The Forsythe Saga and the end of the church. – Or how the church of England managed against all odds to decline.

There is a bit of a myth which has been knocking around for decades, that the Forsythe Saga spelled an end to Evensong. The 26 episode serial aired on BBC1 on Sunday evenings some time between 1968 and 1969. And apparently it was so popular (it’s final episode got 18 million viewers) that everyone stopped going to Evensong.

There may be some truth in it, but the facts mitigate against it. The Forsythe Saga aired at 7.45 most Sundays. Evensong was almost universally at 6.30pm which means that, even with that Most Iniquitous Crime of Sermons at Evensong, people should have had plenty of time to hop back to the TV set and watch. Curiously enough, all the clergy that complained it killed off Evensong also remember the series it with vivid clarity – and it has not been re-run since that 1969 airing.

But the myth itself reveals a very uncomfortable truth about the church both then and now – we believe it. We believe that people stopped coming to church in order to watch a TV programme.

Whether or not the myth is true, the fact that this explanation “feels” right to those who remained in the church betrays an attitude towards the spirituality of those who stopped coming. That their faith, their spirituality was skin-deep, the seed sown on shallow soil, they were to some extent at fault for stopping coming to church. This is not a healthy spiritual attitude, whether the myth it true or not.

Let’s assume it is true. The fact that such a small thing as a television programme was enough to stop people attending church suggests something very important.

I love Evensong. It was the thing that converted me from a cradle catholic to an Episcopalian inScotland. I adore it. I listen to it daily, record it from the radio weekly, have an ipod full of it, sing it by myself in church when I think no-one’s listening. But when sung by an out of tune choir to Anglican chant, accompanied by lacklustre hymns and a meandering sermon, it can be horribly dull, and non-participatory.

So people went to watch the Forsythe Saga instead. That tells me that, if we believe that everyone has an innate spirituality (which we surely must do if we believe God to be omnipresent), then the church was not feeding those people in the way it was called by God to do.

I’ve recently been reading a number of books on church growth. Partly because my own churches have experienced significant growth (about 40%-60% in five years), and I wanted to find ways of embedding it, but also because I wanted to know just why it was happening!

From that research, what is noticeable is that church increase (within the Anglican church inBritain) does not in fact come from a particular theological stable, or even a particular style of worship. The characteristics for growing churches seem to be more fundamental than that.

Churches that grow seem to have the following characteristics:

Top reasons why churches grow.

a)      They are places full of people who are skilled in being kind – they are skilled in living in God’s loving presence

b)      They are places where there is a lot of laughter –ie they are able to experience the joy which is present in Good News.

c)      They are places which don’t try and do everything, just play to their strengths – ie they are able to see where God is leading them rather than trying to conform to a set model of what being a church is like

d)      They are places where the worship is inspiring – where they take seriously the praise and worship of God.

The people I meet who do not go to church, but profess a faith, are often deeper in their thinking and spirituality that most church people would give them credit for. Of those people who have often a very deep faith, I often ask them why they don’t gom or stopped going to church. Here are the top five reasons they give.

Top Five reasons why People stop coming to church .

1)      They fell out with the Rector or members of the congregation, and didn’t feel that there was an opportunity for reconciliation

2)      They feel that the church is not morally where they are (ie often very conservative over the “usual suspects” issues)

3)      They find that life takes over for a few months, with sick relatives or too much work, and they find themselves disapproved of to the extent that they can’t find a way back.

4)      When it comes to the people in the church, the bonds of affection were simply not strong enough to keep them coming.

5)      They were bored with the liturgy and sermons that they find offered up to them.

The tragedy of all of those reasons (and I hasten to add these are just my own anecdotal evidence) is that most of them point to spiritual problems in the church. They are focussed on bad relationships, where there is a paucity of love and fellowship. They also point to perhaps the most depressing thing for me – that churches are places where people do not feel spiritually fed. What we do, we often do not do well.

The Forsythe Saga is the church’s shame. Not because people abandoned the church for a television programme, but that we were happy to accept the idea that they did – and blame them for it.


About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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