Church attendance is falling but we still ask about life and death
Organised religion might be in decline but faith is still relevant, writes Adam Walmesley.
Nestled on the edge of a Devon market town, St Michael's Church stands in a perilous position. The historic Westcountry church in Honiton faces the possibility of permanent closure unless it can find a congregation and the finances needed to restore the building to its former glory.
Since weekly attendance fell to just 21 two years ago, including two priests and an organist, the church has been shut during the winter. Like many rural parishes in Devon and Cornwall, it faces an uncertain future and may need divine intervention to save more than 600 years of history.
The problem was reflected in the 2011 Census which showed a 12% decline in the number of people in the South West calling themselves Christian. In Devon the figure dropped from 74.8% in 2001 to 61.5%, and in Cornwall the fall was sharper, from 74.3% to 59.8%.
Some non-religious groups described the 13% drop in the number of Christians nationwide as "astounding".
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "This is a really significant cultural shift."
Church of England leaders in the region linked the figures to broader changes in society. The Right Reverend Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro, said: "They indicate a changing pattern of religious life in which traditional or inherited identities are less taken for granted than they used to be."
The Right Reverend Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, said: "I meet a lot of people who say they do not follow a religion but they have faith. I'm not alarmed by these figures but I am challenged and I think we need to be."
The situation has not been helped by cuts to ministry teams across the South West as the Church takes account of the recession and falling numbers of parishioners.
Prebendary Canon Judith Pollinger, of the Truro diocese, said: "The cluster of clergymen and women is now spread very thinly. Of the six churches we cover in North Cornwall, the largest churches have an average of 50 people at Sunday services."
While some traditional forms of worship such as cathedral services are rising in popularity, the biggest growth is outside that sphere.
The Evangelical and Pentecostal movements – placing heavy emphasis on a more individual and personal relationship with Christ – are thriving. A YouTube video entitled 'Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus' was watched by millions in the UK when it was uploaded last January.
Interest in these forms of Christianity, in which worship has a more lively and contemporary feel, has spread through the region, with churches regularly packed to capacity.
Thousands of young people in the South West are being given the opportunity to investigate Christianity through special services, events, and holiday camps.
Some 1,000 students are committed members of Christian Unions in the region, including more than 200 at the University of Exeter.
Pod Bhogal, of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, said: "Christian Unions are often the biggest and most active societies on university campuses. We find university students have a spiritual hunger because they are not satisfied with their worldly lives. They are constantly looking for perspective in life.
"There has always been a stigma about organised religion. But there is still a vast amount of curiosity about spiritual matters and a big interest in the person of Jesus Christ. Throughout the South West students are exploring for themselves who Jesus really is and finding the Christian message stands up to New Atheism."
Hundreds of 'Alpha' courses will run next year in Devon and Cornwall, including a short talk about the Christian faith and exploring the big questions of life. Part of the course's aim is to re-engage with lost congregations.
Mark Elsdon-Dew, of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London where the course was pioneered in the 1980s, said: "More and more people aged 18-35 want to investigate Christianity. Nowadays people don't want to put themselves in a box but they still have big questions about issues such as suffering, forgiveness and life after death. Many people tend to stay in churches after doing Alpha."
Disagreements about women bishops and gay marriage have destabilised the Church of England and shifted some of its focus away from core issues of faith. The Catholic Church lost some credibility in 2011 over allegations of child sexual abuse crimes committed by priests. And New Atheist and other non-religious groups are gaining more and more support amongst disillusioned believers.
But despite the fall in church attendance, it is clear that people are still searching for answers to big questions about life and death.