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Hallo again to all.

Let us start with some statistics:

'Nearly half the young men now leaving our public and secondary schools are almost pagan, that only a small minority have any knowledge of the evidence for the truth of Christianity and that many of them do not realize that any evidence exists'*.

'Of the young men who are joining the Navy, only 23 per cent could repeat the Lord's Prayer word perfect, and 40 per cent knew only the opening words; only 70 per cent knew who Christ was; only 45 per cent knew about Easter'§.

These statistics may not surprise you, but the fact that these statements were made in 1946 and 1947 might.

Perhaps you, like us, have thought of the decades of the 1940s and 1950s as times when churches were full and the populace was at least conversant with the basics of the Christian religion. Not so, quite obviously. And this public bemoaning of religious ignorance occurred at a time when there was social pressure to attend church; where being outwardly religious was, in general, considered an important thing.

Well, then, if we posit that the drift away from religion is really more of a 20th-century phenomenon, let's return to the orderly days of Victoria. There we can find all manner of evidence that the state of religion in England was not particularly vigorous. Take this entry from Francis Kilvert's Diary, 13 March 1874:

Charles Awdry told me a good story which he said the Archdeacon of Sarum told him. The Archdeacon on a Visitation tour came to a small upland parish in the diocese of Salisbury. He asked the clerk how often the Holy Communion was administered in the year. The clerk stared. 'What did you please to say?' he asked. 'The Holy Communion,' repeated the Archdeacon. 'How often do you have it in the year?' The clerk still stared open-mouthed in hopeless bewilderment. At length a suspicion of the Archdeacon's meaning began to dawn faintly upon him. 'Aw,' he blurted out, 'aw, we do never have he. We've got no tackling'.

In EB Ellman's Recollections of a Sussex Parson (1912), he reminisces about his days as a curate in the 1840s and relates a story of Archdeacon Edward Raynes 'who gave a dinner on Ash Wednesday, forgetting the day when he made the arrangements. On recollecting it, he ordered pancakes as an extra'.

And not only England: In the early American republic, data suggest that 'in the colonial period, no more than 10 to 20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church'.¶

We'll stop our history lesson in the 18th century, although we could continue to find examples to prove our thesis: there is no golden age. Ever since our Lord's resurrection — beginning with that initial frightened and bedraggled band of twelve — every generation must once again try to win souls for Christ. The adage that the church is always one generation away from extinction is often forgotten, and it is utterly true. There are times where there is no doubt greater societal support for religion, but as some of the examples above show, that alone doesn't ensure a greater number of bums in pews. And if that societal support helps to some degree, it may be for all the wrong reasons: peer pressure, desire to conform, and the like.

So when you hear this or that statistic that suggests the Anglican church is in worse shape than ever — especially in first-world countries — you can smile a bit: the church has most always been in bad shape. But don't take our survival for granted. Keep doing your part, whatever it is, to move us right onward: in this dreary and dark world, showing something of light, love, and grace to everyone we can is no little thing.

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 23 May 2004

* How Heathen is Britain? BG Sandhurst (Collins, 1946)
§ Letter to The Times, 9 January 1947
The Churching of America 1776-1990, Roger Finke and Rodney Starke (Rutgers,1992).
  It might surprise American Episcopalians to know that Baptists already outdistanced them in 1776 in number of congregations.

A thin blue line
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