It is clear that there is a widespread disinterest in or antagonism towards religion in the western world. A report from the Pew Research Centre conducted in April 2015 showed that just 21% of British people regard religion as very important in their lives. Only some 20% of English people claim to be Church of England nowadays compared with 40% in 1983. China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are the only countries less religious than Britain.

However research carried out in 2015 by the Barna Group and ComRes found that 57% of people in England identify as Christians (9% are practising) and 43% of people believe in the resurrection.

A 2015 YouGov survey discovered that in Britain 14% of men and 6% of women believe they are destined for Hell. 48% believed they would go to heaven.

In the United States 23% of the population are unaffiliated religiously compared with 16% in 2007. 89% believe in God. 53% say religion is very important to them and 50% attend worship at least monthly.

It is interesting that Jonathan Freedland, Executive Editor of The Guardian, wrote an article in September 2015 in which he said that people like Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne and H G Wells would not have anticipated that religion would still be very much around in the 21st century. He added that their “prediction of the future proved wrong: faith is still here, apparently stronger than ever. For that reason alone, for the role it plays in shaping our world, religion has to be taken seriously – more seriously than Dawkins-ite atheists, who dismiss it with talk of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or ‘sky-pixies’ will allow … It cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason. Some of it is absurd and bizarre. But you might as well ask a man why he supports this football team rather than that one. Ask a woman why she loves this man rather than that one. Reason is what separates us from the animals. But it does not account for all that makes us human.”

Non-religious spirituality

Many people now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Science doesn’t satisfy the way many people feel about the universe. They experience awe, wonder and mystery, perhaps inspired by a beautiful sunset or moving music. They are not able to express these feelings in words. Professor Michael King of University College, London says about 20% of people in the UK are spiritual but not religious. In the West our enhanced physical quality of life has created spiritual hunger. Since the 1990s do-it-yourself spiritualities (“New Spiritualities”) have come to the fore, emphasising personal transformation and therapeutic healing. In terms of spiritual activity, spiritual but not religious people may be involved in meditation, focusing on nature or becoming deeply moved by music

So the picture is certainly not simply one of secularisation. Spirituality is alive and well alongside religion.

Britain no longer a Christian country?

David Cameron was clear that Britain remains a Christian country. In his 2015 Christmas message he said “we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

However in 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, published a report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good.” It concluded that the UK is no longer a Christian country and that public life should therefore become more pluralist (multi-faith). The next Coronation should be multi-faith and some of the bishops in the House of Lords should be replaced by leaders of other religions. Schools should no longer be required to have collective worship.

The demise of the Church of England?

In October 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote an article entitled “England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.” He referred to a report that over 25% of churches have less than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. He added: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches -85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.” This, of course, is additional evidence for spirituality in society.

Jenkins believes that churches should be handed over to local councils to be used for various purposes (village shops, farmers markets, Wi-Fi cafes, sub-post offices) and “The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths.”

He concludes: “The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths.” (For the record the C of E does not receive any public money. Also some congregations, including small congregations, are growing).

Religious views can be ignored

In September 2015 the British parliament discussed a bill to allow Assisted Dying. Before the debate an editorial in The Independent stated that the debate should “be conducted on purely secular and not religious terms, drawing on the considered advice of the medical profession and of others directly involved in caring for the very ill. If the clergy want to weigh in again, so be it, but that does not mean MPs should attribute any particular force to their views.”

I am aware that in a democracy the majority opinion rules and that majority may be secular. But it is a sad evidence of the decline in Christian belief that such a statement should be made. As it happens the bill was rejected by 330 to 118 votes.

Religious education challenges

In November 2015 Mr Justice Warby said that the Education Secretary made an ‘error of law’ when she stated that the GCSE due to come into effect in September 2016 would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Three families supported by the British Humanist Association had taken the issue to court saying that teaching atheism must be included in RE.

The judge said: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” But the assertion that the new GCSE “will fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE duties” was incorrect.

The Education Secretary sidestepped this judgment and produced a document which said RE should “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian” and that “there is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious views.”

The government also said that “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” But “It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background.”

However, Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian makes an interesting point. He says: “Humanism gains its strength in Britain today because it is not taught. Instead it is simply assumed to be the only rational ground on which decisions could possibly be made. The tenets of humanism are taken to be facts, while other moral or metaphysical positions are simply beliefs. Humanism is approached in a completely ahistorical way, much as devout Muslims approach the Qur’an, as if it had no roots and could never be superseded by any other belief system. Teaching humanism as a belief system alongside Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is the first step towards getting people to notice that this is what they actually believe (and so are free to disbelieve).”

