The church must start talking about what really matters to families nowadays

It seems incredible to me that in the year 2011 the Anglican Church is still having meetings to discuss whether or not women should be allowed to be bishops.

The Lichfield Diocesan Synod met at the weekend to debate and vote on this motion.

In fairness, three quarters of church leaders in Staffordshire said they supported the idea.

Presumably the rest were concerned about who was going to do the washing up.

Joking apart, I do understand the need for considered debate when a faith organisation is seeking to overhaul long-established hierarchical systems.

There will always be those who oppose such changes as they strike at the very core of their beliefs.

Thus, I respect the position of people like The Reverend Prebendary Paul Lockett, of St. Mary and St. Chad’s in Longton who spoke for the minority at the Synod when he said that he “can’t acknowledge a woman bishop”.

Or, as The Reverend Stephen Pratt, of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Chell, put it: “Jesus didn’t appoint female apostles… Jesus did not make women as leaders of his church”.

In answer to that I would say that 2,000 years ago there were an awful lot of things women weren’t allowed to do which they are today.

Back then women simply didn’t hold positions of authority in any walk of life – a situation which mortal men of the time were more than happy to perpetuate.

You see, I’d like to think that if Jesus were alive today he would use whatever means necessary to get his message across to people.

Maybe he’d be a rock star, win X-Factor, or have his own TV channel and website.

I don’t think the battle of the sexes would even be on his radar because he’d recognise that civilised society has moved on a wee bit.

Indeed, I think that most impartial observers would agree that the Holy Bible – which tells the story of Jesus’s life – is full of inconsistencies and contradictions and is very much rooted in the time it was written. That is not a criticism – more a statement of fact from a lapsed Methodist who views the Good Book as a guide rather than a rulebook.

I can already hear the nay-sayers shouting that the Bible isn’t a menu from which you can choose the bits you fancy.

However, there are things in the Bible which I can’t, in all good conscience, agree with. To be frank, to me the debate over the ordination of women bishops going on within the Church of England is much ado about nothing.

I suspect most people – even those who attend church – don’t feel strongly either way.

Why? Because it doesn’t really affect them. It is an issue which the shepherds may be debating but I’m pretty sure it is of little consequence to their flocks.

I’ll tell you what the Anglican church should be debating and it’s not whether or not women should be allowed to smash through the ‘stained glass ceiling’.

It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the officers on the RMS Titanic discussing who should sit at the Captain’s table for supper as the stern of the ship is rising out of the water minutes before it sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Surely the real debate should be centred on how the Church of England – indeed the Christian church in the UK – makes itself more relevant to families in 2011.

They should be holding crisis meetings about the falling attendances and the half-empty Sunday services.

They should be asking themselves why such a small percentage of the population in this country actually bothers to attend church.

They should be asking why so few young people and children are sat in the pews.

Last week a friend of mine, a local Christian leader, invited me to attend one of a number of local churches which he assures me are vibrant and thriving and bear no resemblance to the gloomy picture I’ve just painted.

I may yet take him up on the offer but I know that for every church he suggests I could find another 10 which are either mothballed, half-empty or only used every other week because the congregation is so small that it moves around.

Just one look at the photograph taken by The Sentinel’s photographer at the Lichfield Diocesan Synod speaks volumes.

It may as well have been taken in a church because no-one in the audience is under the age of 30.

The fact is, and it genuinely grieves me to say this, the church is becoming increasingly removed from modern society and pointless debates over its internal workings serve only to underline its impotence.

