Hard church, soft church, no church

The recent turmoil within the Anglican Communion over women bishops and homosexuality is showing that the old classifications of different traditions/theologies don’t work anymore. Referring to ‘traditionals’ and ‘liberals’ has always been a simplification, but even the threefold division of ‘Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and Liberals’ doesn’t seem very helpful now, given both the splits within the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic traditions and the rapprochement of some Evangelicals with Anglo-Catholics in FOCA). There’s also the fact that whatever the official Catholic line, there are clearly quite a lot of Catholics who don’t have a problem with women priests or homosexual acts. I’m starting to think that a more useful classification for many purposes (and one that goes beyond Anglicans) is that between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ churches, denominations and groups (using churches to mean individual congregations, denominations the aggregation of churches, and groups to mean other fellowship/support networks).

I would say that hard churches/denominations/groups are made up of people who want to believe Christian beliefs and do Christian acts. Their leaders are teachers and correctors, or perhaps tour guide leaders. Their theology is of clear boundaries between church/world, us/them, good/evil. They are a community of saints, those fully committed to God. Their tendency is to reject society’s mores unless they can be shown to be good.

Soft churches/denominations/groups are made up of people who want to be Christian (though they may have very varied ideas of what this means). Their leaders are supporters of learning, advisers, or perhaps map-makers for individual explorers. Their theology is far more fuzzy on boundaries. They are what St Augustine would see as a mixed community, both the fully committed and the less committed to God. Their tendency is to accept society’s mores unless they can be shown to be bad.

Some denominations have both kinds of church/group co-existing in them. For example, while remaining an Anglican all my life, I have gone from a broad rural church (soft) via Evangelical Anglicans at St Aldate’s Oxford (hard) to a liberal suburban church (soft). A schematic look at the history of Christianity in England is also revealing. (I’m focusing on England here, not because the Scottish and Welsh denominations aren’t important, but because I don’t know them so well):

HC 1

From the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion in the Western Roman Empire, Catholicism has always comprised a hard group (often, though not invariably of professed religious) of very committed believers, inside a much wider soft group which practices, or at least accepts ‘folk religion’ and the ‘mediocre’ Christians, whose well-being St Augustine was concerned for.


This ‘hard within soft’ structure is inevitable for any would-be universal/national denomination, and so, although Protestants started off trying to create purely hard denominations (comprised only of the godly), the Elizabethan Church of England ended up again as largely soft, with a hard centre.


From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the main development was denominations splitting off from the Church of England and each other (mainly to form hard denominations, but also some soft ones, such as Unitarians). For the first time, there were also some people (though not yet very many) who became non-church, no longer adhering, even nominally, to any religion.


Between about 1800 and 1960, as Cameron Brown has shown in The Death of Christian Britain, there isn’t a simple narrative of advance followed by decline in the English churches. Evangelical ideas of deep personal commitment had an important effect on people throughout the period, and there were times of revival, such as the 1950s, even if there was also a countervailing tendency for people to drift away from religion altogether. The overall trend was for the hard groups/churches within Protestant denominations to expand slowly, while the overall size of the denomination declined. Although I’m less well-up on the Roman Catholic church in England at the time (which also had a zealous hard core, surrounded by groups of those affiliate more through cultural traditions e.g. some working class Irish), I think the same move towards greater commitment by believers who remained, with slight decline in overall numbers was also seen there.


Then came the 1960s and the collapse of Christianity in England. I think it’s important to point out that this wasn’t due to ‘liberalism’ in the church. The soft church in the 1950s wasn’t generally liberal, because society as a whole wasn’t liberal; when soft groups/churches ‘conformed to the world’ it was by too great an emphasis on social respectability. Liberal Christianity (among Anglicans, Catholics and other denominations) was a reaction to the problems of Christianity, not the cause of them. The changes by soft churches weren’t successful at stemming the collapse, but nor was a hard-line approach: the Catholics under Paul VI didn’t do a lot better.

The hard church view from the 1980s onwards (Evangelical Anglicans, new Protestant movements, traditionalist Catholics) has been that soft churches/denominations (now mostly liberal, though some still broad church) are doomed, whereas hard churches/denominations are booming. This is true to a certain extent, but the hard church success has been limited. Despite all the prayers and excitement over nearly 30 years, there hasn’t been mass conversion or ‘revival’ in England, and it’s hard to see it suddenly happening (which may just show to the hard church that I don’t have enough faith). I want to write in my next post about future mission and hard/soft churches, but I think it’s important to see first of all where we’ve come from.


8 thoughts on “Hard church, soft church, no church

  1. I think your categories are simplistic, but that’s entirely to be expected… *No-one* in these debates has been able to come up with an elegant paradigm, and the current spectrum-between-polarities comes from the American culture wars, not theological analysis.

    In any case, I think you’re making an interesting case. I’m interested to see where you go with it.


