Ministry in 'the most Godless City in England'.
Ovingdean News February 2023
I’d like to start this note with some thank yous.
Firstly a huge thank you to everyone who has helped fundraise and personally contribute to our ‘save the ceiling’ campaign. We have just about got there with what is needed to complete the new heating system project and the ceiling conservation work should be able to start towards the end of 2023. Thank you so very much. In other fundraising news it looks like in 2022 we raised funds for Ukraine and over Christmas, almost £2000 for Off the Fence - again thank you to everyone who worked so hard and contributed so generously in these and other campaigns.
Finally, after much hard work, I’m pleased to announce we achieved the prestigious Silver Eco Church standard reflecting, for example, our move to a low carbon heating system and our ongoing work to sensitively manage the churchyard areas for people and wildlife. Thank you and well done to all involved.
I want to talk about faith in this issue and I’d like to start by congratulating another 4 members of St Wulfran's who were Confirmed at the most wonderful parish Eucharist by the Bishop of Lewes, Will Hazlewood. What a blessing of joy and hope you all are.
The Census 2021 will probably be remembered as the census in which the proportion of people who said they were Christian fell below half of the population for the first time at 46.2%. In contrast the number who said they had no religion increased to 37.2% of the population, up from a quarter in 2011. The situation in Brighton & Hove is more extreme, leading to headlines like ‘Brighton - the most Godless City in England’, with more than half of people in the city (55.2 per cent) reported having no religion, the highest proportion in England. Some areas in Hanover, central Brighton for example, have only 12% of residents identifying as Christian. The numbers in Ovingdean who identify as Christian is much higher and is around the national average at between 43% and 51%.
It's important I think to note that the census question is ‘what is your religion’ - so it is about identity and which religion you affiliate with and it's not necessarily about belief or religious practice. This works in a number ways, for example church attendance is much lower than the numbers who say they are Christain. Equally the rise in the no religion group (often called ‘None of the above’ or ‘Nones’) is an umbrella term and not necessarily about unbelief. The think tank Theos has undertaken some research into this and of the people who ticked no religion in the 2021 census, one half say they don't believe in God and a fifth say they probably or definitely believe in the afterlife. Reflecting on this Professor Linda Woodhead, from King's College London, said ‘ticking "no religion" does not mean having no beliefs, some will be atheist, a lot will be agnostic - they just say, 'I don't really know' - and some will be spiritual and be doing spiritual things’.
As pastor for the Ovingdean Parish I am keen to engage with the church and wider faith communities on what this means and how we might respond. I believe in the Good News, the divine action of love, and want others to know this joy. God is so good how can we keep from sharing this? In thinking about this I took some time to listen to Bishop Robert Barron's helpful recent reflections on faith and church growth and I thought I would summarize the themes and share them with you.
He starts by saying treading water, maintaining the status quo or managing decline is not at all what Jesus wants or expects of us. We should not accept this as the new normal. In response and to help grow the church he suggests four strategies or areas of action that everyone of faith can undertake.
The first action is for us all to pray for the growth of faith and those attending church. The bible shows us that payer is the foundation of our faith as it connects us to God. God delights in our connection and when we are closer to the Holy Spirit we can better know the will of the divine. Before Billy Graham visited a city or area on his visits a team would assemble in that place a year ahead and their whole and only purpose was to pray for the success of Billy’s visit. The Bishop says pray, pray and pray more for a doubling of your congregation size in a year.
The second action is to make the commitment to bring a new individual or family to church in 2023. Every Christian is a priest, prophet and shares in the leadership of the church and as part of this has a responsibility to help bring others to church. We don’t need to start with people who are far from faith but with those who may have fallen away, those who are curious and our family and friends - those who know, love and trust us. All of us know these people and we are best placed to reach them and support the start of their journey back to faith. If we all brought one person back to church in 2023 imagine what the pews would look like?
The third strategy is to invite seekers to raise questions. The Bishop suggests we ask people why they don’t come to church, what their beliefs are and why this is the case. The main objections to faith often revolve around questions such as: Can you prove the existence of God? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do you think your religion is right and others wrong? The next part, having asked the question, is we need to be able to engage them in the process of exploring some of the potential answers. There are many resources including books, podcasts and videos that we can use to help us better respond to these questions, for example the Alpha Course, the Pilgrim Course and Word on Fire. Not coming to church doesn’t mean someone isn’t a seeker, there could be a block and you could help remove this.
The fourth strategy is to be kind! Jesus said it is by my love that people will know you are my disciples. If we aren’t changed by our faith we can’t be effective evangelists. If we aren’t kind, generous, forgiving, joyful and welcoming we risk keeping people from faith. The first step in bringing someone to faith is to establish trust…do we seem like good and inviting people….do we look, sound and act like the faith we seek to share and say we follow?
What do you think? In the coming months I will be shaping our Lent course around these themes and I am working with the Anglican priests in Woodingdean, Saltdean and Rottingdean to offer a Deans Alpha course in early summer. Why not join the conversation? I’d especially like to hear from and welcome partnership and engagement with brothers and sisters from other traditions including our local Baptist, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches.