Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Dying European State Church

Most Americans (myself included, at least until a ways into grad school) haven't thought much about "established" churches. In case you're wondering, an "established" church can mean a variety of things, depending on which nation you happen to be looking at. The common theme is that all established churches are in some way supported by the state, and in turn often have civic roles to play. (Both of those are wrong, if you want my usually-less-than-humble baptist opinion.) Though this support and role have both diminished over the last two centuries, they are still to some extent political and social realities.

Churches not under the umbrella of the established church are "dissenters" (to use the English word for them), and often exist in a quasi-legal realm, or at least have a diminished social/political status. To be sure these dissenters are not persecuted (with occasional interesting exceptions like Francis Schaeffer, driven out of a Catholic Canton of Switzerland for being a Protestant), but neither do they have access to the same resources or public position that the established church has.

All of that by way of introduction to the main point: the established churches are dying. Although it can be virtually impossible to tell how many people are actually in the pews in an established church on any given Sunday, the general wisdom says that those pews are mostly empty. The few who do attend tend to be elderly--both parishioners and preachers. Because Europeans don't poll themselves as obsessively as Americans do the data isn't as hard as we might like, but the evidence is still there. Just to provide a few examples:
  • In 2005 in Ireland, church attendance was about 60%. Which sounds high, until we realize that's down from 85% in the mid 1970s. 
  • Continental (Western) Europe is in a much worse state, with church attendance hovering around 15%.
  • Stats in Central and Eastern Europe (again, remembering the paucity of polls to pull from) are marginally better, if we include churches like the Orthodox or Catholic, which are sometimes "established" and sometimes simply tolerated, but in either case they usually have much more in common with the state churches than with the dissenters. 
  • Northern Europe is even worse off, hovering in the 3-5% range. 
  • And, the statistic/article that was the driving force behind this blog post, the Church of England has a life-expectancy of 20 years. "In the past 40 years, the number of adult churchgoers has halved, while the number of children attending regular worship has declined by four fifths. The Rev Dr Patrick Richmond, a Synod member from Norwich, told the meeting that some projections suggested that the Church would no longer be “functionally extant” in 20 years’ time."
Now, assuming that these statistics are all somewhat accurate, and assuming that dissenting congregations are not included in the decline (and they shouldn't be--there are little pockets of healthy and growing Baptist, Reformed, and other Evangelical congregations all over Europe), this raises some interesting questions for the future of religion in Europe, namely: 
  1. When the state church is functionally dead, what will happen to the religious laws of the nation? 
  2. What will be the status of the "dissenting" churches when the established church dies? 
Don't get me wrong, I have no particular concern for the well-being of these institutional churches. They kicked any kind of traditional orthodoxy to the curb so long ago that it would be more honest for them to just give up the title "church" and call themselves, oh, I don't know, "association of friendly do-gooders" or some such.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Great threads, terrible theology.
And I'll admit some amusement at the thought of a Pope speaking ex cathedra in Rome with no attending congregation there to hear it--the practice of devaluing the people finally in line with the doctrine of Papal selection established back in the 11th century. It may be that in the middle of the 21st century, the papacy could be moved much farther away than Avignon (Buenos Aires? Lagos? Singapore?) with no one left in Europe to bother calling it a "schism" or a "captivity." 

But, schadenfreude aside, these are serious questions that European Christians are going to have to face within the next twenty years. In that time frame, they are going to go from being perceived as a fringe minority hanging on the coattails of a long-established institution to simply being a fringe minority--and not a particularly popular fringe minority at that. This is a challenge where
  1. Americans will have little to offer in terms of support. Not only do we have our own issues, but we don't really have a category for thinking about the disappearance of a state church. In this sense, the Europeans will be on their own. With a possible exception pointed out below...
  2. European believers still have some time to think. Twenty years may be an optimistic estimate, or it may be a minimum, but I don't know that there's any doubt as to the final outcome for the state church of Europe. Instituting new programs designed to get people into the seats may mean some delay to the death of the state churches, but it will only be delay, not a cure. In the meanwhile, European Christians should serious reflect on the direction their countries are heading.
  3. Immigration will have a role to play. Primarily immigration into Europe of "other" religions has meant Muslims (which may also play a role in these issues, though I lack the expertise to know exactly what that role might be). But there may be Catholic immigrants, Orthodox immigrants, and even dissenting immigrants. These will have to be accounted for somehow, though I have no idea as to how. 
  4. There may be help from those in similar situations in non-Western nations. While America has nothing to offer, Christians in Korea, Japan, China, and other nations might have useful thoughts that will be of value to believers in the Europe of twenty years from now. After all, they've been living as a minority and may have helpful suggestions that Americans are ill equipped to provide.
So, what does the future hold for Christians in Europe? Frankly, I don't know. But I do know that it's something they shouldn't wait twenty years to think about. 

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