    • I’m sure my classification isn’t perfect, but I think it does reflect some new alignments better than old models. For example, I think in many churches liturgy and styles of worship are now far less significant as theological markers than they were thirty years ago: I’ve been in Catholic services which had a more familiar feel to me as a low church Anglican than an Anglo-Catholic service would. And on theological matters, I wouldn’t have believed 20 years ago that Jim Packer could get together with the Anglo-Catholics, yet now he has.

      What I’m also trying to do is say something about the current alignments that gets beyond the caricatures of reactionary bigots versus trendy liberals. (In particular, British Evangelical Anglicanism (in the John Stott/Michael Green mode) has never had the simple right-wing political views of US conservative Christianity: it’s always been into social justice and its US equivalent is probably nearer the Sojourners).


      • There’s no doubt things are changing. The only question is what they’re changing into… Phyllis Tickle gave an interesting talk on the subject at my parish a while back.

        As I’m sure you know, Packer supporting the ACs has nothing to do with a rapprochement with AC theology; the day you find him with a rosary at at Solemn Benediction will be a cold day downstairs… I think it’s more a temporary cease-fire to accomplish the aims on North American separatists.


  2. As an aspiring Christian, I find it demoralising that there are so many factions to a faith that is supposed to be the definitive way.

    It diminishes credibility and gives ammunition to opponents.



    • Having been an enthusiast for ecumenism when I was younger, I think I’ve now come to be more positive about the variety of different churches and denominations. I think people do have different understandings of God and preferred worship styles and that one size fits all in theology or liturgy just doesn’t work. I can go to church services in very different traditions and gain insights from them, and yet I still hanker after my own church traditions and their way of doing things and I would miss those if they were no longer there. So I don’t think the problem is so much divisions within the Christian church (or one denomination); it’s when these divisions create dislike, or even hatred, that the problems come. The Church of England has traditionally survived the fact that many of its members disapprove of a large number of its other members (at a diocesan and indeed parish level). It would be a shame is that tolerance (even if somewhat unhappy tolerance) was to disappear.


  3. Obsevation from outside (I am a no church individual, raised in the 1950s soft church, who left undramatically because I could simply no longer repeat the Creed honestly):

    The selling point of the hard churches which works best is that they represent a return to the values and certainties of the 50s and before, and therefore offer an alternative to the moral dissolution of contemporary society. OK, that’s a cliche and an oversimplification, but not much of one.

    In fact, however, they do no such thing. The solid core of the Anglican church before, say, 1967 was not founded on a wider base of devout believers in Christ, it was founded on a wide base of people who believed in the institutions, but most of whom were agnostic to some degree and many of whom were deist at most. It was possible to maintain a high level of membership based on established social assumptions, but the present level of hard church affiliation probably repesents close to the maximum achievable on the basis of sheer faith, and in no way offers a basis for reconstituting that social balance.

    It may or may not be the caes that the soft church is doomed. But I cannot see the hard churches of today offering a way back, because they simply don’t offer a comparable alternative to what was actually lost, as opposed to what they believe to have been lost.


  4. My comments are in reverse order to your writing (we write upwards, read downwards).

    Of course much of this has been covered by Ernst Troeltsch, Max Weber and James Martineau in terms of Church and Sect, and Troeltsch’s intellectualist enlightenment individualist he oddly called Mysticism. The problem is the Church as a cultural connection to a lost world, whereas the Sect is always to some extent against the world. Now the difference is inside information and choice, that if, after years in Christianity and discovering it isn’t all like the headlines, your evangelical ‘hard’ church is doing your head in, you can move to one that is more complex or ‘soft’.

    Many young people after confirmation or membership also fall out of churches (and indeed many fewer now even darken the doors to be in a position to get confirmation or membership). There is both a social setting shift and an intellectual shift in some cases where Sunday School religion becomes something to drop.


  5. Thanks for your references to some of the previous writing on this. I have read very little on the sociology of religion, just through lack of time, but it’s something I’d like to look at more in the future. My posts were more an attempt to say something about the Church of England (in particular) today and the variant forms of Christianity inside this.

    I suppose in the typology you’re suggesting Anglican Evangelicals are a potential sect within the Church of England who might eventually split off to become a distinct sect, as the Methodists did. But it’s now harder to place the Church of England as a whole in this framework. Is it still a church or even a denomination? I suspect that liberal/soft churches as well as evangelical ones are now no longer predominantly made up of ‘life-long Christians’, but have increasing numbers of people who have been non-Christians for at least some of their life. That’s why I’m interested in how people might come to join soft churches (as opposed to the classic conversion narrative for joining a hard church).

    I think one of the key factors now for young people (at least from the middle classes) is the break caused by going off to university. Now that’s pretty much a universal middle-class rite of passage, even those who remain Christians during their student years (as I did) are likely to end up practicing a different variant of Christianity from their parents (sometimes softer, sometimes harder).


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