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‘Vaguely Practising’ Anglicans

Poor old David Cameron got into trouble in the twittersphere and elsewhere for saying that he was a ‘vaguely practising’ Church of England Christian. And I suggested in his defence that his position was shared by many others who consider themselves members of the Church of England (and very probably other Anglican churches throughout the Communion). Attendance at events in our village church over Advent and Christmas would seem to support that theory. Though I don’t have the exact figures, a rough headcount indicates:

  • Advent study course (3 sessions):     15 participants
  • Advent Sundays:     25-35  participants
  • Christmas Eve Midnight Mass:     80 participants
  • Christmas Day Family Communion:    130 participants

It would be interesting to know whether other churches saw congregations in roughly the same ratio. If so, how would you describe the people who swell the ranks on major festivals? ‘Vaguely practising Anglicans’ perhaps? Is the Church of England now so exclusive  that it would ban these people from its ‘hallowed’ portals? I do hope it has not come to that. As C S Lewis exclaimed:

“If God were a Kantian, who would not have us till we came to Him from the purest and best motives, who could then be saved?”

Although it was a Frenchman (Talleyrand), who advised against too much zeal (‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle‘), this is a very English, indeed traditionally Anglican, attitude. It is at least arguable that it was an overdose of zeal which led to the Crusades, Irish ‘troubles’ and other religious wars. You will have seen reports of yesterday’s scuffle between Greek and Armenian priests at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem (dubbed ‘Affray in a Manger ‘) over ‘ territory’ in the church.


Do you know (or remember – it dates from the 1960s) Tom Lehrer’s song ‘National Brotherhood Week’ in which he ‘is grateful that it doesn’t last all year’. Too true to be funny? In that context, it may be understandable that a politician, above all, with responsibilities for the community as a whole, would be careful to describe his faith in terms which would not lead people to describe him as a zealot. Lest you think I am making a party political point here, I suggest that this was also what was in Alastair Campbell’s mind when he said, of New Labour, ‘we don’t do religion’. I doubt he was presuming to tell Tony Blair what he might or might not believe as a private individual: he was surely simply nervous of creating division.


If you are a committed Christian, you may think ‘vaguely practising’ is an insulting cop-out to the rest of us. But I am not so sure. I would like to belong to a church which contains everyone from potential saints about to be beatified down to everyday sinners and backsliders. With the churches in crisis, it is no time to be making enemies of those who admit they are not perfect. Or would you rather be the one to cast the first stone?




‘Vic the Vicar’ has also posted today on the proportions of the congregation who are full ‘members’ of the Church:

“I find the 40-40-20 representation of the population quite helpful:


40% being ‘unchurched’, that is having no understanding or experience of Church.


20% being ‘dechurched’ (which means may have had churchgoing in the family, usually Grandparents, been to wedding, baptism, funeral or Christmas/Easter and not warm towards the Church to the point of being negative and antagonistic towards it.


20% being ‘dechurched’ (like thise above) but are generally warm (or at least not negative) towards the Church.


10% attend but are perhaps not committed or understanding what Church is (come because they have always come perhaps?).


10% attend and have an understanding and are engaged with Church (also known as ‘members’ and are the troops in this campaign of making Christ known).”




The illustration is by Abramova Kseniya, via Shutterstock

16 comments on this post:

Nancy Wallace said...

I think it’s wonderful that so many people choose to be in church for the midnight Christmas communion. There is something about that service which meets a deep yearning and it’s to that yearning that the “committed Christian” should be responding – with warm welcome.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Nancy – my sentiments entirely. We spend time thinking and talking about mission throughout the year, but the obvious starting point might be those who turn up to these services and not others (not that I am suggesting we should attempt to evangelise on Christmas Eve/Day itself!)

Erika Baker said...

Oh I don’t know, that depends on what you mean by evangelise. Our tea towel nativity had a full church, most of them only ever come to this one service a year. And it’s always the same story read out by barely audible children who rush through the text, never a topical connection with what the story might mean for us today… and while it’s nice to include the children and to make it a happy event for everyone, I always feel that it’s missed opportunity.

30 December 2011 13:55
29 December 2011 11:38
28 December 2011 19:06
Benjamin said...

We had a whole bunch of people we knew but hadn’t seen in a long while (we are independent church, not Anglican, but I think the principles are similar).

I loved it. Having a chance to show them the unconditional love of Christ and tell them about a God who became human so they could become divine…

Wouldn’t miss it for the world!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this, Benjamin. I’m sure you’re right – it gives us a chance to transmit a ‘simple’ message. I think this is why the Queen’s Christmas message has been so well received (tweets saying she ‘rocks’!)- “God sent us a Saviour”. That’s it. That’s the message.We can always do the detail later…

29 December 2011 11:41
28 December 2011 19:23
UKViewer said...

I would say that vaguely practising Anglicans can be applied to more than a few. We had two Christingle services in our benefice. We hold two separate services for different age groups.

Last year we had about 350 at both. This year we have well over 500? They come from the five villages in our benefice. Allowing for one parent accompanying them, the ratio of children (the ones we want in church) was about 3 to 1.

We also had midnight services in four out fo the five churches (bringing in retired clergy to help) and all were well attended, including many children or young adults. We know that we had many visitors staying with local families, which perhaps boosted numbers by about 20%. There was high turnout of occasional church goers and people who see attending midnight mass as something to do.

My question, is where are they for the rest of the year.

Firstly we have an active youth group, run in three groups of ages, which number about 70 on average most of the time. They have their own worship services and also join Benefice Services where they provide music and other activities.

We have a number of people in Care Homes, perhaps 70. We minister to them there – but many came out for a Christmas service accompanied by carers.

So, we have a percentage of vague Anglicans, whose commitment is basically ‘hatch, match and despatch’ and in time of need. The Vicar and Curate will attest that they do more business in the pub, the village shop and through talking to people they meet, than they actually do in church.

The idea that the State has picked up the welfare and pastoral care of the population seems to me to me a delusion – it’s alive and well in our benefice. As the Vicar reminds people, he is the Vicar of the whole parish, not just those in the church.

Kathryn de Belle said...

Manchester Cathedral was bursting at the seams on Christmas Day which was wonderful. The more people expose themselves to the light, the more likely they are to want to remain in it, to return to it again and again.

But fully committed Christians are the ones most likely to effect change for good in the world, and so are those fully committed, in a spiritual sense, to any of the major religions.

28 December 2011 19:46
Kathryn de Belle said...

P.S. I include fully committed atheistic philanthropists in my above post. Anything altruistic that isn’t wishy-washy.

28 December 2011 20:12
Lay Anglicana said...

UKViewer, Kathryn

There is anecdotal evidence that congregations were up this year for the Christmas services. I think they must have been artificially low last year because of the snow – many people were unable to leave their houses.

Also cathedral attendance in general is said to be up: cynics have pointed out that this is because ‘unsuspecting’ people in the pews are less likely to be approached to join the rota! (Unworthy thought though that may be).

Sister Catherine Wybourne (the Digital Nun) finds the ‘vaguely practising’ tag particularly hard to swallow. I have been thinking about the reasons for this – she has pointed out on Facebook that Catholics are required to attend mass every week. For Anglicans the minimum requirement to take communion is only three times a year (Christmas, Easter and one other occasion). We are definitely offering people an ‘out’ here! Of course there is something to be said for minimal requirements which everyone should be able to keep to, rather than demanding weekly attendance which may be difficult.

29 December 2011 11:54
28 December 2011 19:24

This is fascinating. Like yours, my parish saw significantly larger numbers over 24/25 December than it does at most other times, and it’s interesting to speculate how these additional people (some of whom only ever come to the Christmas Eve 6:00pm “crib” service) see themselves in Church membership terms.

My feeling is that most would perhaps not identify themselves as “Anglicans”- or any particular denomination – at all. We are the local parish church, the one at the end of the street, which unless you are consciously religiously “separate”(eg a practising Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian) is the one to which you naturally gravitate when occasion demands or suggests it. I’m guessing that such people will be glad to tell their friends that they went to church at Christmas; but then not think about it again for another year – unless a funeral or baptism is required. It’s part of what is involved in being the national Church; of which Simon Jenkins’ Christmas Eve article in the Guardian catches something – albeit rather sourly:

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this, Stephen, and for the link to the Simon Jenkins piece. As you say, a little sour (damning with faint praise?!) but in the interests of inclusivity, we certainly mustn’t bar the door to Simon Jenkins and his ilk.
I was interested in one of the comments, which sums up the point of view of the ‘exclusivists’: “I’d say that that Jesus would be annoyed by the people who pay lip service to his religion and only showed up to church once a year on Christmas. He seemed to get annoyed at hypocrites.”

The bottom line, though, may as you say be that the attendance figures do have much to do with our being the established Church, with more churches than any other denomination. Propinquity is a great thing!

29 December 2011 12:14
28 December 2011 19:35
Muthah+ said...

On this side of the pond, we had full houses at all services Christmas Eve and only one service on Christmas Day. Christmas Day is considered a ‘low’ service.