Tick Christian if you really want to

Hands up all those who had heard of the British Humanist Association more than a month ago.
I rest my case.
Most of us hadn’t a clue this organisation even existed until its much-publicised campaign surrounding the Census documents which have just hit our doormats.
The BHA is campaigning vigorously to prevent people ticking the ‘Christian’ box when they fill in the forms if they don’t attend church or identify themselves as Christian in what they term a ‘meaningful way’.
Campaigners – including letter writers to The Sentinel – believe that ticking ‘Christian’, rather than ‘No religion’, influences central and local government policy.
They argue that it has led to an increase in faith schools and a disproportionate amount of funding being given to faith groups.
Having used this column before to criticise our churches for being dull and often less than relevant, as a lapsed Methodist Potter I feel duty bound to leap to their defence on this occasion.
This is yet another attack on religion here in the UK – specifically that most embattled and timid of groups: Christians. The archetypal soft target.
You see, I simply don’t see it as a bad thing that 70-odd per cent of people who filled in the 2001 census forms considered themselves to be Christian.
Yes, there’s no doubt that many of us will have done so out of some misguided sense of loyalty – or a yearning to belong to an identifiable group: a need to have a label rather than calling ourselves ‘non-religious’.
But so what?
We all know that the number of people actually attending churches in this country is small percentage of the overall population.
It is also a fact that the multi-cultural nature of our society means that Christian is no longer the dominant religion it once was in the UK.
The reason that most of us don’t attend church is because life gets in the way.
We are having our weekly lie-in, taking the children swimming, playing football, walking the dog, having a little quality family time or, heaven-forbid, working like yours truly does every Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean that many of us don’t still consider ourselves to be Christian.
Many of the things the BHA argues against I actually see as positives in our fractured society.
In my experience faith schools are generally excellent – which is why so many parents are desperate to have their children attend one.
Relatively small numbers of people may sit in pews and sing hymns on a regular basis but to assume that the church impacts only on those who do is naive in the extreme.
The Christian church, or perhaps more accurately those who make up its congregations, are very often at the heart of our communities – staging events which bring people together and providing love, care and support to some of the most vulnerable people.
David Cameron talks of the Big Society. I would say our churches adopted this idea a long time ago and have been practising what the PM is now preaching for many years.
I don’t take kindly to being told what boxes to tick by the anti-spiritual brigade.
Furthermore, I certainly don’t view the casual adoption of the Christian tag or the defaulting to a particular religion for the purposes of a statistical exercise as somehow dangerous or undemocratic.
It doesn’t matter to me whether someone is Christian, Muslim or athiest so long as he or she is a decent person.
If that feeling of belonging to a particular group helps someone in their life then I refuse to view it as detrimental.
Surely one’s faith is a personal thing. I attend church sporadically but I pray daily and my faith is very important to me. Crucially, I suspect I’m not alone in this approach.
So by all means tick Christian if you want to.
After all, only you and him upstairs really knows whether or not you are telling the truth.

It’s no wonder children have little faith in the church

Take a pew (if you’ll pardon the pun), – it’s time for some uncomfortable truths about the church in 2010.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these days I only set foot in the house of God for Christenings, weddings and funerals – or at Christmas time.

I am, I suppose, a lapsed Methodist. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray or even that I don’t believe – I just choose not to worship regularly in the company of others.

For the record, I attended church from the age of five until I was 14.

I sat through years of Sunday school, joined the Boys’ Brigade and paraded the streets of Sneyd Green banging a side drum.

I performed in annual stage shows, was part of the church Queen’s retinue (images of my frilly white shirt still haunt me) and always helped out at the fêtes at Wesley Hall Methodist Church.

I eventually stopped going because I was bored and because, frankly, there were more interesting things to do on a Sunday morning.

On the evidence of last Sunday I did the right thing.

We rolled up at a United Reformed Church to witness our daughter’s first parade as a member of the Rainbows.

For the uninitiated, the Rainbows is basically the junior section of the Brownies or Girl Guides.

Our Lois is five and she and her mate Grace were resplendent in their red Rainbows jogging bottoms, red tracksuit tops and red baseball caps.

They trooped into church along with other Rainbows, Brownies and members of the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades.

Lois was excited. She was thrilled to wear her new kit, to be with her new pals and to be part of a group activity.

A little later a rather less enthusiastic Lois trudged out of the church doubtless wondering where the last hour of her life had gone.

I knew exactly how she felt because I vividly remember fidgeting my way through countless services where, try as they might, the ministers spectacularly failed to engage with their flock.

The man who led Sunday’s service for Lois was no exception.

He seemed perfectly nice and shook my hand as we entered and left the church.

However, his oratory was exceedingly dull and the moment when he produced two wholemeal baps and two tins of tuna as he told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 was surreal to say the least.

I’m not saying the service was boring but little ’un (Mina), who is three and a half, fell asleep on her mum’s lap during the sermon.

She snored so loudly that it drew disapproving glances from half a dozen parishioners.

I think they were just annoyed that it was the most interesting thing that had happened during the entire service.

Unless, of course, you include the video presentation by a charity working to relieve the suffering in Haiti. The one where there was no sound and we had to lip-read.

As for the hymns, well, where to start?

I remember a fair few hymns off by heart but only knew the first of four tunes we had to endure.

It was that old favourite – Praise My Soul The King of Heaven – the words to which were written by H F Lyte in the early 19th Century.

This is precisely the period many churches still appear to be stuck in.

Let’s face it, many hymns – unless you include carols or those of the happy-clappy new variety – are dull as dishwater.

Worse than that, they are a crime against music – completely devoid of any proper rhythm.

