1,500 Britons abandoning mainstream Churches every week. BESS TWISTON DAVIES presents a survey explaining why
L1TURGICAL change, a harsh official line on sex, overcentralised papacy or under-effective bishops: all Catholics have their pet theory as to why their fellow Catholics are abandoning the Church in droves, as a cursory glance at the letters column of the Catholic Herald shows. But the really essential question: what is the Church doing to stop them leaving? is a no go area, onb a, knowledged by embarrassed -,Ilence.
A new survey on the reasons Christians are leaving the mainstream Churches at a rate of 1,500 a week in Britain shows all Churches are guilty of neglecting leavers. Over 90 per cent of all the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and other formerly-practising Christians surveyed in Gone but not forgorten Church leavmg and rerurnmg, were not followed up by their Churches within LIR critical six week period after they left. And what's inure, they're not happy about it.
"The message we're getting from leavers is that they are disappointed by Churches. If the Church made an effort with pc.,pie who art leaving they would probably stay," says author Philip Rit.hter, a Methodist minister who is currently the Educational Development office' at the Southern TheologiLal Education and fraining Scheme based in Salisbury. The survey, now in book form, was carried out between 1995 and 1997 by Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis, an Anglican priest who is a professor of Pastoral theology at Trinity College, Carmarthen. It offers the most comprehensive report of the reasons that Britons are abandoning the Church. They believe most Churches in Britain are "oversimplifying a complex problem. They tend to act on a series of hunches as to why people leave. 'The three major triggers causing people to leave are loss of faith, a change in routine like moving house or unfulfilled expectations."
The survey dismisses the common assumption that Church leavers loath the Church. It found that 45 per cent of those interviewed would consider returning in the future. Former Catholics told Richter and Leslie they were disappointed that the Church did not try to stop them leaving: "The Church has got a responsibility to really get hold of people and say: 'Look, why are you not going to Church, what's happening?' Nobody did that to me, and I felt, at times, quite angry about that," says Samuel, a homosexual who left the Church but later returned.
Many of the lapsed Catholics interviewed proved ambivalent towards the Church: "It's a faith I was proud of, and still have tinges of pride in, because there are people doing a lot of good," confesses Arron (sic).
Fear of judgement for failing to live up to Church teaching on sex is what pushes most leavers out of the Church: "My nan never set foot in church again after being divorced because she felt it was a shameful state to be in and that the Church looked down on her," says Arron.
Richter acknowledges that these fears of being rejected by the Church often have little basis in reality: "There was a gap in interviewees' perception of how the Church would react in a situation and how the Church actually reacted. There was an interesting variation on this in parishes where priests were more liberal," says Richter.
"The Catholics we interviewed wanted to avoid hypocrisy: they were not willing to go through the motions of pretending to be good Roman Catholics when they knew the Church would disapprove of their lifestyles."
Quite who the interviewees feared would cast the wrath of God down upon them is slightly unclear. Sometimes self-righteous Catholics in their congregations are mentioned. But Richter says they reject "dogmatic pronouncement from the pulpit or the papacy on moral issues". The vision this conveys of thunderous sermons on sexual immorality is a far cry from the experience of most homily-listeners. Unfortunately, this perception is part and parcel of a whole range of outdated but extremely popular Catholic stereotypes trotted out by the interviewees. The favourite is, of course, the fabled wealth of the papacy: "Sometimes I feel that going to Church can get very expensive, that grates on me because the Pope's quite a wealthy chap," says Arron. The news that the Vatican was, until recently, crippled by debt is unheard of.
But the survey proves that the old saying 'Once a Catholic, always a Catholic' holds true. "It is more diffi
cult to leave the Catholic Church than to leave the Protestant Churches," says Richter. "Within the Protestant tradition, being a Church member is more of an individual choice, but Catholicism is more of a community religion. You are brought along with your family, so leaving entails breaking enormous ties with your family and with the community."
This strong community can be a blessing or a curse, according to the interviewees: while it drew some lapsed Catholics back to the fold, others felt the urge to break with their Catholic roots altogether to follow their individual spiritual journeys. "Young Catholics are rejecting a 'pre-packaged' religion that doesn't let them find all the answers. They want to be more than a passive spectator in Church," says Richter.
Alison, a lapsed Catholic in her twenties, left the Church because Mass had become a meaningless habit: "For months I'd been going to Church just out of habit. I would just have to stop going to Mass. (My Catholicism) had always been so natural. Most of the people I knew were Catholic, a lot of the people I mixed with were very actively Catholic... and it just hadn't been something I'd ever questioned... (Leaving gave) me the freedom to discover again my own Christianity in a newer way."
But there is also a strong sense that what some of those interviewed actually want is a Church that does away with priests in favour of the laity and which promotes the total supremacy of private conscience: in other words a Catholicised Protestantism.
Lapsed Catholics appear to be leaving with a whole host of misconceptions about the Church. Often poor communication appears to be at the root of many of these Catholics' decisions to leave the Church. So what, if anything, can the Catholic Church do to retain the disaffected Catholic hovering on the church threshold?
"Non-judgemental caring 'exit' interviews," is Mr Richter's solution. "Priests must open up lines of communication and get people to talk about why they are leaving. They must get to know their congregation at more than a superficial level."
Many of the problems encountered by lapsed Catholics could be avoided if priests were more in touch with the mood of the congregation. This survey's conclusions strongly revive arguments for the restitution of the clenv visit. OGone but run forgotten: ()Minh tearing and returning. Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis. Darton Longman and "rodd £10.45 (Our on February I 6;