Like a number of others from East Anglia, I attended the Sharing the Church’s Story event held in London in February. When given the choice of different workshops to attend in the afternoon, I opted for one entitled Third Spring: Renewal and Reading the Signs of the Times.
The title was a reference to the ‘Second Spring’ of English Catholicism famously described by St John Henry Newman. He felt that his own era was one of resurgence after the persecution of previous centuries. The workshop asked whether a third spring is on the horizon for the Church in this country. Could it be that after the decline of recent decades, the Holy Spirit is preparing the ground for new growth and an increase in faith?
The workshop was led by a panel of committed Catholic academics with links to St Mary’s University, Twickenham and looked looked directly on to Westminster Abbey – an iconic building and emblem of the first spring of English Catholicism. The panel was made up of Professor Stephen Bullivant, Dr Susan Longhurst and Dr Hannah Vaughan-Spruce and chaired by Brenden Thompson from Catholic Voices. Each panel member was, in their own way, passionate about spreading the Gospel in England and also committed to using sound statistics and social research to help us in that enormous task.
The initial picture painted by Professor Bullivant showed the scale of the challenges facing the Church in this country. His research suggests that over the last five decades or so, Mass attendance has declined by 1-2% each year – that might seem small but over that amount of time it really adds up! For each of us, we can picture the friends and family members these statistics refer to – who used to come to Mass but who we haven’t seen in a while. Of those considered ‘cradle Catholics’ as children, 44% would no longer describe themselves that way. The overwhelming majority of these no longer have any religious affiliation at all, to say nothing of those who were never Catholics to start with. The need for a renewed, evangelistic response from us as churchgoing Catholics seemed clear.
The signs of hope the panel pointed to lay in three areas. Firstly, the young. Professor Bullivant’s research stated that 17% of self-identified Catholics aged 55-64 attend Mass weekly, meanwhile among 18-24 year olds this figure rises to 41%. Young Catholics may be fewer in number but they seem to be more committed to this aspect of their faith than older generations.
Secondly, the panel identified trends among those who convert to Catholicism. Dr Longhurst’s research suggested they each, by and large, experience a sense of disorientation or crisis in their personal lives and also began to notice issues in contemporary culture. In short, they were looking for support or answers and found them in the Catholic Church. Crucially, they generally had a relationship or friendship with a Catholic – in a number of cases it was a grandparent or a new romantic partner. It was a reminder that how we respond to the world around us and how we talk about our faith matters.
Thirdly, Dr Vaughan-Spruce emphasised the value of a parish that is focused not on those who already attend but on those who aren’t yet there. Her enthusiasm for parishes was infectious – she seemed to see so much potential in each community. She reminded us, though, that parishes and their structures may need to change and adapt if they are to grow rather than simply survive. Those parishes that had a clear, missionary vision – in her experience – bore fruit.
As I left the room, catching one last glimpse of the great abbey through the window, I must admit I didn’t feel that the Third Spring was here yet. There is a long way still to go but I certainly felt enthused and energised about the task ahead with more ideas about how that spring could one day come about.
Pictured above is Westminster Abbey. Picture by Keith Morris.