A Sociology of Religion and a theology of the broader issues of the Longhill Survey of Church and People

[Edited with some updating from a religious service continuity pieces and the sermon given by me on February 15th 1987 at Park Street Unitarian Church, Hull]

We found an even split between those who considered themselves religious and those who did not, about 45% each way. But about two thirds believed in the existence of God, and 40% of everyone believed God was able to listen to prayers, with less than 20% taking the view that God means a depth to life. Less than 20% are atheist and agnostic. More people pray to God than think he can hear them, that's over 50%. Now one of the most interesting figures was that nearly 50% regard Jesus to be the only son of God. In this supposed religionless age that was high, and only a quarter thought he was a good man and one tenth a leader of a faith like others. Again orthodoxy looks strong with a third thinking that the Bible was inspired by God, nearly one third taking the human option and one sixth taking the fundamentalist option. Then we got some clues to these figures: well over half thinking children should be told Christianity was true but less than a third thinking it was the truest for themselves. More people disbelieve in life after death than do so, which means that one quarter of those who believe Jesus was the son of God could not believe in his resurrection, a principal component of actual orthodoxy. We also found from a quarter to one eighth of people believing in a range of superstitions, which was interesting.
So there was an identification with orthodox Christian beliefs, except that they do not always connect together properly, and then there was one other matter. Church attendance was minimal, and our figures over emphasised the attendance (as with everything else religious). We found that whereas almost everyone was christened and three quarters describe themselves nominally as Church of England, only one fifth are members and on our very optimistic figures only one fifth are prepared to go to church even at the best of times. Well we know that out of the 5000 of the estate only 30 go weekly to the local church and few go outside the estate to others.
So, what sort of faith was this? The figures might be suprising. So how come faith was so outwardly orthodox? Edward Bailey, an Anglican priest who did a Ph.D in the subject of popular religion and set up The Network for Implicit Religion, suggests that people do not primarily believe in God, Jesus or the Church but in 'Christianity' which was a popularised version of the apostolic religion. He points out that the structure of belief was not that of Christianity but Hinduism. Christ was the cultural figure equitable with Krishna in Hinduism. this was from some writing of his:
Mention of the self as the ultimate manifestation of sacredness within 'Christianity's' universe may sound more like a form of Hinduism than Christianity, at least as the Church has conceived it. ...Certainly there is a great gulf between the faith of the people, and the official, if not conventional, faith of the Church.
...Clearly this is one kind of Christianity; as village Hinduism is one kind of Hinduism; and as ecclesiastical Christianity and philosophical Hinduism are other kinds. (Bailey in Moss, pp. 186-7)
Popular belief, with the faded memory of the narrower faith, does not share the breadth of the all embracing faith which is Hinduism. However, there are some interesting parallels between it and the structure of Hinduism. The historical nature of Christianity as a saving redeeming faith is turned into a faith of the round of life, for growing up and for the moments of significance. That was why the rites of passage remain the main basis of contact between the people and the churches.
So saying Jesus as the Son of God is like the cultural Krishna: a habit of speech, a correct title. This feeling was reported during the survey itself. If this feeling was true then it supports the like-Hinduism theory.
So faith is about the round of life and this only requires occaisional contact with organised religion. Our figures indicated that people indeed did use the churches for their purposes and according to their style of religion. Orthodoxy was a salvation faith and required continued public worship, but the kind of faith we identified was based more on the family and its needs and aspirations.
People belong to families and do not belong to churches. Yet so few attending church regularly was not the case in the nineteenth century. Like in the United States today nearly 50% of the population were churchgoers whereas now in Britain a comparable figure was just 10%. Well, city living and industrialisation killed off the roots of many rural folk beliefs and gave Christianity a free run; secondly as affluence grew Christianity became a place of leisure and an outlet for moral philanthropic work by the middle class. This basis of popular churchgoing, carried out in a spirit of hopefulness, was ended by the welfare state and by the further affluence that allowed alternative means of leisure. British society, unlike American society was private and reserved, and the experience of hopelessness from the First World War in this country killed the spirit of optimism on which churches had been based. Subsequently churchgoing declined.
This left the Churches, the organised religion available to most people, cut off in terms of regular contact and activity. But back in better days the rival theologies and ecclesiologies from the Reformation on affected and broke down the Churches into the various denominations. The tendency to schism has by no means stopped within the British situation of almost ignored churches. Thus the Churches also became weaker themselves from their own structural changes.
It seems to me that all this left three kinds of Christianity in sociological terms. The first is the religion of doctrine. Now, this can be moderate or fundamentalist. The second way is according to what you might have heard as a child: sugary stories, nice words and images for growing up. This was the way of the family Bible, the book which sits on the bookshelf in most homes and was almost never read. It is the faith of Christenings, weddings, funerals, horoscopes or whatever. The third way is the extraction of the truths in the religion which relates to genuine experience and turns reality on its head in order to pronounce a central message for living. this you get in the New and the Old Testament and in the teachings of Jesus. So there is the faith of doctrine and narrow revelation as institutionalised in the mainstream Church, there is the faith of childhood upbringing and the God who tends to be the nice Englishman, and there is the faith of the story and genuine experience which challenges.
The dominance of the first type of faith in the institutions of Christianity have led to the religion being riddled by division. The desire to have dogmatic certainty has been completely self-destructive. The second type of faith has developed to relate to the daily, seasonal and life-long realities of living as they are faced. In the struggle and dualism between doctrine and folk religion the third, prophetic type, of faith can easily be lost.
