It's always pleasant to be able to look at a problem from a distance, with little emotional involvement. Since, both in "Brahma and in Shiva/ I own myself an unbeliever", the recent census figures showing a marked decline in Christian belief do no more than confirm my inferences from local observations of a "Church" dying church by church. I don't care, exactly, but it does fascinate me as a theoretical question to which the most interested parties have no convincing answers. The new data has, for example, resulted in a number of pieces suggesting how the Church of England, in particular, should respond to the problem, and the editorial in The Times is typical in recommending modernisation, with implicit references to gay marriage and the creation of female bishops, so that the church does not, in the leader writer's words, "divorce itself from the society it serves" (See: "Change, Not Decay: The decline in Christian affiliation is a challenge to the Church. It should respond by embracing modernity", The Times 12 December 2012.)
In one sense this is right, the church has lost touch, but modernisation of the kind recommended, which I would summarise as social outreach, is mistaken, for that is not the main gulf that separates church and people.
The Christian Church's principal problem is not outmoded doctrine, but the prosperity of the surrounding society, for as Cobbett remarked in one of his "Rural Rides", preachers have "no power on the minds of any but the miserable". It is in vain that the tub-thumper asks his congregation if they are preparing themselves for "houses in the heavens not made with hands", since the young women are, as Cobbett notes with sympathy, "thinking much more about getting houses for themselves in this world first [...] houses with pig styes and little snug gardens attached to them, together with all the other domestic and conjugal circumstances". If these things are quite out of reach, then the consolations of a promised celestial wealth may be attractive; but when they are within our grasp, and they are obviously still more so now than they were when Cobbett was writing, we are suspicious of those who offer, but defer delivery of, rewards that are in any case quite literally nebulous.
However, the Christian clergy has assumed that the decay of public interest is caused by doctrinal incompatibility with current ways of living; particularly, that the population are living more liberated lives, especially sexually liberated lives, and that the Church should modify its doctrine to accept and accommodate such morals item by item. This was a mistake, firstly because it stimulated resistance within the Church from those who resented the introduction of novel core statements that are in contradiction to much of the network of more or more less mutually consistent propositions constituting the traditional belief system of the church. Secondly, it is mistaken because, for all the strife it causes, it fails to address the fundamental reason that the Church is losing adherents, which is that, as noted, in a condition of great prosperity the church fails to offer any competitive imaginative satisfaction. Indeed, insofar as it makes the church less mysterious, and easier to understand, it is probably counterproductive.
The correct response to this difficult situation is probably to admit that religion as a belief system cannot hope to track the diversity of views held by a rich, interconnected, and active population. Outreach of that kind is not only doomed to failure, because it attempts the impossible, but will also dissipate effort and further weaken the Church's organisational integrity. It would be better if the Church were to ascend to a higher level of abstraction, and instead of doctrinal specifics tuned, as it is hoped, to social reality, it were to offer an institutional spectacle that has the potential of very broad appeal precisely because it is vague.
The example of the Shinto shrines of Japan, which are still hugely popular and well-funded, are a shining example. Such places are attended by hundreds of thousands, perhaps tens of millions, of visitors a year, many of whom make donations, for no better reason than the fact that the shrine is a pleasant place, that the major festivals, with their extravagant pageants and peculiar traditions, are a fine diversion on a summer's day, or a torch-lit winter's night; or that they wish to pray for luck, in an exam or a driving test. The Japanese go on attending shrines because they have always done so, and, crucially, the shrines have given them no reason to abandon this custom.
The devil, as we know, is always in the details; and the Christian church is finding to its cost that by attempting to follow a rapidly evolving pluralistic society in every twist and turn it has only got into a diabolical hole and provoked disagreement on every hand. The remedy is obvious.