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Religion and the Secular Society.


The years from 1946 to 2002 have seen a steady decline in church attendance and also in the knowledge and spread of the cultural and historical ethos of Christianity. This has not been all to the detriment of the churches, as the more nominal churchgoing has declined, the core has in turn become more committed.

The late 1940s saw a reorganisation of the States of Jersey, with the Rectors of the twelve Anglican parishes removed from the States, and the Dean remaining without a vote, but only an opportunity to speak to the assembly. Nevertheless, the Rector still retained considerable standing in the Parish, where he often chaired the Parish Assembly, and was also automatically a member of the Parish Roads Committee.

The fifties and sixties saw a decline in the old style clergy who, in some respects, still resembled the "country gentleman" type so well described by Trollope. In their place, in the early 1970s, came a small but significant wave of experimentation. Alternative forms of service began to make their mark together with more modern hymns and Christian songs.

Many of the newer songs came from a country music background in America, and it was not surprising that the most dominant and influential gospel singing locally came from the "Fisherfolk", a United States group of singer and songwriters who engendered greater variety and freedom in worship; such songwriting was also reflected by U.K. hymn writers.

By the mid-1970s, another influence spread to Jersey. This was the "charismatic movement" which was in some sense a liberation and novelty, with its cultic phenomena such as "speaking in tongues" and a different form of initiation - "the baptism of the Holy Spirit", and therefore a challenge to more traditional sacraments (such as infant baptism) and forms of worship. It draw upon the fact that infant baptism itself had largely become a cultic phenomena, almost a superstition, and despite the modernisation of the wording, still seen very much as a token religious gesture or residue of "folk" religion, a kind of "spiritual" vaccination. In contrast, the charismatic movement offered a new kind of initiation, much more focused upon the self and expression in worship. It offered the chance for any worshiper to give prophetic discourse, rather than a clergyman giving a sermon to a lay congregation; it was also sometimes tinged with a millenarian or dispensationalism "end of the world" movement. However, over a surprisingly short period of time, it lost its initial impetus, and by the mid-1980s was no longer a major force except in small break-away groups, such as the house church movement. It left a legacy in the mainstream churches in a revival of the ministry of healing.

This was a time of interest in fringe religious movements, such as Scientology, Advent Christianity and Jehovahís Witnesses and Mormonism. The Witnesses funded and built a new "Kingdom Hall"; the Mormons established a new presence in the Island, and gained new membership from disaffected churchgoers.

The 1970s also saw the building of the "Communicare" centre in St Brelade, which marked the significant progress being made in ecumenical relations between the Anglican and Methodism; it was largely the vision of one man, the Methodist minister Gerry Stoddern, and made a new style of church in community. Progress was also being made in the "Joint Council of Churches" between wider groups, including Roman Catholics and Baptists.

By now there was a change in the church population from a predominantly agricultural background to a more urban one; this was most reflected in harvest festival services, where tinned goods and supermarket fruit replaced local produce; rural churches, such as Grouville, still retained older traditions with services such as the blessing of the plough.

Over this time, the teaching and practice of religious education in schools also changed markedly. Gradually, the Church of England daily assembly was altered to reflect other faiths; pressure of time on the curriculum also meant that the daily assembly was gradually replaced by more occasional assemblies, not always held first thing in the morning, where the subject matter was cultural and literary in scope rather than religious.

The public schools strongly resisted the changes, and still retained the more formal prayer, lesson and music. Yet even there the assemblies, while retaining a traditional early morning slot and style, became weekly rather than daily. Victoria College saw the departure of its chaplain, and an end to the confirmation services being taken in the main hall.

Religious knowledge as a subject on the curriculum remained, and was made part of the new National Curriculum. However, as with assemblies, the subject matter changed from basic scripture lessons to broaden and reflect other faiths and cultures.

The late 1980 saw a more subtle form of revival, with a renewed interest by some parish churches in the Celtic and historic roots of the Islandís Christianity. This was a more monastic and meditative style of Christianity, and arrived at the same times as a the revival of interest in Taize.

The 1990s saw a renewed form of evangelism begin with the "Alpha course"; while ostensibly informal in its approach, it was actually a very formal programme of evangelism, carefully devised to teach a form of "basic" Christianity, but in doing so ignored the theological and critical issues relating to the Biblical text.

Over the period 1946-2002, the steady decline in Church attendance led to amalgamation of responsibility of several Anglican churches, (so that one minister would look after several churches), and the closure of St Jamesís Church, which was converted into a venue for the arts. Another pressure on the churches was the decline in clergy numbers, as the number of men offering themselves for the full-time ministry fell. Also the inflation of the 1970s and poor investments by the Church Commissioners led to a large reduction in real terms of clergy stipend, so that there was also more stress on clergy as they tried to manage what was becoming a meagre income.

The other main denominations faced similar pressures of congregation numbers and clergy, and several Methodist and Roman Catholic churches were closed and demolished, with a congregations and districts being merged.

The year 2002 sees problems in finding clergy to fill post left vacant, either by retirement, or the break-up of clergy marriages and resignation of livings. In these circumstances, the Parish system comes under increased pressure, and the ideal of a Rector for each Parish may well be past. With this will certainly come a review of clergy functions in the Parish, and the last anachronisms, such as sitting on the Parish roads committee, will be ended.

Our society is in many ways much more materialistic than that of 1946, and while a residual Christianity is retained, it becomes in much of the population little more than a folk memory, often distorted and confused. The multicultural approach to school education, while widening the faiths studied, covers each so superficially that very little is imparted and retained. Equally, where there is commitment to religion, it is genuine, and not a matter of complying with the forms of society.

Programmes such as the "Alpha course" will certainly rekindle interest in Christianity, and it may be that the future of the Churches lies with this kind of more formal approach, rather than the charisma and individual style of a particular clergyman. How successful this will be in meeting and understanding the problems of Biblical criticism remains to be seen (example here).

Finally, the decline in clergy numbers will necessitate, as it is doing, an increasing lay participation in the churches, and an increased role for a non-stipendiary ministry, which will only work provided that the inessential tasks involved can be delegated to others.


2003 Update

This year saw the proposed closure of closing of two Catholic chapels - Our Lady of the Universe at Millbrook and Ville a L'eveque in Trinity. Because of declining attendance, and the falling numbers of priests available, it was decided to sell off the churches to raise funds to support the Catholic ministry in the Island.

The Church of England also faced a cash crisis as poor returns on investments by the Madeleine Trust. meant that they had to cut the funding which they traditionally had provided for expenses incurred by the Dean whilst fulfilling his duties as the head of the Anglican Church on the island.