Digby Anderson sets out the real reasons for the decline in church attendance

There are some among the faithful clergy and committed laity who worry about the small number of their congregations. They know the Dominical command to teach the Gospel to the whole world and to baptize all they can. Then they look at empty pews and they worry. Have they and the church failed to teach as convincingly as they might? They are all too aware that hostile voices ridicule the claims of the church in the name of science, modernity and competing creeds. Have they failed to counter such attacks? Should they have done more to make the church relevant to the modern world?

The answer to their questions is, in most cases a definite ‘No.’ The relevance crusade has actually done harm; no more is needed. Answering intellectual critics is a waste of breath. The worriers’ thinking is based on two errors. The first is the more interesting because very widespread. It occurs in regard to many different topics outside the church, for instance in thinking about the economy, especially
disadvantage, about education, about food and countless other matters.

Who is to blame?

Take food. There is some agreement that the English today do not eat very well. Given the contemporary obsession with health, this is widely understood to mean that they eat unhealthily. More careful analysis shows that many families fail to prepare and consume good quality meals economically. Who is to blame? Candidates include the wicked food companies and their advertisers for offering too much processed food, for killing off high street food shops and enticing consumers by advert and package into bad ways. Of course there are industrial farmers too. Then there are schools which fail to teach domestic economy. Most of all there are social pressures which subvert juvenile appetites and dietary habits and pressurize working mothers.

Take your pick of the villains and any others you prefer. But they all share one characteristic. They are part of the supply of food and food attitudes. These villains cause the poor victim, innocent families, children and especially mothers to shop, cook and eat badly. What, today, one is not permitted to say is that part of the problem may be on the demand side.

Never suggest that the problem is down to indulged children, non-participant and often absent fathers and lazy, fashion-obsessed, ignorant mothers. But that is the truth. Thus, for instance, the destruction of local shops is because the shopper has deserted them in favour of the out-of-town supermarket.

For more than fifty years critics have bemoaned scholastic attainment, especially the large number of children who leave the state system after 11 years (10,000 hours) of compulsory schooling unable to read, write, count and work in a disciplined way in jobs. The villains

are the system, the lack of ‘resources’, the curriculum, the disadvantaged background of some pupils but never the pupils themselves and their parents. Able-bodied men fail to take an active part in the economy. The fault lies with poor incentives, lack of support, devious employers, but not with the able-bodied men who eschew jobs that immigrants gratefully embrace.

Their own choice

The error then is to assume automatically that any problem will be caused by supply factors. In the case of the church, the pews are not filled because of failures on the part of the church. But people are not absent from church because of clerical inadequacy. The fact is clear and can be seen by anyone with eyes to see. The absentees don’t want to be in church. They prefer to be somewhere else, doing something else.

Look, on your way to and from church at what the faithless are doing. They are driving off here and there to their pleasures, standing on street corners drinking from tins or still at home in bed or on the sofa. That is what they like. Once upon a time family and other social pressures led them to church. They no longer do so and the faithless no longer come. Nor are they equivocal in their decisions. You won’t see them pacing up and down outside the church agonizing about whether to hear mass or go and buy another pizza. And it is not occasional, their dismissal of church; they repeatedly do it. They do not flirt with Baal, they are full-time enthusiastic idolaters. The fact of this choice is obvious. It has nothing to do with what the parish priest has or hasn’t done and everything with what the faithless prefer to do.

Not an intellectual matter

These alternative preferred pastimes, by the way, do not include reading atheistic articles by scientists. On my way to church I have never seen one of the unfaithful sitting on a park bench reading the latest Richard Dawkins. The loss of faith – no, not loss, that suggests oversight, we are dealing with rejection – is not an intellectual matter. That of course is the other error, thinking that exposing the atheists’ scientistic nonsense will bring the faithless surging back into church.

So we can stop worrying about the empty pews or rather worry about something else that does not rest on the two errors. My own favourite might be concentrating on those who have comparatively recently ceased to attend church. As for those deeply habituated to faithlessness, they have God’s gift of free will. They have repeatedly made their choice. It may lead to Hell but we, while still praying for them, offering mass pro populo, for the whole parish faithful and faithless, and keeping the west door wide open, are bound to respect it. ND