So much so that you end up extending words beyond all recognition to keep pace with the turgid organ music.

No doubt there are churches out there with vibrant congregations and lucky enough to boast preachers with real presence.

However, I dare say they are in the minority which explains why so few people actually attend church regularly in the UK.

More worryingly, the majority of those are in their twilight years and go to church out of habit, because they are seeking companionship or are hedging their bets on an afterlife.

I dearly wish it wasn’t so. I honestly believe that the church has an important spiritual role to play in today’s fractured society.

Indeed, I’m extremely grateful for the church’s role in my upbringing and I’ll certainly give my children the chance to go to Sunday school – if they enjoy it and feel they are getting something out of it.

However, unless churches adapt and find ways to engage with younger generations, I fear the number of people through their doors will continue to dwindle.

I don’t need weekly church to make me feel a Christian

Yours truly, front and centre, during my Boys' Brigade days. (My brother Matthew is left of me in the red Cabin Boys jumper.

Yours truly, front and centre, during my Boys’ Brigade days. (My brother Matthew is left of me in the red Cabin Boys jumper.

I can still remember the enormous sense of pride I felt at being awarded the Scripture Exam First Prize (with honours).

Of course, my success was more down to having a decent memory rather than any great love of Bible stories – not that it mattered.

I look back on the decade or so I attended Sunday school classes at Wesley Hall Methodist Church with great fondness.

I recall marching around the streets of Sneyd Green once a month bashing the hell out of my side drum and hoping none of my much cooler mates noticed me wearing the blue uniform of the 14th (North Staffs) branch of the Boys’ Brigade.

I remember sunny fêtes, the crowning of the church queen (yours truly was a page boy) and the annual concert where I was mesmerised by the rickety old wooden stage – which doubtless still has my chewing gum stuck to the underside of a plank in the top right hand corner. Happy days.

I haven’t attended church regularly since I was a teenager. But that’s OK, according to the Bishop of Lichfield, who rode to the rescue of my soul this week.

The Right Reverend Jonathan Gledhill says people like me, who attend church only occasionally, are not hypocrites. He is referring to the 38 million people who go each year to a C of E funeral service and the millions more who attend weddings and baptisms.

The Bishop’s pastoral letter is refreshing in its honesty and shows a willingness to tackle those who sneer at organised religion and take cheap shots at the wayward flock.

He knows full well that most people only attend church when they have an occasion to mark. And for many, this is more a case of duty and tradition than any great need for spiritual fulfilment.

Basically, for many, the church service is the dull bit before they slacken their ties at the wake, christening party or wedding reception. It’s sad, but true.

There are notable exceptions, but for years many churches have presided over dwindling attendances and the majority of worshippers have been older people who are seeking companionship or perhaps hedging their bets before the great hereafter.

Some churches have resorted to playing cat and mouse with potential recruits who have to attend a certain number of services and prove they live within the locality before they are allowed to book a wedding or christening service at their preferred house of God. This is their rather unsubtle way of encouraging our continuing attendance.

It doesn’t work, of course. Once the aforementioned do is out of the way, you don’t see most couples or their offspring for dust.

The simple truth is they have better, or, what they perceive to be, more important things to do on a Sunday. Like going to Ladsandads football matches, trolling around garden centres or dragging the kids to B&Q.

Having said all this, I’m in firm agreement with much of what the Bishop has to say.
The church, or should I say the Christian Church in this country, has become a soft target for social commentators, which is a crying shame.

The fact is, churches are nowhere near as popular as they once were as people now enjoy far more freedoms and choice than they did even 50 years ago.

However, churches are just as relevant and important today, arguably more so, in fact, to a society battling against declining moral standards and in desperate need of some spiritual healing.

And we should never underestimate their value as a focal point for much of what is wholesome and good in our lives.

Whether we visit churches for parent and toddler groups or tea dances, use them to host functions or simply for the necessary bits before cracking open the bubbly and toasting our newlyweds or wetting the baby’s head, they are an essential part of the glue which binds our communities together.

And we would be much the poorer without them.

To me, religion is, and should be, a deeply personal thing. I believe in God and I value the religious education I received which supplemented what my parents and school teachers taught me.

I enjoy attending church for special occasions involving family and friends. I don’t find it dull in the least – in fact, it is by far the best bit of the day for me.

I cherish the Christmas services, the uplifting carols and the messages the church puts out during the season of goodwill.

But by the same token, and it may be a cop-out in some people’s eyes, I feel no need to meet up with other Christians once a week to praise God and sing turgid hymns, or their happy-clappy modern counterparts.

I pray each night, and that’s enough for me to feel in touch with God.