It’s often said that Britain’s church congregations are shrinking, but that doesn’t come close to expressing the scale of the disaster now facing Christianity in this country. Every ten years the census spells out the situation in detail: between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. If that rate of decline continues, the mission of St Augustine to the English, together with that of the Irish saints to the Scots, will come to an end in 2067.
That is the year in which the Christians who have inherited the faith of their British ancestors will become statistically invisible. Parish churches everywhere will have been adapted for secular use, demolished or abandoned.
Our cathedral buildings will survive, but they won’t be true cathedrals because they will have no bishops. The Church of England is declining faster than other denominations; if it carries on shrinking at the rate suggested by the latest British Social Attitudes survey, Anglicanism will disappear from Britain in 2033. One day the last native-born Christian will die and that will be that.
These projections are based on the best available statistics: the censuses, the British Social Attitudes surveys and the British Election Study. But because these surveys are constructed differently, it’s not easy to crunch them into a single timeline. Crucially, a projection is not the same thing as a prediction. So feel free to take any apocalyptic vision of religion in Britain in 2067 with a pinch of salt.
But the point stands: Christianity is dying out among the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain. The Gospel that Augustine and his 30 monks brought to England when they landed at Ebbsfleet in ad 597 is now being decisively rejected.
Saint Paul tells us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; the Almighty is not interested in ‘heritage’, the new name for ethnicity. But since Britons with Anglo--Saxon and Celtic ancestors make up 90 per cent of British Christians, that rejection represents a devastating loss of faith.
It has all happened so quickly. Anglicans in particular are abandoning their faith at a rate that (in more ways that one) defies belief. According to the British Social Attitudes surveys, their numbers fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1983 to 29 per cent in 2004 and 17 per cent last year.
This is a horrifying prospect for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby. As a former treasurer of an oil company, he is the first successor to St Augustine to master statistics. Yet, understandably, he is not keen to draw attention to the crisis.
His predecessor but one, however, is happy to do so. Lord Carey of Clifton, a more formidable figure in retirement than he was in office, last month warned the C of E that it was ‘one generation away from extinction’. The new Social Attitudes figures support his conclusions.
Between 2012 and 2014 the proportion of Britons describing themselves as Church of England or Anglican fell from 21 to 17 per cent: a loss of 1.7 million people in two years. That’s what you might expect if the established church had been engulfed in a gigantic paedophile scandal. But it hasn’t been.
Self-identifying British Catholics fell from 10 per cent to 8 per cent between 1983 and 2014. But that decline would have been far more dramatic without the arrival of Catholics from the Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Philippines. No wonder Cardinal Vincent Nichols stresses the ‘Gospel imperative’ to welcome migrants.
But he’s deluding himself if he thinks foreign Catholics will continue to fill his pews. Young Poles in England and Wales are noticeably less devout than they were ten years ago: I’d be amazed if more than a fifth of them were Mass-goers.
This applies to Scotland, too. The Poles propping up Catholic parishes won’t do so for much longer. Meanwhile, self-identification with the Church of Scotland has fallen off a cliff: from 36 per cent of Scots in 2001 to 18 per cent in 2013.
Why is British Christianity facing such a catastrophe? There is a one-word answer, but it requires a lot of unpacking: secularisation.
We often hear complaints about ‘militant secularism’ and religion’s ‘exclusion from the public sphere’. Many Christians seem to believe that the only thing stopping people of faith sharing the ‘richness’ of their traditions is a conspiracy organised by Polly Toynbee, Richard Dawkins and the BBC.
The truth is that Toynbee and Dawkins make such fools of themselves when they talk about religion that they arouse sympathy for believers. Yes, the BBC is biased against — and ignorant of — Christianity. But, significantly, the most skewed coverage of religion anywhere in the Beeb’s output is Radio 4’s Sunday programme, which looks at the news from a supposedly faith-friendly perspective.
Sunday makes for an interesting case study. It’s presented by Edward Stourton, a practising Catholic. He’s not your average Mass-goer, however. He comes from a well-connected family and is close to two of the supreme networkers in the English church, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster, and Lord Patten of Barnes, former chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of Oxford University.
Conservative Catholics regard Stourton, Murphy-O’Connor and Patten as an elderly trio of bon vivant liberals intent on watering down the Magisterium. They are equally hostile to the parade of Catholics who appear on Sunday to demand new teachings on birth control, homosexuality and the environment. ‘Liberal’ is a fair description of these people, but a more useful term might be ‘secular Catholics’. It can’t be stressed too often that the secularisation that happens inside churches is as important as the sort that happens outside them.
The American sociologist James Davison Hunter has explored this phenomenon in two books, Culture Wars (1991) and To Change the World (2010). Hunter is rude about left-wing Christians who think campaigns against carbon emissions or campus sexism are ‘Gospel causes’. On the contrary, he says, they are thoroughly secular and even if they succeed the churches won’t benefit.
However, he’s equally unimpressed by conservative Christians who persist in the delusion that their ‘witness’ can overturn laws on gay marriage and abortion. They are wasting their time, he says. I agree. Last time I looked, gay marriage was sweeping the United States and grotesquely late-term abortions were still permitted.
Ah, say critics, but you can’t ‘read across’ from polarised America to easygoing Britain. Those critics are wrong. Increasingly, you can read across in both directions.
The failure of American Christians to secure the repeal of Roe v. Wade is mirrored by British Catholics’ fruitless campaign against the 1967 Abortion Act. These failures can’t simply be ascribed to popular support for abortion. They are signs of the waning of religion in Britain and the United States, where Christianity is being attacked by, and accommodating to, European-style secularisation.
It’s time we abandoned the notion that America is religiously special — living proof that popular Christianity can thrive in an advanced industrial democracy. Last month, Pew Research published a big study about America’s changing religious landscape. Its subtitle was ‘Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow’. All of which applies to Britain, too.
Only 57 per cent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996 identify as Christians; 36 per cent of ‘young Millennials’ between the ages of 18 and 24 are the so-called ‘nones’ — they have no religious affiliation at all.
In the UK, the last census found that the proportion of respondents who say they have no religion rose from 15 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2011. Confusingly, the British Election Survey says 45 per cent of Britons are nones. I’m not sure why the gap between the two findings is so large, but bear in mind that a small change in the wording of a question can produce a dramatic change in responses. People recoil from being asked if they’re atheists, for example, even if they are.
I’ve compared Britain with America because our countries are supposed to have radically different attitudes towards Christianity. Yet the direction of travel is now the same. And this is true despite the fact that the United States doesn’t have a fast-growing Muslim population.
Let’s not get sidetracked into another argument about Islam. Although it will probably become Britain’s largest religion some time this century, it isn’t emptying our village churches. The deadliest enemy of western Christianity is not Islam or atheism but the infinitely complex process of secularisation.
Or, to put it another way, choice. Long before digital technology, social mobility was undermining what the American scholar of religion Peter Berger calls ‘plausibility structures’ — the networks of people, traditionally your family, friends and neighbours, who believe the same thing as you do.
I’m not saying that my Catholic grandparents accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation only because the people closest to them shared that conviction: faith can’t be reduced to social processes. But supernatural belief is hard to sustain once plausibility structures collapse.
You go away to university and suddenly almost nobody believes what you do, or did. Your siblings move to different towns, so you won’t see them in church any more. Your laptop plugs you into any social network that takes your fancy. Even if you’re born again as an evangelical Christian, life pushes you from one congregation to another. Many Evangelicals get bored and turn into nones.
The mainstream churches can’t cope with this explosion of choice. Also, as you may have noticed, they’re led by middle--managers who are frightened of their own shadows. They run up the white flag long before the enemy comes down from the hills. I sometimes wonder why Polly Toynbee bothers to fulminate against religious education. A quick tour of ‘Catholic’ state schools, where doctrine has been supplanted by multi-faith jargon and the cult of Nelson Mandela, would reassure her that she has nothing to worry about.
James Davison Hunter, an orthodox Christian, believes he has found a way out of this maze: follow the instructions of Jesus and ‘faithful presence’ will change hearts, if not society. This seems to me to ignore the reality that religions invariably die, at least on a local level, when no one can be bothered to attend their services. As a Catholic, I believe that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church founded by Peter. There will always be someone to take the place of ‘the last Christian’. But not necessarily in Britain, where the death rattle has begun.