Last Monday, the final episode of ITV’s detective drama Broadchurch ended inside the parish church, uncharacteristically filled to the rafters with a congregation attending the local vicar’s final sermon. A warning against neglecting community, the words of Hebrews 10:24-25 echo evocatively: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” Rev Paul Coates goes on: “All any us really want are love and good deeds.”
It’s a fitting lesson for a community that has received more than its fair share of horrific tragedies (child murder and rape, to be specific). Throughout the series, it is the local community’s cohesion and support for each other that has enabled healing. In this series, all the women of the village gather outside the police station and light their smartphones in support of Trish, a victim of rape.
But this is also a lesson that has wider implications for real-life Christian Britain. In 2016, Church of England attendance dropped below 1 million for the first time, having fallen by 12% in the last decade. Congregations lose approximately 1% of their members each year due to death; and the demographic of the Church of England means growth is a real challenge.
That’s not to say that Christianity isn’t flourishing in other areas – there is much growth amongst young, urban church plants and Orthodox and Pentecostal denominations. In response to this, the Church of England is diverting funds from small, rural parishes to urban areas – but the traditional village parish is suffering.
What does this mean for these smaller communities? In the past, pastoral care within the locality would fall upon the Church. Tangibly, this means meals delivered after childbirth, visits for the ill in hospital, hands held at last breath. Intangibly, it’s prayer, forgiveness and love. It’s worth saying that the Church have sometimes grossly under-delivered or, worse, misused. But that should not be an argument against the power of its potential.
As the parish church struggles, the weight of pastoral care falls upon the overburdened and unequipped NHS and social care system, which are unable to cope. They can prescribe cures and sew us back together, but 15-minute care visits don’t leave time for hand-holding. They certainly don’t leave time for prayer. And this is a burden that affects us all – believers and non-believers alike.
Let’s look back at Rev. Paul Coates’ passage. The message of community is one that both secular and Christian audiences would struggle to reject, but it comes as a practical description of how believers should respond to the truth of Christ. The love and good deeds that “all of us really want” do not exist isolated from faith. It is the opposite. They exist as a result of the faith and confidence we can now have through the blood of Christ.
And this is the heart of the matter.
It is easy for secularism to reject faith: the unfashionable miracles, do-gooding and stone buildings that seem so unbelievable and archaic. It is easy to look at the decline of traditional parish Christianity and use that as an argument to render it obsolete. But by rejecting faith, you are also rejecting the way it is enacted in the community. Sometimes friends and family step in, sometimes state services help – but for the elderly man, sitting devotedly by the lectern of my local church, there is no one else.
It’s worth re-thinking the dismissal of the parish church. Whether a believer or not, it affects us all – directly, through support to our family and friends; indirectly, through additional burden on services we need. It’s dismissing a community whose wide-reaching impact cannot be replaced.