I certainly believe schools should teach that humanism is a belief system, as Brown says, rather than the only rational ground of thought.

BBC Cuts to religion

The BBC is making significant cuts to its religious broadcasting and has been criticised for side-lining faith at a time of massive global upheaval. The Bishop of Norwich criticised it for doing this at a time when we “need – as everyone acknowledges – more religious literacy in the nation.”

Sunday Trading

The government is in favour of giving local authorities freedom to extend working hours on a Sunday which is another sign of secularism as well as the tendency to put economic advantage above more important considerations. 64% of local authority executives in England and Wales favoured such extension. However the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) revealed that 91% of retail staff in large stores are opposed to longer opening hours on Sunday, primarily because of the potential detrimental effect on their family life.

The decline of the Church of England

No-one will be a member of the Church of England by 2082 and no-one will be attending by 2100, according to John Hayward. He is a Christian who was a university lecturer in mathematics and has a blog called Church Growth Modelling. He adds that the Church in Wales (C in W) and the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) will be extinct by 2043 and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA) in 2055.

He goes on to suggest reasons why the Church of England (C of E) is not in quite such a bad way as these other Anglican churches:

1. The C in W, SEC and ECUSA are episcopal by conviction whereas the C of E is a national church which happens to be episcopal. He says the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are more rigid in their views and don’t relate so well to other denominations.

2. Unlike the others, the C of E is established by law as the national church and so is not able to change so easily. The C in W, SEC and ECUSA have changed quickly and adopted liberal views e.g. accepting homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. So they have aligned more to secular society and, contrary to their expectations, this has caused them to decline faster.

3. The C of E has a much stronger evangelical section. In 2006 Peter Brierley, a Christian statistical expert, recorded that out of 870,600 C of E members (a smaller number than attenders), 297,500 (34%) were evangelicals (77,400 mainstream, largely conservative evangelicals, 114,900 charismatic evangelicals and 105,200 broad or less conservative evangelicals). 4273 (26%) of the C of E’s 16,247 churches were evangelical. Of the 160 largest churches, (1% of the total number of churches) with a membership of over 350, who make up 10% of the membership of the C of E, 83% were evangelical. Reform, the Anglican conservative evangelical group, calculates that about 70% of male ordinands (candidates for ordination) under 30 come from conservative evangelical churches.

4. The C of E has been much more influenced by charismatic renewal than the others. Hayward comments that “Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.”

5. Wales and Scotland are more rural than England.

John Hayward then adds that maybe the C of E is more mission/evangelism- minded than the other three. I don’t have the information to comment on that except to say that, yes, the C of E does stress mission but sometimes it is better at discussing it and passing resolutions about it than doing it! He then makes the interesting comment: “It could be that … most of the pre-1900 denominations are coming to an end because they have put too many resources into themselves at the expense of mission. The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.”

Other commentators are more negative about the C of E. In November 2014 The Bishop of Truro said: “The Church of England has only five or six years to save itself.” Andreas Whittam Smith, First Church Estates’ Commissioner, said at the July 2011 General Synod that, assuming the recent declines in younger people continued, the number of worshippers “would fall from 1.2 million in 2007, to half a million in 2030, and 125,000 in 2057.” Peter Brierley commented: “This means an almost 90 per cent decline in overall attendance in the 45 years between 2012 and 2057. It would mean not only that by 2030 the attendance would have dropped to 500,000, but also that the number of larger C of E churches (attendance over 300) in England would have probably declined from about 200 to 100, some Cathedrals might need to have been “decommissioned,” perhaps 9,000 of the current 16,000 churches will have closed as “unviable”, with large numbers therefore of redundant church buildings, half the eight Theological Colleges will have had to close, several Dioceses merged, the numbers of Bishops reduced, and so on, unless God revives his work again.”

In June 2015 NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey found that the number of people who describe their beliefs as being Church of England or Anglican (but many don’t attend or only attend rarely) dropped from 21% to 17% between 2012 and 2014. That is a loss of 1.7 million and now the number of people identifying as Anglicans stands at about 8.6 million.

On the other hand, in November 2014 Giles Fraser (an Anglican clergyman who writes for The Guardian) pointed out that about a million people go to a C of E church each week whereas the Conservative Party has 134,000 members, Labour 190,000 and the Lib Dems 44,000. Adding them together it is less than half the members of the C of E. More people go to the C of E than to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday. He commented: “We have survived every conceivable war, crisis, scandal, collapse and disillusionment. OK, we may not have the money to keep the heating on all the time. But don’t expect the “for sale” sign to go up any time soon.”

The C of E reported that in 2012 an average of 1.05m people attended C of E churches each week and this has been the case for the previous decade. Around 25% of churches are growing, 25% declining and over 50% remaining stable.

However, it is true that in some ways the C of E is becoming less and less relevant to the people of England. It is less trusted by the public than the army, charities, police, monarchy, legal system, the Bank of England and the BBC but more than parliament, the government and political parties.

But the picture is not consistent. A recent study found that 56% in England wanted the Church of England to remain the official established Church, with 15% disagreeing, and 29% neutral or undecided. It is significant that the Chief Rabbi and many followers of other faiths support the establishment of the C of E. Perhaps even more significant, an Opinion Research Bureau survey in 2004 found that 42% of Britons think that local churches should receive funding from the State through central taxation. This is probably related to the fact that nearly 90% of adults had been to a church or place of worship once in the previous year to find a quiet space or for weddings, baptisms and funerals and for community purposes, as well as for regular services of worship.

The state of belief in the Church of England

A 2002 poll reported that a third of C of E clergy doubt or disbelieve in the bodily resurrection of Christ and only around 50% believe in the virgin birth. But the poll was criticised because the question to the clergy provided five responses:
• Believe without question
• Believe but not sure I understand
• Mostly believe
• Not sure I believe this
• Definitely don’t believe

Many clergy ticked the second box saying they weren’t able fully to comprehend God and many of the beliefs that they apprehended wholeheartedly. But it appears that only those who ticked the first box were classed as believers. Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of clergy who do not believe in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. If they cannot sort themselves out and come to believe those doctrines they should resign with immediate effect. Not to do so is unethical. It is significant that an analysis by a Muslim scholar of the views the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who didn’t believe in the virgin birth and had serious doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, was found in Osama Bin Laden’s library. It argued that doubts about the resurrection of Christ could further the Islamisation of Britain.

On the positive side, in January 2015 a General Synod report outlined “Ten marks of a diocese committed to developing disciples.” These are:
1. A lifelong journey of discipleship and growth in Christian maturity is supported and modelled by all.
2. The importance of discipleship in daily life is affirmed.
3. Gatherings for worship celebrate the discipleship of all the baptised.
4. Disciples are equipped to help others to become followers of Jesus.
5. Diocesan work on vocations is based on the principle that all the baptised are called into God’s service.
6. Good practice in facilitating learning and formation is developed.
7. Gifts of leadership are recognised and developed among all the baptised.
8. Innovation and experiment are encouraged in mission, ministry and discipleship.
9. Specific diocesan policies and plans promote discipleship development.
10. Diocesan resources are committed to the development of the whole people of God.

Division in the Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion, which is the third largest Christian body in the world with 80 million members, has been seriously divided by the issue of homosexual practice and also women bishops. Many African bishops and others from the southern hemisphere regard any acceptance of gay relationships as a serious denial of biblical truth. The liberals in the western church regard this as homophobic bigotry. Traditionally the 800 bishops of the Anglican Communion meet for the Lambeth Conference every ten years. But in 2008 250 stayed away, largely because of the consecration of the openly homosexual bishop Gene Robinson in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury has postponed the next conference, scheduled for 2018, but has called together the 38 primates (senior archbishops) to meet him in Canterbury in January 2016. Having discarded the failed approach by his predecessors to bring conservatives and liberals together he is going to propose that the communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other. He regards the attempts to bring liberals and conservatives together as “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere.”

The African conservative bishops have formed an organisation called GAFCON (The Global Anglican Future Conference). If they decided to withdraw totally from the Anglican Communion other Anglicans may join them, including in England (thus leaving the Church of England).

Women priests are predominantly liberal

22% of clergy in the Church of England are now female. But Peter Brierley says: “There are very few Anglo-Catholic female clergy, and relatively few evangelical female clergy. Consequently the large majority of female clergy are of broad, or liberal, churchmanship, so that, as their number increases, so will the balance of churchmanships change within the ranks of stipendiary clergy.”

This is a serious matter. It will mean that gradually the proportion of Church of England clergy who are liberal will increase. Part of the cause is that many conservative Anglicans, evangelical and catholic, are against women priests and so their churches will not produce female candidates for ordination.

