Congratulations and Celebrations

The numerical decline of the Church of England proceeds apace

The legacy of Springboard, the Archbishops’ agency for the Decade of Evangelism, is the gloomy prediction that attendance figures will have plummeted to 500,000 by 2030. Adult attendance at CofE services dropped by 5% in the 1980s and by a staggering 13% in the Decade. Rumours that the decline has ‘bottomed out’ are no more reliable than heretofore. And, alas, Spin-Dr Beaver is no longer with us to deny it all.

More dramatic than the decline in average Sunday attendance is the decline in the use of the occasional offices – baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals.

The Church now marries half the number it did ten years ago. Baptisms fell by 13% in the 1980s and 24% in the Decade of Evangelism. Confirmations dropped by 39% in the 1980s and by a further 43% in the Decade. Astonishingly there are no central records of the number of funerals conducted by Anglican clergy before 2000, so no comparisons can be made. There were 232,550 funerals in 2000.

Weddings and funerals are important, not only because they are an index of the degree of ‘residual Christianity’ in a population now clearly disaffected from the CofE, but also because they are a significant source of revenue.

You will probably look in vain for an acknowledgement in your diocesan accounts of the contribution made by parochial fees (now assigned by the incumbent or deducted from his stipend) to the annual cost of the clergy; but 232,550 funerals means £16,278,500 nationally, a tidy sum in itself (around £1707 per clergyperson per year). Weddings (60750 in 2000) gross around £4,556,250 for the Commissioners (or £478 per clergyperson per annum).

That this tidy sum is dramatically diminishing is a cause of concern simply because direct giving (at an amazing £6 per regular weekly attender, or £253.80pa) still raises only £28,000 of the £32, 000+ needed to fund a clergyperson (stipend, house and pension). When you consider that there are 16,222 church buildings to maintain and 13,033 Parochial Church Councils to service out of the same funds it is clear that the arithmetic does not work. The £21m in fees does not bridge the gap. But it is an important contribution.

The sobering fact is that Rites of Passage (as they are sometimes called) are passing elsewhere. You can be baptized (or ‘named’) and buried only once. But an increasing proportion of the population (as the Scott-Joynt proposals obligingly acknowledge) is being married several times. Where are the rites – and the fees – disappearing?

Step forward the Rev Lesley Edwards MA and the International Federation of Celebrants (of which she is a practitioner). If you want a ‘naming ceremony’ without any embarrassing renunciation of sin and profession of faith; if you want a wedding without those absurd promises about fidelity ‘till death us do part’; if you want a funeral without all those tacky references to judgement and life eternal; even if you want to organize a bar mitzvah at the local pork butchers, Lesley is your person.

Lesley and friends have seen that there is a market for ideology-free ‘celebrations’, and they have skilfully cornered it. Where the Church of England fails (in recent years not through want of trying), they pick up the cash.

Lesley’s advert, it has to be admitted, reads uncannily like a handout from the Kremlin of the People’s Church:

‘Celebrant-Priest-Minister for Weddings-Blessings-Christenings-Namings. All other ceremonies, such as renewal of wedding vows. Choose you own location: Home, Garden, Marquee, Hotel, Clubhouse, historical Site, in the Forest, on the Beach, on the Water, in the Air… Choose the wording: Each ceremony individually written. All values and beliefs respected. Wide selection of resources. Sample services. Add your own ideas. Our celebrant, dressed for the occasion, plans your ceremony with you so it is personal, warm friendly.’

The website of the International Federation of Celebrants gives answers to some frequently asked questions. Celebrants, we are told, ‘believe in the power and effectiveness of Ceremony and Ritual as basic needs of Society and the Individual. They accept that they must assist the client in creating the best ceremony possible in the circumstances. In short, they pursue excellence in ceremonies.’

In a passage which should give comfort to members of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, the webpage goes on:

‘The beliefs of the celebrant, if any, are irrelevant. Celebrants believe that appropriate ceremonies are an important means of bringing happiness and mental balance to individuals, and connection and beauty within society. They believe in people. They believe in adding to the sun total of human happiness wherever they can assist in doing so. Celebrants are trained to ‘read’ their clients and focus on the values and priorities of the client. The personal beliefs of the celebrant must never intrude. The celebrant could be an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian. Those attending the ceremony should have no idea of what he/she is!’

Whom do Celebrants oblige with ceremonies? Here the International Federation of Celebrants is obviously in direct competition with the Methodist Church:

‘The short answer is anyone! In the nature of things it is mostly secular or non-church people who seek professional skills of a celebrant. Quite often, however, people seek a celebrant if a church rejects them in some way (eg weddings for divorced Anglicans/ Episcopalians or Catholics), or if they are of mixed faiths or mixed cultures, the professional celebrant assists them to create a ceremony which respects and includes all traditions and value systems involved.’

It will by now be obvious to readers that the International Federation of Celebrants (presently ‘headquartered’ in Victoria, Australia and active – how did you guess? – in the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) has cannily assessed an emerging need among White Anglo-Saxon Post-Protestants and is lucratively pursuing it. Here are endless spin-offs and marketing opportunities. The ‘Certificate of Commitment’, printed in nine carat gold and ‘luxuriously laminated’, is, for example, a favourite among same-sex partners who have been ‘celebrated’.

At present the Dean of Studies at the International College of Celebrancy (4/168, Lennox Street, Richmond, Victoria ) is a Dr Chris Weston. The college is ‘the world’s leading Distance Education Course for Celebrants and Officiants. The training involves the Nature and Practice of celebrating and orchestrating Rites of Passage, Wedding / Marriage, funeral, naming and other Ceremonies, for mixed cultures / religions and / or non-church people.’

But Dr Watson, you will reflect, cannot hold onto the job forever. And if ever there were a job tailor-made for a Very High Church, Atheistical Ex-Primate of a Province of the Anglican Communion, this is it!

Go for it Richard! We are all behind you!