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Hallo again to all.

'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'. §

Those statements were made in 1946 and 1947.

We've always thought of the 1940s and 1950s as times when churches were full and the populace was conversant with the basics of the Christian religion. Not so! And this was a time when there was social pressure to attend church, when being outwardly religious was, in general, considered an important thing.

A golden age?If we posit that the drift away from religion is really more of a late 20th-century phenomenon, let's return to the orderly days of Victoria. All manner of evidence suggests that the state of religion in England was not particularly vigorous. Take this entry from Francis Kilvert's Diary, 13 March 1874:

The Archdeacon of Sarum 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), Ellman 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 this, er, carelessness was not only in 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 proffer 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 when there is greater societal support for religion, but as 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 churches of the Anglican Communion — especially in first-world countries — are in worse shape than ever, 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.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

5 May 2013

* 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.

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