The damage caused by clerical sexual abuse

The most serious damage is, of course, to the innocent victims of this criminal behaviour. But it has also done enormous damage to the reputation and credibility of the church, including the Church of England. In October 2015 Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester, was jailed for two years and eight months for sexual abuse of 18 young ordinands. One of Ball’s victims committed suicide. Ball had been charged with some of the offences back in 1993 but he avoided a trial by accepting a police caution for abusing one young man and resigning as Bishop of Gloucester. However he continued to work as a priest in Truro. His victims are suing the Church of England for hundreds of thousands of pounds. The damage to the church caused by such appalling behaviour is enormous. The Archbishop of Canterbury has ordered an independent review of the church’s handling of the Peter Ball affair. The church published an official statement which said: “It is a matter of deep shame and regret that a Bishop in the Church of England has today been sentenced for a series of offences over 15 years against 18 young men known to him. There are no excuses whatsoever for what took place and the systematic abuse of trust perpetrated by Peter Ball over decades.”

In 2014 Lord Hope, the former Archbishop of York resigned from ministry when an independent enquiry found he failed to deal properly with allegations against Robert Waddington, former Dean of Manchester, for abusing schoolchildren and choir boys.

Confusion over same-sex marriage

There is an old joke that “The Bishops of the Church of England are, generally speaking, generally speaking!” The House of Bishops seems to be in its “generally speaking” mode over gay marriage. On the one hand it upholds the fact that the official view of the Church of England is that marriage is heterosexual but it also produced a statement in which it acknowledges that there are strongly-held and divergent views in the House of Bishops about the matter. So the confusion continues, which is damaging to the church.

The pro-gay Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, acknowledged in 2014 that he couldn’t bless same-sex marriages but he added: “If I am approached by a gay couple, I think it perfectly possible to devise something with them which is as appropriate as it can be in the present confused situation. You can pray with people pastorally but you can’t use the B word [Blessing].”

A YouGov survey in October 2014 found that 51% of clergy believe same-sex marriage is wrong, 39% disagree, and 10% say they don’t know. 88% of evangelicals believe same-sex marriage is wrong.

A Church Times Survey in 2014 found that some 60% of Anglo-Catholics agreed with practising homosexuals becoming priest or bishops and about 55% of middle of the way Anglicans but only around 20% of Evangelicals. Around 39% of Anglo-Catholic and middle of the way Anglicans approved of same-sex marriage and 12% of Evangelicals. 51% of Evangelicals also disapproved of any kind of blessing for a same-sex marriage.

At least two Anglican priests have married same sex partners. Canon Jeremy Pemberton had Permission to Officiate in Southwell Diocese but the Bishop rescinded that permission. In 2014 the Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain married his atheist partner. He has the old-style legal freehold as Vicar of St Mary with All Souls in Kilburn and St James in West Hampstead, which makes it probably impossible for the bishop to remove him.

Then it was announced that Foreshew-Cain had been elected by fellow-clergy to General Synod. Some people called for him to be removed but the Secretary General of the Synod, William Fittall, said questions about eligibility were addressed before any voting took place and at a diocesan level. He added that any questions surrounding the suitability of a candidate was for the electorate to decide.

The House of Bishops has given an uncertain sound over same-sex marriage (as have many clergy) and this will do enormous damage to the church.

Bishops – the good news

It is easy to concentrate only on bad news. But some bishops are making great efforts to help the church face up to the great challenges facing it. In my own diocese we have two evangelical bishops, an evangelical archdeacon and rural dean. They are going to great lengths to encourage parishes to reorganise, co-operate with other denominations and to major on mission and evangelism.

Bishops speak out on other moral issues

Before the 2015 General Election, the bishops produced a letter encouraging “voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
• Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
• Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
• Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
• Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
• Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
• Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that it entails.”

More recently they called on the government to receive 50,000 rather than 20,000 Syrian refugees in the next five years.

Conclusion

The Church of England is facing decline in the number of worshippers and clergy, unbelief in fundamental doctrines by clergy, division and enormous damage over sexual issues: sexual abuse and same-sex marriage. There needs to be much repentance, some firm action and earnest prayer for revival. But there are encouraging aspects with growth in some churches and a realistic emphasis on prayerful outreach and evangelism in some quarters. Other churches are facing huge problems too. Then there is the old saying: “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, you’ll spoil it.