Church growth and decline in the UK 2: Is church decline due to ‘progressive ideology’?

John Hayward’s second claim is that the patterns of growth and decline he maps can be explained by the extent to which the various denominations have embraced/capitulated to something he calls ‘progressive ideology’. He unfortunately offers no evidence (beyond a claim that it is obvious to all) for the existence or nature of this ideology.

He then proposes (again, without argument) that acceptance of same-sex marriage is a good proxy for commitment to this ‘progressive ideology’, and demonstrates a correlation between acceptance of same sex marriage and denominational decline; on this basis, he proposes that commitment to ‘progressive ideology’ causes decline. (He notes there are three denominations that do not fit this pattern, in that they do not accept same-sex marriage but are declining: the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, and the Brethren. He explains this by asserting ‘church decline has many causes’—embracing ‘progressive ideology’ is apparently a sufficient, but not a necessary, reason for a denomination declining.)

Is this analysis plausible? Well, let me suggest an alternative, based only on the data John presents. He himself notes (in his first post) that most of the growing denominations are founded post-1900; we might go further: they are all movements that have been happy to reject traditions such as the liturgical calendar, the lectionary, vestments, inherited liturgical forms, &c. The two pre-1900 denominations that are growing (the Free Church of Scotland and the Adventists) also fit this description.

So one might argue that what correlates to growth in the UK at present is a broad rejection of traditional Christian practices. Surrendering to the spirit of the age, at least in matters of practice, is the way to get people into church.

I do not think this, of course—but I submit that John’s presented data supports this analysis rather better than the one he proposes (given its sheer size, dismissing the Roman Catholic Church as an anomaly in any analysis of UK Christianity at present is implausible).

Further, let me interrogate his construction ‘progressive ideology’: given his lack of definition, what could it mean? I recall being on a panel at a conference in London, discussing evangelicalism, when someone asserted a general falling away from Biblical values in recent decades in the UK, evidenced by teenage culture. As the father of two teenagers I reflected that their peers seemed to be more sexually active than my generation was as teenagers, but that in my secondary school casual racism was routine (from teachers as well as pupils), and the mocking and bullying of disabled pupils was accepted as normal.

It seems to me that, if it means anything, John’s ‘progressive ideology’ is responsible for the fact that my girls’ experience of school taught them to reject racism, and the victimisation of people with disabilities. Further, it meant that my girls were able to go through school without being repeatedly told that they were less valuable, less important, less human, than the boys in their class.

Yes, it also pressed some ideas that were false—what human ideology doesn’t? I struggle, however, to see it as something simply bad. As I commented in a previous post, every human culture both instantiates anticipations of the Kingdom, and is basically fallen. I tend to the view that the culture pressed on our girls by their secondary school is a bit more Biblical than the culture I had pressed on me; I don’t want to generalise from this to national trends, but I do want to complicate, indeed to refute, simple narratives of decline.

John’s data might indeed reflect the disastrous effects of churches embracing ‘progressive ideology’, but, simply looking at the data, there are other explanations that fit it rather better, and his account of ‘progressive ideology’ is, unfortunately, unconvincing.

1 Comment

  1. Name *Mark Welch
    Jun 23, 2022

    Thank you so much, (as always) Steve; incisive logic succinctly applied; as the father of a special needs child and the pastor of a diverse congregation, I am deeply grateful for your observations!

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