The latest survey says that under half of us (42 per cent) identify as Christian, and that just over half have no religion. Does this show that we have finally turned the corner, and are no longer a Christian nation? Well, it’s a very curved corner – we’ve been turning it for about fifty years. But on one level we remain a Christian nation until a movement comes along that redefines us in explicitly secular terms – and there’s no real sign of it.
It might sound perverse, but I think these figures show religion to be surprisingly popular. For consider how little religion there is in popular – or indeed less popular – culture. A Martian who visited Britain and studied our culture would assume that just a few per cent sympathised with religion. He (or she?) would see that almost no television was devoted to religion, and that Radio 4 saw science as the new religion, and that the arts were more often critical than respectful of religion. Also, he-she would note that very few people attended weekly worship. Given the secular nature of mainstream culture, and such low church attendance, it is surely very surprising that so many of us say we are in some sense religious.
What’s going on? Doubtless many of the ‘Christians’ are just ticking that box out of habit, or maybe out of a sense that it’s part of traditional patriotism. But it remains the case that there is a widespread sympathy with Christianity that finds little cultural expression. It seems that a large sector of us – maybe about a third – feel vaguely Christian but don’t know how to express it.
In a strange way, Britain’s Christianity is largely unexpressed. Sociologists will tell you that this makes no sense – culture is what is expressed; if religion mattered to these ‘quiet Christians’ they would somehow express it. But maybe religion, these days, is harder to express than other things.
The survey confirms my sense that Christian culture is failing to renew itself, to find new cultural forms. I’m not sure what the institutional churches can do about this – maybe the whole point is that another source of energy is needed. Maybe the old forms can’t generate the new forms that we need. Is it possible that new forms could emerge on the fringe of regular church, and that Britain’s latent Christianity begins to find more expression, ending the current sense of spiritual constipation? As we Christians say, all things are possible with God.