geoff Storey
Letters: Private revelations - Anne Boyce
Letters: Sex before marriage - Dr Arnold Jago
Letters: Society of St Pius X - Stephen McInerney
Letters: Ecclesial unity - Meg Fennell
Letters: Correcting pastoral blunders - Kevin McManus
Letters: Catholic hymns - Dolores Lightbody
Letters: Latin Mass Times in Hobart - Kevin Tighe
Letters: Corpus Christi Procession in Brisbane - Josie Mangano
Books: Sacred and Secular Scriptures / The Catholic Revival in English Literature - David Birch (reviewer)
Books: A GENTLE JESUIT: Philip Caraman SJ, by June Rockett - George Russo (reviewer)
Books: Remembering Pope John Paul II
Reflection: Pope John Paul II and the redemptive power of suffering - Fr Paul Stuart

A recent survey of 14,000 churchgoers in the UK indicates that the emptying of the churches has been caused not by a perceived lack of relevance of Christianity but mainly by preaching and pastoral care that have been emptied of moral or doctrinal Christian content.

The survey, which was carried out by the interdenominational Ecumenical Research Committee, addressed questions about why church attendance was falling so dramatically in the UK but growing elsewhere, even though two-thirds of the British population believe in God.

The overwhelming response has been to call on churches "to robustly defend moral values with conviction and courage and cease being 'silent' and 'lukewarm' in the face of moral and social collapse."

In an introduction, Lord Bromley Betchworth said: "Those who spoke, did so with one voice an alarming indication that there are multitudes of people across Britain and Ireland who feel that their views are not being heard or represented."

Most people in Britain and Ireland, he says, are still morally conservative: "They are appalled that moral values and treasured beliefs are being stood on their head and want churches to play a leading role in standing up for these things."

The survey itself asked four simple questions and avoided "tick-box" responses in favour of written letters. The huge response was a surprise in itself and reflected a growing frustration and anger felt by many ordinary people about the direction of churches and society in general.

Many gave variations on the response, "Why hasn't a survey like this been done before, so we can speak?"; "At last, someone is listening, thank you so much"; "Thank you for the chance to express our beliefs without fear."

Several traditionalist Anglican clerics said that they had "to keep their own views to themselves in case their bishop, who held opposing beliefs, would remove them from their diocese." Many Catholics in North America have written that a similar situation exists there in which the churches are controlled exclusively by bishops and lay administrators who brook no orthodox opposition to their officially sanctioned left-liberal dissent from the faith.

91 per cent of responses followed a uniform theme that the decline in traditional Christian moral and doctrinal teaching has caused the outflux of congregations. They listed the lack of apologetics - the reasoned defence and explanation of Christian doctrine - as one of the main reasons for the collapse. "It's a myth today that the people of this country have rejected Christianity; they simply haven't been told enough about it to either accept or reject it," wrote one respondent.

Moral conversion

Thousands of letters also cited the lack of emphasis on the holiness of God and the need for personal moral conversion. The desire for teaching on holiness was prevalent and has been influenced, said the authors, by Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. Many responded that the churches now teach easy forgiveness, an attitude that "God loves me anyway," and that there is no need to attend church or live a morally demanding Christian life.

The vast majority of respondents were vehemently opposed to ordaining homosexuals and blamed the churches for the rise in pedophilia scandals because of the prevalence of homosexuals in the clergy.

Some celibate homosexuals wrote saying that the prevalence of support for homosexuality in the churches is undermining their efforts to live chastely. One young man wrote: "For sections of the Church to suddenly say that my struggle [to remain chaste] was for nothing and that it would have been OK to have given in, would be to deny my personal cross for Christ and mock the faithfulness I have shown Him."

2000 letters asked for a return to traditional liturgy and pointed out that attempts to attract younger people with jazzed-up offerings had failed and had alienated older parishioners. Over 450 said they drove vast distances to attend a traditional liturgical celebration. 1500 letters complained that the modern liturgies "bordered on entertainment rather than worship."

The survey has supported what Christians themselves have been saying for decades, that there is little point in attending a church whose message is no different from that of the materialistic secular world.


With acknowledgement to

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 18 No 4 (May 2005), p. 9

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