Why people don’t go to church

A redundant church. Photo by Jeff Buck, copyright and licensing information here.
A redundant church. Photo by Jeff Buck, copyright and licensing information here.

As a postscript to my previous post, here is a quick thought on modern English attitudes towards churchgoing, from Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s wonderful 1991 portrait of the Church of England, The Church Hesitant (now out of print, but highly enjoyable if you happen upon a copy).

Ms Maxtone Graham’s chapter titled “Going to Church and Not Going to Church” opens as follows:

The truth spoken with disarming simplicity appeals to the Anglican taste for aphorism. The Very Revd Ian White-Thompson, who is old and good and used to be the Dean of Canterbury, told the following when I went to see him in Wye. He spoke in a soft, frail voice which was almost a whisper. “You know, a Scottish friend said this to me once, and I’ve never forgotten it. The reason why people don’t go to church is because they don’t want to. The reason why people don’t go to church is because they don’t want to.” The simple and bleak pronouncement had lodged itself in his memory. He thought about it often, and it seemed to have a ring of profound truth about it. (p.123)

Ms Maxtone Graham then drops into a pub in Essex at lunchtime on a Sunday and interviews 22 people, none of whom had been to church that morning. Few of them are outright hostile to the church when asked about it, but her experience leads Ms Maxtone Graham to conclude that:

The pronouncement that is lodged in Dean White-Thompson’s memory does not go far enough. People don’t go to church because it doesn’t even occur to them that they might. It plays no part at all in their weekly life or thoughts. (pp.124f.)

This, I suspect, is most certainly true. As, I expect, is this further conclusion (though perhaps to a diminishing extent):

People expect the church to be there and would be horrified if it suddenly weren’t. They use it at certain important moments in their life, and it doesn’t occur to them to wonder who keeps it going. (p.125)


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