Two ladybirds crawl across the white cloth on the altar table of an ancient Dorset church as a tiny handful of parishioners takes communion. Outside, it is a perfect English summer Sunday, the air drowsy with the scent of growing flowers, grass and trees. Inside St Mary’s, Tarrant Gunville, all is quiet and slightly musty. The few tablets on the walls speak of young men lost in the first world war and long-dead parishioners who loved and gave to the church — there has been one on the site since the 12th century. Apart from the visiting weekenders, of whom I am one, there are seven in the congregation, none of them exactly in the flush of youth. The vicar celebrating communion according to the Book of Common Prayer is 87; he apologises beforehand that “I have tried to draw stumps several times” and yet he keeps being asked to conduct services and cannot refuse. He preaches a drily witty sermon that happens to be about the “shipwreck” of the Church of England, which he admits he has recycled from earlier years. He forgets to lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer.
Everything about this scene tells a felt truth about the C of E — its abiding presence deep in the shires, the breathtaking beauty of its churches, the sonorous cadences of its almost forgotten liturgy, its valetudinarian faithful. We have had this impression for decades. Philip Larkin’s much loved poem “Church Going” (the pun is surely intended) was written more than 60 years ago. He talks of “A shape less recognisable each week/ A purpose more obscure”, and wonders how long it will be before the Church of England is reduced to a few cathedrals “chronically on show”, while wind and rain whip through the ruins of country churches.
Irreversible decline has been the Church’s lot for several generations in an age when Sundays are for football matches and car-boot sales. A National Census survey suggests that 8.5 million British people now identify as Anglican, down from 13 million a decade ago. The Church makes few demands of the people it ministers to, seeming grateful just to be acknowledged. Its premises are swept out and decorated for the weddings of unbelievers and the funerals of those whose families can find no other way to make sense of finality.