Swings and Roundabouts

In the UK in the 30 years to 1980 Sunday church attendance halved; and in the following 25 years it halved again. Now its down to a little more than 6% of the population. So Linda Woodhead reminds us in a recent article in The Tablet (28 April 2012), quoting figures gathered by Christian Research. She goes on to make the point that this severe decline doesn’t indicate a decline in religion, but a decline in a particular type of religion – what she calls the ‘hierarchical, dogmatic form.’ In contrast there’s lots of evidence that more diverse, associational and personally meaningful chosen religion is thriving. She cites the popularity of pilgrimages, cathedrals, angels and retreats as some of the indicators of the shift.
There’s a lot to think about, and argue about, in the details of such a diagnosis, but it’s clear that there are major changes under way. Whatever else these changes mean for religious institutions and practices it’s clear they will have a major impact on so-called religious professionals – those who are ministers of religion.
Full-time paid ministers are declining in numbers whilst the proportion of voluntary, self-supporting and part-time practitioners is rising rapidly (for example, an almost fifty percent increase in self-supporting ministers in the Church of England in the last ten years). What in institutional terms (at least in the Church of England) is being cast more and more as a job – with appraisal, job descriptions, contract-like terms of service, frameworks of competencies, and disciplinary and grievance procedures – is in social practice becoming less and less like a job.
What will be the consequences of these differing trajectories? Time will tell, but there has to be a real possibility that professionalized structures will collapse or be side-stepped as voluntary ways of leadership and practice come to dominance.