Liberal innovations have always been billed as a way of increasing church attendance but the statistics show their lack of success, writes Geoffrey Kirk

Perhaps the most significant event in the Church of England during the silly season between the reference of the Women Bishops legislation to the dioceses and its final consideration, has been the belated acknowledgement that the optimism of the official statistics department has been tragically misplaced, and that the Church is likely to hit the numerical buffers well before the middle of the millennium.

Rather than saying ‘We told you so’ it behoves us to reflect on how we (and they) got here. The tale is not hard to tell. For the whole of my ministry in this Church every new project of the liberal ascendancy has been sold as a prophylactic against numerical decline. And none of them has made the slightest impact on the problem which they purported to address.

The first was the Methodist Reunion Scheme. I cleared out some boxes in the attic the other day, and there they were: assertions that the divisions of the Christian Church were alienating the people of England from regular church attendance, and that (how did you guess?) young people were especially alienated. I do not think anyone explicitly claimed that Anglican/Methodist reunion would boost the number of teenage worshippers in the United Church (‘teenagers’, you will recall, had recently been invented and were a modish concern), but the implications were there for all to grasp. The fact that in the mid- to late Sixties the Church of England was doing rather well in terms of ‘teenage’ commitment and that the Methodist Church was a comparative disaster area did not seem ever to feature.

Then came liturgical revision. Now do not get me wrong: I am no Prayer Book Fundamentalist. I am a principled supporter of liturgical reform. But the populist arguments marshalled to defend the revisions of the late Sixties and Seventies were a shameful betrayal of scholarship and rationality. They portrayed Dr Cranmer’s anthology as the epitome of the street-cred vocabulary that the revisers were themselves advocating (a contradiction of every contemporary scholarly opinion); foolishly (but modishly) they concluded that specialist speech registers were everywhere being eliminated by a new wave of classless demotic; and (worse still) that theological concepts, like grace, salvation and redemption had a cash value in terms of contemporary parlance. And yes, you guessed it, they claimed that modern-language liturgy would fill the pews.

The linguistic dumbing down which the liturgy suffered in the Seventies and Eighties was not, of course, restricted to the Church of England. Everyone was at it, and the Vatican at least has lived to rue the day. It was, as some of us grasped at the time, simply a particular case of the general Liberal tendency to devalue the tradition and uncritically to embrace the ambient culture.

Thirdly there was women’s ordination. The rumblings had been heard, of course, for a couple of generations. But support achieved critical mass in the early Eighties; and the arguments were increasingly demographic. George Carey, in the Synod debate of 1992, put what he clearly considered to be a conclusive case: ‘We must draw on all available talents if we are to be a credible Church engaged in mission and ministry to an increasingly confused and lost world. We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of our society’s life save the ordained priesthood.’

The claim was oftentimes made more explicitly. Church attendances were in decline because the Church was ‘out of touch’, and the failure to ordain women equally with men was a prime example of that fatal disconnection. It was even said (contrary to every available statistic) that the Church was especially haemorrhaging female worshippers. Women’s ordination would bring them back.

This was dangerous nonsense. Nonsense because the real problem was the absence of men (who had long ago concluded that religion was women’s business and who were unlikely to be dissuaded from that opinion by a bevy of female minsters). Dangerous because it exposed the experiment to statistical verification. Twenty years on have numbers increased? Of women? Of men? Of young people? After a succession of duplicitous changes in statistical analysis the Synod has now been told the facts.

Of course it might be argued that church attendance would have declined ever more steeply had women not been ordained and if services had continued to be conducted in the language of the sixteenth century.

But the pattern fifty years is clear enough, and demands an interpretation. The fact is that the Church of England’s loss of nerve and fears about its own irrelevance have disposed it to embrace as panaceas a raft of options which had no reasonable probability of delivering the goods. ‘More bums on seats’ was seen as a knock down argument in favour of almost anything, and tragically discouraged a thorough examination of the merits of each case.

Each small step advancing this Liberal Agenda involved prevarication and deceit. And it was aided by the biggest lie of them all: that there is no Liberal Agenda –which, paradoxically, many of its staunchest acolytes genuinely believe. ND