The first problem of the organised Christianity was the chasm that has developed between it and the faith of the people. Christianity just fills in the structure of folk religion with some titles like Son of God, God, and the Church, but the meaning of these details was changed. This faith was circular because it was about the round of life. In contrast, the faith of the mainstream was linear: it was about revelation in history. We are not going round and around. According to it we have seen the highest in the resurrection of Christ and we are going towards the ultimate Kingdom of God, the vision in the future and at the end of time.... So, theologically speaking, the Church was being cut off from the people. We see this, for example, when we look at the conflict over those vicars who do not want to baptise children indiscriminately. Their understanding of the act conflicts with the understanding of ordinary people.
It has always been like this of course. Britain's religious heritage was as much circular as linear. Our pagan roots were circular. But the difference has been that there always was a competition and even a synthesis between the rural round of life and the Church with its eschatological message. The difference now is that the population is cut off from the liturgies of the Church and are out of contact with linear Christianity. The brief illusion of success of Christianity in the second half of the nineteenth century could not last.
The idea of secularisation is wrong. People will always be religious. What I am not sure about, with the people cut off from the liturgies of Christianity, is how long Christianity can continue to provide the details to this Hindu-like structure of faith.
Not only have the mainstream Churches been cut off from the population in this contrast between the linear faith and the circular faith, but they also divided and specialised within the mainstream. All branches, whether liberal, traditionalist or conversionist, do relate to the linear theology, but they are divided between themselves. No longer do the divisions matter so much between the old denominations. There are new divisions and these have been developed in reaction to the culture which ignores the churches.
The conversionists are positively opposed to the wider culture as are the forward moving evangelicals. They consist of the socially concerned, the activist fundamentalists and the charismatics. An important point was that although conversionism was largely descended from the Protestants, the charismatic movement was both Protestant and Catholic. The second group is the traditionalists who are defensively opposed to wider society; they can be Protestant or Catholic and even as narrow as one tradition amongst two or three within just one denomination. The third category is what I call orthodox liberalism, and they are interested in just maintaining the identity of the Church. They are those who maintain somehow the incarnation and resurrection beliefs but travel light on other more detailed doctrines. The fourth category is the heterodox liberalism of the mainstream and was sympathetic to outside culture. It questions even the basic doctrines. Finally, there are those connected to that position who realise they have sawn off the branch on which they need to sit. They tend to move outside the mainstream and Unitarianism is one example of this kind of theology and authority.
The approach of the local Longhill church was conversionist: it was Catholic charismatic. It was like this because of its origins.
Longhill church had died on its feet and it was closed for the interregnum. The congregation dispersed. When the new priest came in 1984, he reopened it and expected no one would be there.
He told an interesting story. In one Longhill house during the closure a prayer group started, at first just two people in a front room. It then grew and they received permission to meet in the church building which was, incidentally, still being used for other social meetings. So the new priest suprisingly found himself with a congregation, including youngsters, of about fifteen people. That later doubled and rose further. He regarded this secret rebirth as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work on the estate, and he equated it with the same force that was in the resurrection. He also accepted that this group was well on its way to being a charismatic House Church. As a Catholic traditionalist he set about integrating them through the eucharist to the Catholic side of the Church of England. When I went a service there they did not seem at all Catholic to me, but the Church of England gives the ability to priests to swing things their way.
(Since those days and the Mission that priest left and the church collapsed again with people going elsewhere. Its fate and the religion of the people are open to a new survey, of course.)
A new mission priest was specially brought in for Longhill. He was a Catholic charismatic. His Catholicism was more a matter of giving the charismatic movement a sacramental emphasis. He agreed with the belief that the Holy Spirit was at work on the estate and hoped great things will happen there.
His main sympathy was not with the non-renewed mother church of the parish on Holderness Road but the other renewed churches of the area. Most of these were evangelical but this did not matter. He wanted to bring people to the faith through the activism of the charismatic movement rather than the defensiveness of traditionalism. He also rejoiced in the ability of the charismatic movement to bring together Evangelicals and Catholics. Of course, it only brings together some Catholics and Evangelicals. So there was some conflict between the two churches of the parish, in the very way they faced, and the unity of the charismatic movement was yet one more division.
The two men got on well and neither had any time for any liberalism. But under the surface were those tensions which exist everywhere else. The parish priest had an amazing ability to relate to his ordinary churchgoers, and the mission priest was equally friendly with those gathered people and related directly to their faith. He was opposed to women's ordination, still then to happen.
I remember the religious conversations with the Longhill parish priest when he was saying he would leave the Church of England's priesthood if it ordains women. He told me at the same time that I did not qualify as a Christian. He said the Church of England should never again ordain a bishop who was like the Bishop of Durham. He called Unitarianism a "barnacle on the backside of Christianity". These opinions were seen to be necessary to protect Christianity and yet existed within a most attractive personality.
From the point of view of faith, why did those Longhill churchgoers have to be integrated into one branch of the Church of England at all? Why not become a House church if that was what they wanted? In doing so they would have missed out on the parish priest. (I believe that a House Church was a min destination in their dispersals.)
Equally why should ordinary people be converted from a meaningful circular faith into a so called superior linear salvation faith? The churches ought to learn something from Hinduism; it ought to learn that there was something called diversity and genuine experience. If it learnt that then division would simply be a preference for style.
Fundamental are the differences between the cultural faith, the faith of dogma (or anti-dogma) and the faith of experience. The survey found that ordinary people used the headlines of the faith as part of propriety, and used the institutions for the round of life, but they were cut off from the churches, and there is this huge gap between those churches and ordinary religion.
(In the end the mission failed. The survey took place and was clearly intended to be an arm of the mission by the Church of England while there was a chance of success. The management of the mission failed, so did the financial resources, and the extreme minority of interested people dispersed. There was to be no active estate parish church. A social facility did continue. Longhill remained just as it was, and Hull is one of the least interested places in attending institutions of religion).
Re-edited, 28/01/2000