“Britain is unusually irreligious” what the polls say

 

There is a lower proportion of religious people in Britain than in 58 other countries according to a 2015 poll.[1]

 

The number of Britons identifying as Christians has fallen by almost 5% between 2011 and 2016 according to a Lord Ashcroft poll. In August 2016 the percentage stood at 51.4%. The number self-identifying as having no religion has risen from 35.8% to 40.5% in the same period.[2] A YouGov poll put the percentage of Britons with no religion at 47%.[3] In January 2016 weekly Church of England attendance fell below one million for the first time.

 

However, the polls do not all agree with one another. The 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey shows that the decline of religion in Britain has levelled out. They actually show the percentage is lower, but also shows that there was a 1% rise in Britons describing themselves as Christian (42% to 43%) and a 1% reduction in those claiming to have no religion (49% to 48%). It added that, according to its research, the proportion of Britons describing themselves as Christian is the same as seven years ago. However experts say that this is a temporary halt before the oldest and most religious generation dies out. The number of people claiming to be Church of England dropped from 22% in 2006 to 17% in 2015.

 

Whichever poll one looks at, the percentage of nominal Christians is very low, and polls of church attendance show a far lower percentage of the population.

 

Theresa May stirs up controversy over her Christian faith

 

In a recent interview, Theresa May was asked by a journalist how she dealt with the difficult decisions a prime minister has to make. She responded: “It’s about, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ If you know you are doing the right thing, you have the confidence, the energy to go and deliver that right message … I suppose there is something in terms of faith. I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.” Her father was a vicar. She attends church regularly.

 

Bob Morgan “a commentator on society and politics” wrote an article criticising the prime minister for speaking in favour of Christianity. The main significance of the article was to show his embarrassing ignorance of Christianity. It was entitled “Theresa May’s Christianity – Another Way Of Dividing The Country.”

 

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Director of the National Secular Society commented: “The Prime Minister would do well to remember that she governs on behalf of everyone, including those of minority faiths and of course the majority of citizens who are not religious. While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn’t do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.”

 

Ignorance and uneasiness about Christianity

 

On the other hand, Baroness Warsi, who was Minister for Faith in a previous government, urged Theresa May to reinstate the post of faith minister which was quietly dropped after the last election. As a Muslim, she said that the decline of Christianity in Britain was having an adverse effect on other faith groups. “I said back in 2012 Europe needs to be sure about its own Christian heritage for me to be able to understand my minority faith and for that heritage to be accurately reflected. It was an argument I consistently made in government. It wasn’t particularly popular in an ever secular society – an ever secular government.”

 

Sadly, she added a comment showing the hostility towards religion in Whitehall circles. “When I was the minister for faith there was a great catchphrase, they used to call me the minister for fairies, goblins and imaginary friends.”

 

David Isaac, chairman of the Equalities and Human Right Commission, recently encouraged employers to allow Christmas parties and decoration, sending Christmas cards etc., rather than thinking this was offensive to people of other faiths. He said: “Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and it shouldn’t be suppressed through fear of offending.”

 

An editorial in the Guardian laments the fact that people such as David Isaac (and Theresa May) feel they have to say that people should be able to speak freely about their faith and to celebrate it. It says it is a symptom “of a deep unease and confusion about the role of Christianity in British life.” It adds: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy [i.e. society controlled by technical experts].”[4]

 

UN moves to remove compulsory school worship

 

In June 2016 The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child produced a paper recommending that the government repeals the requirement for compulsory attendance by children at school worship at publicly funded schools. The Rev Nigel Genders, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England responded: “Children flourish when they can develop spiritually and emotionally as well as academically.  We believe time set aside daily to be still, contemplate life’s challenges and learn about faith in action is crucial. It is possible to opt out of collective worship but in our experience this very rarely happens not least because children themselves enjoy this time of the school day.” I am aware that some schools do not really hold public worship and others may not hold helpful worship. But it is sad if children have no experience of worship as part of their education. They are being deprived of an important aspect.

 

Paranormal activity

 

Sadly, although there has been decline in religious observance, there is widespread superstition in British society. The growing popularity of Hallowe’en shows this. A recent survey revealed that half of Britons clam they have experienced paranormal activity in their home. One third say they have been frightened by it and one in eight have moved out of a house because of this. One in six claim to have seen a ghost. 62% won’t buy a house near a graveyard.[5]

 

Atheist beliefs

 

It is interesting that some atheists believe in life after death.

 

A survey conducted in 2013 by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture found that 32% of atheist or agnostic Americans believe in life after death and 6% believe in bodily resurrection. (Also 79% of those who are spiritual but not religious also believe in life after death and 17% believe in bodily resurrection).[6]

 

Also Andrew Singleton, a sociologist of religion at Melbourne’s Deakin University in Australia, did a survey in 2015 and reported: “The analysis reveals that afterlife belief is varied, individualistic and mainly arrived at with little to no reference to orthodox religious teaching. People variously believe in heaven, reincarnation, life on another plane or something more abstract. Those who follow faithfully a religious tradition are largely ignorant of detailed theological doctrines about life after death and like other kinds of believers, exercise their own authority and judgment over matters of belief.”

 

He found that some believed in heaven, others that some aspect of their being survives death and others believed in reincarnation either as a human or other species.[7]

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21704836-britain-unusually-irreligious-and-becoming-more-so-calls-national-debate

[2] http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/The-New-Blueprint-Full-data-tables-Sept-2016.pdf

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/14/funding-farmers-lose-memory-personal-importance-re/

[4] Editorial: The Guardian view on Christianity in Britain – neither here nor there, Sunday 4 December 2016.

[5] http://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/724495/Haunted-British-homes-paranormal-activity-research

[6] http://relationshipsinamerica.com/religion/do-people-still-believe-in-life-after-death

[7] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13576275.2015.1099521?journalCode=cmrt20&

Some Christians believe that the European Union is significant in teaching on the End Times and will be the context of the revival of the Roman Empire. But is this correct?

In view of the pending UK referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, this is an important subject. However, many Christians think that the EU is even more important in terms of the End Times. Sadly, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and even misrepresentation as well as paranoia on the subject. Here is a brief outline.

MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT THE EU

The antichrist spirit?

For example, one favourite ‘quotation’ amongst those who are suspicious about the EU vis a vis the End Times is attributed to Paul-Henri Spaak, former Belgian Prime Minister and President of the Consultative Assembly of the

Council of Europe nearly 50 years ago. The ‘quotation’ is: “We do not want another committee. We have too many already. What we want is a man of sufficient stature to hold the allegiance of all people, and to lift us out of the economic morass in which we are sinking. Send us such a man and, be he God or the devil, we will receive him.”

For some people that shows the antichrist spirit behind the EU. The problem is that, like other people, I have never been able to find proof that Spaak (or anyone else) actually said this. Yet dozens of Christian websites quote it.

The Tower of Babel?

People worry about the Louise Weiss Building in Strasbourg where the European Parliament meets. It is a circular building which looks unfinished. Some have said that it looks very much like the Tower of Babel and that it is modelled on a painting of the Tower of Babel painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in about 1563. There is a remarkable similarity between the two although others have said it is based on the model of Roman amphitheatres. However we must not be paranoid about this. Even if it is modelled on the Tower of Babel the likelihood is that it was to symbolise the idea of the (European) nations coming together in contrast to the nations being divided in the Tower of Babel story.

Obviously, to think that we can reverse what God did over the Tower of Babel is a serious sin of arrogance, which is the very sin associated with the story of the Tower of Babel. However, if the image is of the Tower of Babel, I suspect that those responsible hadn’t thought that through. It is likely to be a superficial attempt to portray nations coming together rather than being divided. Bear in mind that many people today would think that the account of the Tower of Babel is not literal.

I respond similarly to an EU poster which shows the Tower of Babel and the caption “Europe: Many tongues, one voice.”

 Pentagrams?

Some point out that the eurostars on the EU flag and the above-mentioned poster are pentagrams and pentagrams are used in witchcraft. However the eurostars are 5-pointed stars, not pentagrams (there is a difference). There are 5-pointed stars on the flags of many countries (47 to my knowledge). It is therefore not necessary to read anything sinister into the eurostars. Some Protestants think that the 12 golden eurostars are related to the Virgin Mary because she is often depicted with a halo of stars.

The prostitute riding the Beast of Revelation 17?

Others have worried that there is a bronze statue of a woman riding a beast outside the Council of Europe building.  The image of this has been used on EU postage stamps, the euro and elsewhere. They fear that this is a representation of the vision in Revelation 17 of the prostitute riding the scarlet beast symbolising the godless world system. However this is actually based on the Greek myth of the maiden Europa riding the bull. It is not an official symbol of the EU but obviously has some artistic relevance.

A pagan anthem?

There is also some concern about the European Anthem “An Ode to Joy” which is based on the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It is based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller which is about all men being united in brotherhood by entering the shrine of a goddess. However, to regard this as sinister is extreme since the European Anthem only uses the music and not the lyrics.

666?

I can also add that the seats in the European Parliament are numbered and they include seat number 666 which some claim is left vacant. However this claim is not true.

Is the EU the new Roman Empire?

A few years ago Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business editor of the Telegraph, wrote an article entitled “Art show sees Europe as ‘new Roman Empire.’” He reported that one title used at the EU exhibition was “Roman Empire returns.” It predicted that the EU would become the premier superpower and that “the euro will break the ‘overbearing monopoly of the dollar’ by 2010 as China and India switch their reserves to punish America for its ‘stratospheric deficit’ which, of course, didn’t happen.

He did add: “the display is not a formal expression of EU policy but it captures views that can be heard every day in the corridors and canteens of the Union’s institutions.” But he doesn’t say how many people in the EU institutions say this so it is misleading and difficult to substantiate. However such an article confirms the fears of those who are paranoid about the EU. In actual fact the official description of the exhibition said it gave a history of European political representation, diagrams about the EU structure and then speculated on its possible future. “The story closes somewhere in the 2020s, in a speculative conclusion on Europe’s possible future(s).[i]

Does the Bible predict a revival of the Roman Empire?

Many interpreters believe that the Book of Revelation predicts a revival of the Roman Empire in the End Times. Some of them see this End Times revival of Roman Empire as related to the establishment of the European Union and believe the EU will have a major role in the rule of the Antichrist. They base their belief in the revival of the Roman Empire on the following arguments:

  1. Daniel prophesies the rise of four empires (in one passage symbolised by four beasts) which these interpreters see as Babylonia (which ended in 626BC), Medo-Persia (626-330BC), Greece 330-63BC and Rome (which began in 63BC). The fourth “beast” (Rome) “had ten horns.” Some interpret the horns as referring to Rome’s immense power. The number ten often symbolised completeness and horns symbolised strength. Others see the horns as ten kings or kingdoms because the horn can symbolise royal power. (See Daniel 2:41-44 which uses different symbolism to describe the same thing and Daniel 7:3-7).

 

  1. The Book of Revelation also prophesies the coming of a beast in the End Times with ten horns which had great power and authority. “The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast.” (Rev 13:1-3). The symbolical beast is also said to have seven heads. It interprets the ten horns as ten kings and the seven heads as seven hills (Rome was built on seven hills). Many interpreters see Revelation here predicting an End Time revival of the Roman Empire. See Rev 13:1-3 and 17:3-11.

John Walvoord gives further reasons for expecting the revival of the Roman Empire and I will critique each of them:[ii]

  • It is unthinkable that prophecy would not include the Roman Empire which was the greatest empire in history.

This is a good point. It seems clear to me that the fourth empire predicted by Daniel was Rome.

However some interpreters say that the ‘beast’ in Revelation 13 is not the same as the fourth empire in Daniel 2 because the ‘beast’ is a combined version of the first three of Daniel’s ‘beasts’ (empires). It is a Leopard-Bear-Lion (“resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion”). However it should be noted that Daniel speaks of the first beast as a lion with the wings of an eagle (7:4) and the third beast as a leopard with four wings (7:6) so there is some combination (of animal and bird) in them. Hendricksen says: “This composite beast cannot symbolize merely one empire or government. It must indicate all antichristian governments.”[iii]

  • The two legs of the visions of the fourth empire in Daniel 2 represent the eastern and western divisions of the later Roman Empire.

However, some interpreters disagree because the western ‘leg’ (the Western Roman Empire) disappeared almost a thousand years before the eastern ‘leg’ (the Byzantine Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire). Also the Byzantine Empire became isolated from Europe. Others add that the prediction in Revelation will not be fulfilled by a revival of the western ‘leg’ of the Roman Empire (including the EU) because Europe is not strong enough to become a politically and militarily dominant world power. Some, though, may respond that this situation might change in time.

  •  The centre stage of the End Times is the Middle East which is in the territory of the Roman Empire.

This is true but the Middle East can’t be limited to the Roman Empire. It is dominated by Muslim nations. The

Ottoman/Turkish/Islamic Empire controlled much of SE Europe, most of the Middle East, and parts of North Africa. This empire saw the development of four Islamic Caliphates (political and religious systems of governance). Some interpreters point out that the Bible always centres on Jerusalem not on the West. Hence, they say, the idea that Scripture predicts a revived Roman Empire based in Europe is a foreign concept to the Bible. The End Time empire must rule over or directly affect Jerusalem.

  • The first part of the biblical prophecy was clearly fulfilled so we should expect the last part (the ten horns etc) similarly to be clearly fulfilled in the future.

So, it is argued, there will be a ten-nation confederacy within the bounds of the ancient Roman Empire (which extended from the Euphrates to N Africa and Europe). There will be a “strong man” who will unite the empire and eventually it will take control of the whole world. Mounce writes: “There is little doubt that for John the beast was the Roman Empire as persecutor of the church. It was that spirit of imperial power which claimed a religious sanction for its gross injustices. Yet the beast is more than the Roman Empire. John’s Vision grew out of the details of his own historical situation, but its complete fulfillment awaits the final denouement of human history. The beast has always been, and will be in a final intensified manifestation, the deification of secular authority.”[iv]

Revelation also describes a symbolic woman riding on the ‘beast’ and she is called “Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth.” Some say this symbolises Rome in its opposition to the church. Others say it symbolises the godless world system.

However other interpreters think that the ‘beast’ of Revelation 13 and 17 will be the Islamic empire – a reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire (which once was, then was not, then was again Rev 17:11). They say that the ten toes of Daniel’s vision of the statue (Dan 2) can be an altogether different kingdom from Rome, which seems possible. They also point out that the fourth ‘beast’/kingdom of Daniel 2 and 7 is predicted as totally crushing the empires which preceded it. Yet Rome never did this. It did not take over all the geographical areas of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian and Greek empires. But the four Islamic Caliphates between 661 and 1924AD did cover the whole of those geographical areas. Irrespective of the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, the idea that Islam should play a major role in the End Times seems more than credible.

Some of a more Protestant position think the power of the Pope and the Catholic Church will be part of the revival of the Roman Empire. One very old commentary I have comments on the scarlet beast and the woman wearing scarlet: “It is applicable in the description of papal Rome, because it is the favourite colour there … It is remarkable that nothing would better represent the favourite colour at Rome than this, or the actual appearance of the pope, the cardinals, and the priests in their robes, on some great festival occasion.”[v] This is rather naïve fanciful interpretation. More modern Protestant commentators tend to interpret it as an ecumenical apostate church.

I do not find the arguments that the Bible predicts a revival of the Roman Empire convincing. The idea that it could be a Muslim Empire seems more credible because of the history and current developments of the Muslim world. However this is not clear in the biblical text.

What should be our attitude towards the European Union?

I have written that I do not find the allegations of sinister EU symbols etc., convincing. Nor do I find the idea that the Roman Empire will be revived, with the EU at the heart of it, convincing. But that does not mean I have no concerns about the EU. The Bible certainly foretells an End Times anti-christ world dictatorship and we should remember that actions and trends initiated for good reasons can ultimately go wrong and have bad results. We are aware of the quotation “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It would seem that in the future various centres of political power in the world may combine to form a world government (or may collapse with catastrophic results necessitating a world government).

However we must remember that the EU was set up for good reasons, and has led to some very good results, not just economic advantage:

  • Maintaining peace in what had been a war-torn continent – and it has succeeded.
  • Promoting democracy and human rights in 28 countries.
  • Sending peacekeepers to trouble spots elsewhere in the world
  • Co-operating closely on crime (and more recently terrorism).
  • Giving twice as much aid to developing countries than the US.

However, whilst being grateful for these (and other) benefits we must remember the dangers which come with power. It is clear that there is a strong desire to move towards full political union amongst the countries which have accepted the euro. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 changed the European Economic Community into the political European Union. Full political union could have negative as well as positive effects. This has to be taken seriously. Some Christians will feel that the dangers in the EU growing ever closer (together with its present imperfections) warrants voting against Britain staying in the Union. Others will conclude that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, especially now David Cameron has negotiated that the UK will not be drawn into further political integration.

Is the UK more Christian than the rest of Europe?

Some British Christians seem to imply that the UK’s Christian heritage will be undermined by remaining in the EU. It would be naïve to ignore the fact that the political leadership of the EU, like all political leadership might go wrong, or become undemocratic. But it is not true to say that the EU is less Christian than the UK. In the following statistics many of those claiming to be Christian may, of course, not be practising. Nevertheless the comparison of percentages in the various countries is useful in answering the question “Is the UK more Christian than the rest of Europe?”

According to the 2011 Pew Forum, the percentage of people calling themselves Christians in a number of other countries is greater than in the UK. The UK had 72.6%. Italy had 85.1%, Spain 78.6%, Greece 89.5%, Ukraine 83.8%, Poland 94.3% and Romania 99.5%. Other countries included Germany with 70.8% and France with 63%.[vi]

A 2012 Eurobarometer Poll found that 72% of EU population call themselves Christians.

A 2010 Eurobarometer Poll found the following percentages of population don’t believe there is “any sort of spirit, God or life force”

Greece 4%, Poland 5%, Italy 6%, Austria 12%, Portugal 12%, Spain 19%, Denmark 24%, UK 25%, Germany 27%, Netherlands 30%, Sweden 34%, France 40%.

Some British Christians point to the rich Christian tradition of the UK but don’t seem to realise that other EU countries also have state churches.

England has an established state Christian Church, the Church of England, of which the Queen is the supreme governor on earth and similarly Scotland has the Church of Scotland. But the following EU countries also have state churches:

Armenia (Orthodox), Denmark (Lutheran), Finland (Lutheran and Orthodox), Greece (Orthodox), Greenland (Lutheran), Iceland (Lutheran), Liechtenstein (Catholic), Malta (Catholic), Monaco (Catholic), Switzerland (Catholic and Protestant according to canton) and of course Vatican City (Catholic).

Norway had a state church until 2012 but the monarch must still be a Lutheran. Sweden ceased to have a state church in 2000. The Spanish state church was disestablished in 1978. Austria has no state church but regards the church and state as partners.[vii] Germany and Italy have no state church. France and Belgium are secular.

The issue isn’t whether the UK is more Christian than the EU but rather that the whole of Europe needs an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Revival.

[i] http://st-ar.nl/image-of-europe-2/

[ii] John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, The Nations in Prophecy, https://bible.org/series/nations-prophecy

[iii] W Hendricksen, More than Conquerors, Tyndale Press London 1962, p. 146.

[iv] Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, New International Commentary on the NT, Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1977 p 251

[v] Notes on the NT, Albert Barnes, London 1851, vol XI p. 415

[vi] Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, Dec 2011. See http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-regions/

[vii] http://www.austria.org/religion/

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 is 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.

In a recent interview Dawkins said: “Christianity may actually be our best defence against aberrant forms of religion that threaten the world.” He added “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.” http://www.christiantoday.com/article/richard.dawkins.says.christianity.is.worlds.best.defence.against.radical.islam/76416.htm

It is worth remembering that Dawkins experienced sexual abuse at his Christian school. However he commented: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

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.

Religion is in its death throes according to A C Grayling, who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of London. Having a keen interest in astronomy, I wonder what planet he is living on.

There is, of course, a decline of Christianity in Britain and the West but it is arrogant to think that this means Christianity is finished in the world. It is rather old-fashioned colonialism. Christianity is alive, well and growing in many parts of the world, in Africa and China (despite its atheist regime), for example. But he explains claims that religion is growing as “the volume and the irritation and the frustration [being] ratcheted up” by religious people who feel threatened by the decline of religion. This is, of course, wishful thinking on his part as an atheist.

John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, said recently that “The vocal fervour of today’s missionary atheism conceals a panic that religion is not only refusing to decline – but in fact flourishing” He pointed out that “The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.” He added that science cannot determined human values: “None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.”

Nevertheless we need to take the decline of Christianity in the West very seriously. The question often arises as to whether the UK is still a Christian country. The Pew Research Centre published a report in April 2015 stating that on current trends the percentage of the UK population identifying themselves as Christians will fall from 64% in 2010 to 45% in 2050. Similarly, less than 50% of the population will claim to be Christians in France, the Netherlands, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Australia and New Zealand by 2050. 16% of the world’s Christians will live in Europe but 40% will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

One illuminating indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is a quotation from Lindsay Meader, Rector of St James’s church in Piccadilly, which has significant number of gay and lesbian members, and chaplain to the Apollo Theatre. She said: “I’ve had people who work in the theatre say: ‘It’s much harder to come out as Christian in the theatre than to come out being gay.’ I think we’ve come to a stage in society where actually it’s easier to come out as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex, than sometimes it is to come out and actually say: ‘I follow a particular religion.’”

Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University has said: “We are living through the biggest religious transition since the Reformation of the 16th Century.” She added: “Western governments will have to work hard to convince the world of the value of liberal democracy and the forms of religion and belief which have supported it, and I am not sure they yet grasp the scale of the challenge.” Even more serious was her comment: “Religions have a natural dynamic towards more sectarian fundamentalist extremes, and we are losing the moderating forces internally and externally that used to regulate and deal with these tendencies, including Parliamentary interest and involvement.”

However Grace Davie, Professor emeritus in Sociology at the University of Exeter wrote: “Looking at the figures, there are the committed religious people, the committed secular people, and in the middle, there’s this grey area. The pendulum is swinging gradually towards the secular end, while everyone is wondering what the growth in Islam will mean. There’s no room for complacency, but there will be a future for Christianity,” she says. It will just be a different future. It will be smaller and more committed, but not necessarily more extreme.”

Caroline Wyatt, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the BBC commented: “That increasing lack of belief is not confined to religion alone, but appears to be affecting almost every other sphere of authority – while new technology allows individuals to access more knowledge than ever before about the world around us, while apparently leaving us no happier. Faith in politicians, government, the mainstream media and in many other institutions has diminished, yet the human search for meaning, identity and principles that unite us as a society has not gone away.”

A recent WIN/Gallup Poll concluded that the UK was 59th out of 65 nations in terms of the proportion of the population self-rating as a religious person. The 2015 Britain Uncovered survey on the attitudes and beliefs of Britons in 2015 found that 61% of Britons associate with a religion but it is only a minority of that group (29%) who actively practise their religion with 21% describing themselves as atheist. 61% of Britons agree with the view that “These days religion is a negative influence in the world rather than a force for good.”

The Christian Concern Easter 2015 Poll conducted by ComRes found that 47% of Britons still think that Britain’s Christian heritage continues to bring benefits to the country today (32% say the opposite). 55% welcome the fact that Easter is a Christian festival (33% don’t). 52% believe that Christians should be able to refuse to act against their conscience without being penalized by their employer. For example 72% think it is wrong that health care workers should be threatened with the sack for offering to pray with patients.

Andrew Brown wrote in April 2015 about the challenge facing the Church of England: “Institutionally, the Church of England is set up to be entirely embedded in the nation around it, from the parish system all the way up to the coronation service. The idea that it could somehow reinvent itself as a religion for outsiders and the marginal may be profoundly Christian, but it is sociologically incredible. The God that the English still more or less believe in is less and less likely to be found in churches, or at least in church services.”

David Cameron wrote in Premier Christianity magazine that Christian values “are the values on which our nation was built” and said he is an “unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country.” However, as I have noted elsewhere, he shows little understanding of the faith when he wrote in a Downing Street press release in June 2015 disapproving of the idea that “religious doctrine trumps the rule of law.”

A YouGov poll at the end of March 2015 recorded the little influence religious leaders have in the UK. Only 28% said they took any notice when religious leaders commented on politics or economics and 23% when they spoke on personal morality.

George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, has announced what will prove to be the end of the present Sunday Trading laws because it will boost the economy.

There are calls for the end of compulsory religious school assemblies. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romaine said: “Collective worship belongs to a previous century when everyone was religious and everyone was the same religion, but not in multi-faith Britain today, and it is unfair to make children of one faith, or no faith, sit through worship of another faith every day. Collective worship also confuses the role of schools, which are to educate and be objective, and the role of churches, synagogues or mosques, which are confessional and subjective. Faith should come from the home, family and places of worship, but not from the school system, where knowledge and values should be the only task.” Dr Romaine is very liberal and he supports the legalisation of brothels, voluntary euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In June 2015 The Guardian commented: “Christianity is now only the largest among many contending religions or life stances; among schoolchildren it may not even be the largest any more. In these circumstances, the state cannot mandate the practice of any one religion, nor demand that any one be taught as if it were true. But precisely because they are all contested it is vital that religious education teaches children how to live with others who inhabit entirely different imaginative worlds, whether these are explicitly religious or not.”

In the United States the Pew Research Center found that more than 25% of American men say they are not affiliated to any religion compared with 20% in 2007. 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian compared with 78% in 2008.

Non-religious spirituality

Whereas we must address the serious decline in Christianity in the west, we must not ignore the fact that while many people outside the Christian church reject or disregard religion they do retain their own spirituality. “Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular phrase. Professor Michael King of University College London estimates that one fifth of British people are spiritual but not religious. A Pew Research Center survey in the US found that one fifth of the population were religiously unaffiliated with 37% of them regarding themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Mark Vernon, who was an Anglican priest but became an atheist, has written a book called “How To Be an Agnostic.” In it he writes: “People associate religious institutions with constraining doctrines, and bad things that are done in the world. That may be outright fundamentalism, the oppression of women or some kind of conflict with liberal values.”

Craig Hospital, a Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado, says on its website: “Some people use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ interchangeably, but spirituality is really a broad term; religious ideas and concerns are only a part of a much larger concept. So, while some people’s spirituality is very much related to God or a higher power and might include worship in a church, synagogue, or mosque, for others spirituality may have nothing to do with religion and things like praying or going to church. Some examples of spiritual activities are meditation, traveling, reading, learning or doing something new, focusing on nature, and becoming deeply moved by music.”

Non-religious people can experience awe. Journalist, Oliver Burkeman, writes: “Spirituality I take to refer to things that are not expressible in words. There’s an aspect of human experience that is non-conceptual.” Another journalist, Tom de Castella, writes: “Awe and wonder is how spiritual people often describe their relationship with the world. There’s a sense that life is more than pounds and pence, of work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind … There are moments that seem transcendent in their lives – a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.”

However, it is a cause of concern that Professor Michael King and others produced a report of research which aimed “To examine associations between a spiritual or religious understanding of life and psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses.” It concluded that people who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder such as anxiety or depression.

Atheist Philosopher Julian Baggini comments on the yearning for something more that spiritual people have in his book “The Shrink & the Sage”: “My short reply is that you can yearn for higher as much as you like, but what you’re yearning for ain’t there. But the desire won’t go away.” This is, of course, a statement of faith by Baggini. He cannot prove scientifically that what people are yearning for is not there. In fact, what spiritual but not religious people are yearning for ultimately is God. And they are seeing something of God in creation but not recognising him. As Paul puts it in Romans 1:20, 25: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” but some people “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

Conclusion

Christianity is declining in the West though not in some other parts of the world. Even amongst those who have no interest in religion or the church there is clear evidence of a spiritual yearning for something more and of experiences of awe. The church needs to be imaginative, rather than confrontational, in reaching out to those who are spiritual but not religious. However, the decline of Christianity is very serious not just in spiritual terms but also socially. As Professor Linda Woodhead has warned, it weakens the foundation of liberal democracy.

Mark Spencer, Tory MP for Sherwood, said that teachers could express their opinion that they didn’t agree with gay marriage but they are not allowed to teach that it is a sin because that would be “hate-speech.” He says that Christians disagree with gay marriage are “perfectly entitled to express their views” but says that it could constitute “hate speech” in some contexts. This is a disturbing development which indicates that persecution of Christians will eventually come to the West.

A US group led by a church minister is fighting against religious freedom laws which protect religious people and organisations from being forced to accept homosexual marriage. If we think present protection in law for Christians who follow the Bible’s teaching on such matters will last long-term we should take careful note. It won’t. Pray against this trend. See http://christiannews.net/2015/07/08/group-launches-national-effort-to-abolish-religious-freedom-laws-protecting-people-of-faith/

So the government wants to relax the Sunday trading laws. Quite apart from Christian considerations there are good secular arguments for not doing so – e.g. shopworkers can have time with their families. But, no, extending Sunday trading hours would “generate more than £200m a year in extra income in the capital alone.” So, Mammon wins again. The only slight problem is that we don’t ultimately account to the god Mammon but to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. How will we explain to him that we had little or no time for him?

Tim Farron, a candidate for leadership of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been criticised for bias because he is a committed Christian. He responded: “Surely you wouldn’t … run a campaign against somebody standing for leader if they were a secular humanist, or Jewish or Muslim. And if you wouldn’t do that, then don’t do this.” Quite! We can see the way things are going in the UK.