For Church of England vicars who worry less about what they will preach on Sunday than whether there will be any parishioners to listen to them, the latest findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey will make grim reading. For years the number of people professing religious belief in Britain has hovered around the 50 per cent mark. Now it seems to have dived decisively, plunging from 52 per cent to 47 per cent in just a year.
According to a survey we are no longer a Christian country, but then neither — for all the squeals over sharia law — are we becoming much of a Muslim country, or indeed any other religion. Just 6 per cent of us profess a faith other than Christianity, down from 8 per cent last year. Our established national church is declining fastest of all. Just 15 per cent of us now regard ourselves as members of the Church of England, down from 37 per cent 30 years ago. Thanks in large part to immigration, Roman Catholics have declined only from 10 per cent to 9 per cent over the same period, while people describing themselves as ‘other Christian’ have actually increased from 16 per cent to 17 per cent.
People will interpret these statistics how they wish. Some will see it as a symptom of national moral decline, others as a triumph of reason over superstition. Roger Harding, head of public attitudes at the National Centre for Social Research, will not be alone in interpreting it as a case of conservative social attitudes being the loser in a battle over liberal values. ‘We know from the British Social Attitudes survey that religious people are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion,’ he says.
Yet all these interpretations miss the point. It is true that social attitudes have shifted decisively towards the acceptance of same-sex relations in recent decades. It is rash, however, to claim that the decline in church attendance or in people professing religious belief would somehow rebound if the Church of England were more fully to embrace liberal values. On the contrary, we have had several decades of trendy vicars, ‘raves in the naves’ and other attempts to follow the values and interests of what young people are supposed to want, with little sign of positive results for churches — just 3 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds now consider themselves to be members of the Church of England. Where congregations have increased sharply, it has tended to be among evangelical churches which, while dispensing with the smells and bells, have tended to preach a more censorious message on same-sex relationships. In the Catholic Church, meanwhile, traditionalist parishes are thriving while more liberal ones disappear.
As for the fear that we are undergoing national moral decline, it flies in the face of the evidence: a country of falling crime rates, high donations to charity, low rates of corruption. The irony is that a nation with some of the lowest rates of professed religious belief in the world also manages to be one which the world looks up to for its record on ethical standards. As a nation, our fundamental values regarding concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, honesty in business, the law and so on remain remarkably similar to when church attendance was a matter of routine for almost all.
While fewer of us call ourselves Christian, we remain a country steeped in Christian values. Moral relativists will argue that they are just human values shared by all societies. Yet that ignores the extraordinary close fit between the parables, the commandments and so much contemporary public debate. The keeping of the Sabbath and condemnation of sodomy aside, the crux of political discourse can be found in the Bible. From the secular pulpit of the Guardian, columnists preach on avarice, greed, pride and hubris without being conscious of the Christian heritage of their ideas. Ditto those who damn gluttony, those who complain about vainglorious politicians frittering money on garden bridges and HS2, those who demand forgiveness of criminals (though they might not use the phrase) who have trespassed against us. The government’s welfare to work programme could have been based on the parable of the talents; much of Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking could be drawn from the tale of the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes, still, the Church of England is better able to capture the national mood than any other institution or authority. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, it was the local church, St Clements, Notting Dale, which was first to welcome the newly homeless, opening its doors at 3 a.m. and over the next few days leading the relief operation which the borough of Kensington and Chelsea failed so miserably to provide.
We still turn to the church, too, in the event of sudden and violent death. While parish communion may have given way to shopping or an extra hour in bed, we turn out in strength for funerals. Quasi-religious behaviour in the event of tragedy has grown and grown. The vigil in Manchester’s Albert Square following the terror attack in May, in which the poet Tony Walsh implored the city to ‘choose love’, bore a marked resemblance to the language of a traditional funeral oration — just with the word ‘God’ omitted.
That is modern Britain’s relationship with religion. While shy to admit belief, we continue to exhibit the behaviours of religious people. As Alastair Campbell once said to Tony Blair, ‘We don’t do God’. Yet our society is as underpinned by faith as it ever was.