Bishop Hugh Nelson gave an update to the diocesan synod in September about the Next Steps On The Way. In it he updated those present on where the On The Way process had reached and well as what it is happening next. He also set out in his presentation the place of the church, and of faith, in Britain today, as a backdrop and context into which On the Way steps next.

You can read Bishop Hugh’s presentation here:

We’re all aware of the consequences of changes in patterns of belief in this country. We see it in our church pews, in the numbers of children in our churches and in our PCC bank balances.

But I think those are the symptoms, not the cause. The real change isn’t that people still believe the same things they used to believe but have stopped going to church because shopping is more fun. The real change is that people believe different things now.

It’s not fundamentally that people’s rational beliefs have changed

And it’s not fundamentally that people’s rational beliefs have changed – that people have worked their way through the Creed and decided they don’t believe it after all – it’s much deeper than that. The way people understand the world we live in, how we decide what makes for a good life, the values that guide our decisions, what we think happens after death, the people, stories and institutions we look to as role models or for wisdom, these are all very significantly different than they were in 1970s or 80s – let alone in 1940 or 50.

And this change is bigger than any individual. This is about culture. It’s about the structures of belief, the shared stories that surround us and the way we think the world works. It’s what’s going on around us without most of us noticing, most of the time. It’s the air that we breathe – and it’s therefore very powerful.

For many, many centuries the culture in this country – the air everyone breathed – was imbued with God, the Bible and the life of the church. The seasons of the year, the people who made decisions and the institutions who shaped our values were Christian. And so the culture around us made believing in God and being part of Church very significantly more rather than less likely. 

Our culture today makes believing in that God seem unlikely

But over the last 40 or 50 years that has very significantly changed. The culture that we all live in now makes it much more difficult for people to connect to the church and to believe in the kind of God that Christian faith speaks of; one who is both beyond human comprehension and actively involved in the life of the world, who entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ and lived, died and rose again, the kind of God who invites us to pray in the expectation that He will act, who cares about the decisions we make, who hates sin and evil, who will, one day, come again and judge the world – our culture today makes believing in that God seem unlikely – perhaps very unlikely – to most people.

Culture, of course, is complex, so I am not suggesting that nobody believes in God or cares about the church anymore. Not at all – and we’ve seen that clearly in recent weeks since the death of The Queen. Nor am I suggesting that people aren’t profoundly thirsty for faith and hope and love. But we mustn’t kid ourselves – the things Christians have historically believed and the place of the church are now moving outside mainstream culture, rather than being woven through it. These things are not part of the air most people breathe today.

And we know that, not just because the statistics tell us, but because when we pause and notice, we can see it all around us. Let me give you a couple of simple examples – and I am sure you will have your own:

Here’s what the Waterstones website says this about their ‘Spirituality and belief’ section – ‘From Greek myths to Britains haunted places, and from Stoic wisdom to magic, discover our selection of bestselling books on spirituality and beliefs. For advice on living well and exploring the meaning of life, here youll find everything from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to Eckhart Tolles The Power of Now.’ Not a single mention of the bible, Jesus, church or prayer.

One of my daughters works at a local pub. A couple of weeks ago, while she was working a shift there, it started to rain. They had a big party on, with lots of people sitting in a covered outdoor space, and the staff had to carry the food through the rain to their customers. We live near the pub, so my daughter ran home to get some umbrellas. One of them was an umbrella I’d been given at the Lambeth Conference which had the conference tagline printed all over it – ‘God’s church for God’s world’. When she put it up, her colleagues started laughing – ‘Are you a Christian? I thought nobody believed that stuff anymore!

For most people Easter is about chocolate and bunnies

Or what about the annual national festival days which shape the flow of time itself and which used all to come from the rhythms of the Christian church – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Harvest and Rogation tide. Christmas continues to be connected to the birth of Christ in significant ways, but the others? For most people Easter is about chocolate and bunnies. And when was the last time you saw someone in church especially because it was Pentecost? And how many people, today, know what Whitsun is?

And in their place have come new secular festivals; Halloween is big business (and not because it’s All Hallows eve), Valentine’s Day too, and not because we’re remembering the Saint. The story that underpins Black Friday (you’ve worked hard and you deserve a bargain) resonates more deeply than the story of Easter (God’s own Son loved us so much that he died and rose again for our salvation).

None of this means that religion is dead

Now, none of this means that religion is dead, nor that people don’t or can’t believe. Nor does it mean that every place or community is the same, or that there aren’t plenty of people who have faith, and plenty more who are ready to respond to Christ’s call on their life.

But it does mean that the days when there was implicit cultural support for Christian belief, when the default position for British people was believing in God and going to church and when the Church of England could expect people to look to us for guidance and hope – these are all changing.

And of course, that affects us. Because the Church of England has been very, very good, over many centuries, at being part of a Christian culture – in fact we shaped much of it for a very long time. But now, some of the things we think and believe and do seem alien, odd or even wrong to many people. And underlying all of that is a culture which works against rather than in support of Christian belief.

The reasons for this huge social change are complex and contested, but it’s happening in every Western country. And we might regret the change or wish it were not so – but here we are and there’s no point simply denying it or railing against it. This is the world in which we live, and it’s therefore the context in which we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are called to be faithful.

And I say all of that because that’s the context for On the Way. It is not a process of re-organisation and it’s not about saving money. It’s about becoming the church we are called to be in the culture in which we live today.

And of course, that has always been the call made to God’s people in every culture and context. To be the faithful, prayerful, hope-filled, Jesus-following people that God is inviting us to be for the sake of the world that He loves and that we are called to serve.

Many would not have chosen to set out On The Way and, for some, it has been a profoundly demanding time, and I am deeply grateful for the prayer, commitment and creativity that has emerged.

Even as the world changes, God remains the same

And now we begin to take our next steps on the way, confident that, even as the world changes, God remains the same, always calling us out beyond ourselves and into his abundant grace and love. Confident also that the culture around us is thirsty for that grace and love, and that our call is to share it in word and deed, to God’s glory and for his kingdom.