‘Vaguely practicing’ is not our custom here since there is such denominationalism that makes religion ‘brand loyal’. I don’t mind those who come only at Christmas and Easter. I am thankful that they are there. They might turn to us for hatch, match and dispatch, but they are still people for whom the Christian message still means something. In Ancient Israel, there were 3 things to worship: 1. you had to show up. 2. you did not come without a gift. 3. you were to act in a “godly” way. It was a way to remember that you were God’s and God was yours. Vaguely practicing is what most of us do even if we are in church every Sunday and perhaps on Wed for choir practice. We can only ‘vaguely practice’ because in the face of the greatness of God, it is all we can do.

I am glad to hear from UKviewer that not only the liturgy but the ministry of the CofE is doing God’s work in his benefice. That is where Christianity shows–not in church. It shows when we expose the goodness of God that is incarnated in humanity.

28 December 2011 20:49
Sipech said...

I found myself in the odd position of actually agreeing with Cameron when he described himself as such; something I not in the habit of doing. I know many very committed christians who are not part of a local church, often because they have been hurt or have had unreconciled disagreements.

Likewise, there are many I know, including some in my own family who would fall into Richard Dawkins’ label of “culturally anglican” or “culturally catholic”. Here, church is simply a religious duty that one attends for a carol service, Christmas morning and maybe one or two visits around Easter. But it is not for me or anyone else to judge them.

I’m always hesitant about using attendance numbers around Christmas or Easter (and for the sake of those with families, the whole of August) because you odd fluctuations. For example, I go to a very small church with a weekly attendance of around 120-150, a third if whom are under 10 years old. Yet our carol service had around 700 people. Does this mean there are ~600 christians lurking around the town who opt out of church around 50 weeks of the year? Personally, I think it’s unlikely. It is this group who view church as some kind of “religious duty” that the BHA were targetting in their census campaign earlier in the year.

To deny that there are those who are “vaguely practicing” is, I think, to bury one’s head in the sand and deny reality.

28 December 2011 22:42
Richard Haggis said...

Isn’t it in the spirit of Anglicanism to be “vaguely practising”? Ours was never an ecclesiastical polity that claimed to have it perfect, any more than the church fathers claimed to have drawn more than pictures of God, rather than to have defined God. Our chief foundress, Elizabeth I, did not “desire windows into men’s souls”, and it has been ever thus. At present I find church difficult because I can’t cope with the sympathy I will find there, but I take comfort that those who go offer prayers on behalf of my father and my family. So, I’m not in the stats, but put me in a corner with Mr Dawkins and I shall fight tooth and nail (albeit decorously) for the Anglican Way of being a Christian. And if he wins, I shall pray for him, and he’ll lose anyway. But win in the end, in a way I sha’n’t mind at all!

29 December 2011 00:47

I rather doubt that the kind of people we’re talking about are really “paying lip service’ to Christianity. Something draws them to come at Christmas (and perhaps at certain other times) but this does not imply paying any kind of service at all. It’s about community, belonging, and an in-built need for the numinous (and ultimately for God). They would only be hypocrites in my view if they claimed to live their lives along Christian principles while not actually doing so. Most of them, I believe, would not make such a claim.

29 December 2011 12:49
UKViewer said...

Much food for thought here. Richard makes a good point about how being an Anglican can be viewed by some as some sort of social duty or right of passage. Underlying this, will hopefully be some knowledge of God and a spiritual life which occasionally calls upon God for illumination or guidance.

I’m never sure about Richard Dawkins and his descriptions of being culturally Anglican, could well be applied to many other Christian denominations or even other faiths. Islam and Hinduism particularly spring to mind.

Many of those faithful, when the enter a new society as migrants struggle to preserve their religious and cultural identities. Many will seek to adopt similar lifestyles to the inhabitants, but retain their faith. It tends to be successive generations that become more culturally a member of their religion.

In some ways, the British character has always had a reserve and almost reluctance to being identified as being ‘anything’, I can recall being told that “religion and politics are private matters and are not discussed in polite society” – needless to say, this was from a Public School member of the Officer Corps of the Army.

When I eventually joined them, I found that he was right. Religion and politics are not discussed much in the services, until the chips are down. When suddenly, you discover that many who you believed had no religion – are actually believers, who prefer to keep their religious beliefs quiet.

But getting back to vaguely believing – I think that most observers here agree that church going isn’t necessarily a reliable state of judging the state of any denomination, it’s their actual presence and work within their communities which demonstrates the grace of God in people’s lives and hopefully enables others to share and to receive it as a consequence.

30 December 2011 08:59

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