It’s not that I am especially pious. Believe me, I was mostly praying for cashmere this Christmas. As the old joke goes: Am I religious? No, I’m Church of England. But I have a confession to make: I do go to church, and not just at Christmas either. I go all the time. Even on weekdays sometimes.
I’m aware that such an admission is rather like owning up to being a trainspotter these days, but then I don’t have to put up with the desolate aisles and empty pews that most of you have become familiar with in Britain — where the best that can be hoped for on a Sunday is a faint whiff of incense and three old ladies and a homeless person singing watery hymns.
According to a report published tomorrow there is a sharp decline in religious belief in Britain. Half the population now calls itself Christian, down from two thirds in 1983. At the same time, the proportion who confess to “no religion” has increased from just under a third to more than four in ten. If Jews and Muslims are included, non-Christians now represent 7 per cent of the population, up from 2 per cent 25 years ago.
I hate to sound as if I’m boasting, but at the Anglican church my family attends in Los Angeles, you have to go early if you want a seat. Rather like being at a football match when your team has just won, the sheer numbers alone leave you with a spring in your step and a song on your lips.
St James Church, which sits at the intersection of an affluent middle-class neighbourhood, and many poorer communities in LA, is an Episcopal Church, that is the American equivalent of the Church of England. But, unlike its British cousins, it is packed because it goes out of its way to create a community in a big, sprawling city. There’s a supper club on Wednesday nights, set up with the intention of giving mums a night off, and a chance for families to make friends.
There is also an elementary school, a nursery school and a reasonably priced child-care centre for working families. Then there’s the aerobics classes in the church hall — always popular; boy scout meetings — my son won’t miss one; and a soup kitchen for the homeless. Sometimes, if you are trying to raise a family, it’s hard to stay away from the place.
When I moved to LA a dozen or so years ago, religion was incidental to my life. Unless on a turbulent aircraft, indifference beckoned. There were a few childhood memories of Sunday school and sitting in a pew with a children’s Bible. But religion had slipped into cobwebbed disuse as soon as the teen years took over. Spirituality? Well, I listened to reggae music at parties. If I’d stayed in Britain, I’d probably have become another of the lost Christians.
But the combination of having children and moving to the US changed everything. It led to finding a school for my boys that happened to be attached to an Episcopal church, which meant there were all-school chapel services, and care for the spiritual well being of a child, not just academic achievement — something with which we were familiar from our own childhoods. Subconsciously, my husband and I were probably seduced by the similarities the school had with memories of England.
We started attending the church. Our eldest joined the choir. The hymns were the same, even if they got the tunes wrong, and the words of the service were as I remembered them growing up in a village in Hertfordshire 40-odd years before.
While churches in England have, for the most part, modernised their services in an attempt to attract bigger crowds — some of them becoming painfully evangelical and happy clappy — the Episcopal church in the US still uses the older, traditional liturgies, the ones that I remember nostalgically. It was these superficial trappings that appealed to us originally. My husband, who writes music for a living, is a sucker for a choir — but it is the values that we found there that has really kept us coming back.
At our church, it is not unusual to see children with two mums or two dads, sitting next to Koreans, African-Americans, Hispanics, as well as many white middle-class families. There are monied people from Beverly Hills, rubbing shoulders with artists from downtown. Gay people next to straight. It’s jolly, social and somehow has a relevance to everyone’s life. It reflects an acceptance of all, the kind of value I’d like my children to have. And it is a community. Spirituality, I believe, comes from acknowledging that we are part of something greater than just ourselves.
My father, who lives in London and used to take me to church as a child, no longer attends church. He compares sitting in an empty church with being a sole diner in a restaurant — miserable. What’s on offer in church has no connection to his life any more. Instead he goes to a business networking group to find community and carries his own ideas of spirituality inside his head. My mother (now separated from my father) still attends church, but she is one of only seven who attend regularly in her village. There are so few in the congregation, they all sit in the choir stalls.
I am now largely embarrassed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who took it upon himself to advise the bishops of the diocese of LA against electing the Rev Canon Mary D. Glasspool to be a bishop, because she happens to be openly gay.
I asked our rector, the Rev Paul Kowalewski, why his church was always full. “We are part of a community,” he says. “In a big city like Los Angeles, people are looking for a community. We give them the welcome they are looking for.”
Hope in SW London
Tomorrow’s report will make grim reading on the decline of faith in Britain. The analysis by Professor David Voas, for the National Centre for Social Research of the 4,486 interviews in the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey, points to the steepest fall being among those who attend worship ceremonies in the Church of England.
Average Sunday attendance in 2007 fell to 978,000 compared with 1.2 million in 1983.
Voas says: “The declining Christian share is largely attributable to a drift away from the Church of England.” In church circles the accepted wisdom is that the decline can be linked to a move in liberal congregations away from biblical orthodoxy.
Figures from organisations such as Christian Research support the widely accepted thesis that all the growth is at the evangelical end.
But closer examination of thriving churches, such as the Los Angeles church profiled here by Lucy Broadbent, show that this need not be the case.
Canon Giles Fraser, Chancellor of St Paul’s, was until recently vicar of St Mary’s, Putney, in which there is hardly enough space in the church to hold the 350 Sunday worshippers, including 100 children.
What marks this church and many others in southwest London is that they are far from evangelical, unless that is taken in its original Greek and, ironically, biblical sense of being messengers of good news.
Canon Fraser’s “gospel” for success was a book by Dr Jeffrey John on how to do church well. Dr John is now Dean of St Albans having been forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.
The Anglican Communion’s first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, preached at St Mary’s at the start of the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury. The Inclusive Church movement that campaigns for equality for gays in the church was started there by Canon Fraser. And the motion that eventually saw the General Synod agree in 1992 that women could be ordained to the priesthood began life with a motion from the parochial church council at St Mary’s.
St Mary’s has a café on the premises and a heavily oversubscribed church school near by. Just a dozen or so children from the congregation are admitted there each year — so the school does not explain the overflowing pews, or why so many families stay even when their children don’t make it through the admissions process.
What St Mary’s and its other local thriving churches do prove is that it is possible to be inclusive as a church in England, and not only survive but thrive. Canon Fraser says: “It is just a question of doing the basics and doing them well. It is caring for people, preaching good sermons, making sure to be organised. There is a huge children’s programme with Sunday school teachers trained in what is called Godly Play. A lot of churches in that area are not evangelical but they are full.”
Holy Trinity Brompton, in Knightsbridge, southwest London, is packed with thousands of young Christians each Sunday and is the church where the successful Alpha course began. It is another example of a growing church.
From the opposite end of the evangelical spectrum to St Mary’s Putney, HTB has a more conventional approach to church growth, which includes “planting” or founding dozens of new congregations in London, many of which also flourish and to go on to plant yet more churches.
Since the 1960s it has been part of the secular creed that “God is dead”. But in spite of surveys such as tomorrow’s, the evidence is that belief in God is anything but dead. Churches and other religions across the spectrum have continued to defy prophecies of their imminent demise and, against the statistics, the signs are that they will continue to do so.
Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent