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.

The C of E has just published (yet another) report. It publishes many of them. During my 14 years on the General Synod I think the authorities must have destroyed half a rain forest to produce all the paperwork we were given.

This one is called “Challenges for the New Quinquennium” which, you must admit, is a catchy title. It was written by the Bishops of Birmingham and Derby with others. The bishops have realised that the future of the church is under threat. One great need, they say, “is to be explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem. This is partly about taking on the ‘new atheism’.”  It goes on “about challenging public bodies to understand that the proper avoidance of religious discrimination does not mean being suspicious of or hostile towards churches and other faith groups.”

That is indeed a major challenge. I’m not naive enough to hanker for the (allegedly) “good old days” but it is amazing and disturbing to see the change in our own society over the last few decades. We have changed from a society where religion (mainly Christianity) was respected to where it is treated as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, anti-social and even dangerous. We have changed from where the church’s position and influence in society was accepted to where there is an increasing desire to marginalise and exclude it.

Yes, we need to take on the “new atheism” which is what I have sought to do in this website (see http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/apologetics.html).  But we also need to take on the more subtle attacks through politicians and society leaders who have let political correctness undermine their common sense, and through the constant secularist propaganda emanating from news, documentaries and drama in the media.

However, I think the church itself is significantly to blame. I note that the report does not refer to the church’s failings. As I read it various serious weaknesses in the church came to mind.

1. The clergy are not trained to do evangelism

“Challenges for the New Quinquennium” calls on the church “to take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England.”  It adds: “Giving priority to the gifts and practice of evangelism will be an urgent challenge for the Church of England in this quinquennium.”

This sounds good and I’m glad evangelism is getting a mention, but in my view it is just words, rather like the Decade of Evangelism some years ago had little practical effect. The problem is that many clergy simply don’t know how to do evangelism. They don’t know how to put the gospel over simply and convincingly so that people want to commit their lives to Christ. They don’t know how to lead a person to Christ.  As far as I can tell, there is very often no practical training in evangelism in ordination courses and colleges. That’s because many of the trainers (including of clergy) don’t know how to do it themselves. Whilst this remains the case there is no hope of extensive numerical growth in the C of E.

I thank God for my background and training which gave me practical help as to how to do evangelism, how to lead people to Christ. Such help is available – but not in the average C of E ordination (or Readership) training.

2. “A growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community” is a pipe dream

The report calls on the church “to re-shape or reimagine the Church’s ministry for the century coming, so as to make sure that there is a growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community.”

This is a laudable aim but it is a pipe dream as things stand at present, partly because of the lack of evangelism and partly because of a lack of radical thinking about the role of stipendiary clergy. The report notes that “40% of the Church of England’s stipendiary clergy are due to retire in the next decade.”  This means that the remaining stipendiary clergy will be spread very thinly across the country. Already clergy have 8, 9, 10 or more parishes under their care, especially in rural areas. In practice this breeds a filling station approach to the church. The vicar rushes around filling up the tiny, dwindling congregations with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons. Eventually the vicar will be rushing around taking funerals and then there will be no more need to rush around with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons.

It is essential that the church uses local people, living permanently in the parish, as the mainstay of the church’s ministry to that parish. But again, the church has paid lip service to developing every member ministry. Many clergy simply don’t know how to do it.  It requires:

a.       Encouraging spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture. Sunday services are not in themselves adequate for this but without this spiritual growth and openness to the Holy Spirit there is no foundation for every member ministry.

b.      There is a need for practical teaching about the different gifts and a practical way of finding the individual’s gift(s).

c.       Then there is a need for encouragement and training to use that gift.

Leadership is important but it won’t be able to rely on stipendiary clergy. The church is lamenting the imminent retirement of 40% of the stipendiary clergy and yet many of those clergy, when retired, will be willing to take a practical lead especially in the parish where they live. The church appears to be very haphazard, inadequate and wasteful in its approach to the use of retired clergy who are willing to be used.

Then there are NSMs (non-stipendiary ministers) and OLM’s (Ordained Local Ministers) who can be helpful, although it appears that their training leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes NSM’s and OLMs are attached to parishes well served by stipendiary clergy and that can be unhelpful. I had two OLMs in one parish alongside a stipendiary curate, two Readers and myself as Rector. A lot of the effort I put into planning worship was working out how to use the whole team adequately and fairly. We were overstaffed, yet other local parishes were understaffed. We need NSMs and OLMs in parishes where stipendiary clergy are not constantly available. We can also use Readers to take the lead in the local church. I’m not denying this happens in some situations but the C of E still seems too wed to the idea of the stipendiary cleric in every parish. And it won’t work.

3. There is a lack of corporate prayer

Here we are, facing perhaps the greatest challenge to the future of the church and you won’t find the word “prayer” anywhere in this official General Synod report. I heard a bishop say once: “When the church gets stuck it appoints a committee.”

Maybe the Lord won’t take our concern for the future of the church seriously until we all get down on our knees to ask him to do something about it. Oh yes, we pray in church – for a few minutes. But we follow someone who, despite a very busy timetable, spent nights of prayer and often withdrew to prayer.

The church which prays together will grow. Some traditions are not used to prayer meetings. Even amongst Evangelicals there seems a widespread lack of interest in them. No wonder the future looks bleak, the church is declining and in many communities will die of old age.

The real challenges for new quinquennium are:

1.      For clergy to learn how to do evangelism, to teach others to do evangelism and to engage in it.

2.      For churches to encourage spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture, to teach about and practically find the gifts of churchmembers and to use them.

3.      For the church to be more creative as to how it uses retired clergy, NSMs, OLMs and Readers to lead local congregations.

For the church to get down on its knees for extensive, regular prayer about the future and its challenges.

Is Britain really marginalising Christianity or, worse still, developing an antagonism towards Christianity? Is this just paranoia on the part of “Disgusted of Tonbridge” who is an avid reader of the Daily Telegraph?  A recent ComRes poll found that 75% of churchgoers believe anti-Christian attitudes are growing and 66% believe there is more discrimination against Christianity than other faiths.

David Suchet said: “Christianity is being marginalised.” Cherie Blair said: “Christians are often being marginalised and faith is something few people like to discuss openly.” Baroness Warsi spoke of “a growing intolerance and illiberal attitude towards those who believe in God.”

What are the facts?

There is no doubt about it that there are a growing number of worrying trends:

1. Christians being disciplined or taken to court for expressing their faith.

  • A Christian nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient’s recovery.
  • A Christian school receptionist disciplined for emailing church friends about her young daughter being reprimanded for conveying to a fellow-pupil that Christianity is true.
  • A Christian foster carer struck off for allowing a Muslim teenager in her care to convert to Christianity.
  • A Christian British Airways worker, disciplined for not hiding a cross she had on her necklace.
  • Christian hoteliers charged with a public order offence for criticising Islam.
  • And so on …. Although it took place in America, it is likely to happen here: a young single Christian woman advertised in her church for a Christian roommate and was taken to court for expressing “an illegal preference for a Christian roommate, thus excluding people of other faiths”.

2. Local councils preventing Christians advertising Christian events.

  • Brighton Christian prevented from advertising a Christian event in her local library because the council does “not accept any material promoting a particular religious view point.”
  • Sunderland church prevented from putting up a church poster because it may offend other faiths.
  • Sunderland church banned from advertising the Women’s World Day of Prayer in libraries. (Local Sunderland Muslims and Sikhs criticised both these bans).
  • Churches in two areas prevented from advertising a meeting about Religion and Climate Change in libraries unless they removed the words “Christian” and “God.”

3. Minimising major Christian festivals

  • For some time certain councils have tried to ban the use of the term “Christmas” and to replace it with some rather silly secular term. Communities Minister Eric Pickles commented:  “Can you honestly tell me someone has ever said to you ‘Merry Winter-ice’? No they have not. Winter festivals exist only in the minds of beanbag-sitting weirdos.”
  • A survey discovered that a third of schools were moving to a fixed Spring break, many of them not coinciding with Easter.
  • The C of E has recently launched The Real Easter Egg which bears a hill with three crosses and has an explanation that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Day. But they have discovered that supermarkets are reluctant to sell them.

It may be thought that these three examples are relatively superficial but I’ll return to this later.

4. The failure of schools to teach the Christian Faith

  • OFSTED has reported recently that schools are failing in RE. The teaching is superficial: “In many cases, the study of Jesus focused on an unsystematic collection of information about his life, with limited reference to his theological significance within the faith”.  The report was based on a study of  some 200 schools in 70 local authorities, which included attendance at over 600 RE lessons between 2006 and 2009.

  • The 2009 National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 polled more than 900 people and found 60 per cent knew nothing about the Good Samaritan, and 57 per cent were ignorant of Joseph and his brothers.
  • Another survey, discovered that the Lord’s Prayer was no longer being taught in many primary schools.

Educationally, this does not make sense. A person cannot claim to be educated if s/he does not understand the major role Christianity played in the history and developing culture of this nation, quite apart from the fact that a person who does not have good grasp of religion cannot claim to be properly educated. Even to reject religion intelligently requires a good knowledge of what one is rejecting. Otherwise it is merely anti-religious prejudice or unthinking apathy.

5. The decline of religion on television

The General Synod of the Church of England recently expressed deep concern about this. It resulted from a private member’s motion from Nigel Holmes, an ex-BBC radio producer. He said that “in television, lack of innovation combined with marginalised scheduling” suggests TV controllers had largely “shunned” spiritual subjects. He added that over the past decade ITV had “virtually withdrawn” from religion whilst televised worship was “seldom” shown on the BBC.

6. The widespread apathy about Christianity

  • Christians frequently claim that the majority of the country, especially the young, are apathetic about Christianity. A recent book The Faith of Generation Y, a sociological study of 300 youngsters born after 1982 states that this age group are “benignly indiffer­ent to religion.”
  • · Claire Rayner once summed up this apathy to the British Humanist Association: “We don’t have to bother ourselves too much about what lies behind it all. It’s there. We are here. What is is. Our job is to get on with things, trying to make life better as we go.” She died recently, so no doubt she takes a different line now.

7. The views of political leaders

Our political leaders, like everyone else, have the freedom to choose their own religious views. Ed Miliband, although he comes from a Jewish background, has said: “I don’t believe in God personally but I have great respect for those people who do.”  Nick Clegg has said the same thing, but added: “I’m married to a Catholic and am committed to bringing my children up as Catholics. However, I myself am not an active believer, but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind.”  David Cameron said in an interview: “I believe in God and I’m a Christian and I worship – not as regularly as I should – but I go to church. Do I drop to my knees and ask for guidance whenever an issue comes up? No, I don’t. But it’s part of who I am.”  However, their views will influence their opinions and actions in certain ways, try as they may to be objective. So, for example, Ed Miliband is against the free speech law which allows Christians and others to express the opinion that homosexual practice is wrong. Were the law to be changed, that could create real difficulties for many Christians.

On the other hand, Baroness Warsi, Conservative Party Chair, has criticised the previous Labour Government for marginalising faith and encouraging intellectuals who sustain “a vocabulary of secularist intolerance.”  She also criticised “secular fundamentalists” who claimed faith communities were intolerant and exclusive in their welfare provision.  She referred to recent research by York University which showed they were more open and inclusive than other agencies.

Labour leaders such as Andy Burnham have acknowledged that the previous government marginalized Christianity.

Other politicians take the view summed up by the Lord Mayor of Leicester who has written: “I am delighted to confirm that I …. will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice [of prayers before the Council meetings]. I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business.”  The Lord Mayor is to be congratulated on showing his ignorance of what religion is and his total disregard for the historic culture of this country in such a succinct way.

GOOD NEWS

However, there is some good news to balance the negatives:

1. The majority of Britons consider themselves Christian

A 2010 survey found that 65% of the population consider themselves Christians. Nevertheless average weekly attendance in the Church of England fell from 1,160,000 in 2007 to 1,145,000 now.  However the average number of children and young people in services each week rose from 219,000 in 2007 to 225,000 now. Overall 10% of the UK population attend church regularly and a further 15% attend occasionally.

The Church’s head of Research and Sta­tistics, the Rev Lynda Barley, said: “We live in a society where people are reluctant to belong or become members of anything. Political parties have seen their membership fall by around 40 per cent in recent years. You could say that that phenomenon is true in all sorts of areas. I think the only member­ship organisation we found that was grow­ing was the National Trust.”

2. Record numbers choose to do RE

The number taking GCSE RE has increased for the 12th year running, with a 3.5 per cent growth from last year to 188,704 students. RE has entered the top 10 league table of subjects in terms of the number of candi­dates, and remains in the top five of grow­ing subjects.

For the last seven years the number of students taking Religious Studies A-level, has increased by 47.3%  overall.

In another survey 75% of respondents said they owned a Bible and 31% said the Bible was significant in their lives.

CONCLUSION

It is easy for Christians to become paranoid and imagine that things are worse than they are. If two thirds of the population claim to be Christians (whether or not they understand what that entails), three quarters own a Bible with a third saying it is significant in their lives, it is difficult to conclude that the whole country is deliberately marginalizing Christianity or even antagonistic towards it.

However, there are powerful anti-Christian forces at work.  I have long maintained that in the church there are liberal liberals (people who have liberal views but respect and tolerate conservatives) and illiberal liberals (those who are intolerant and antagonistic towards conservatives). Doubtless there is the same distinction in society with secularists. Liberal secularists are genuinely atheistic or agnostic but show respect and tolerance towards religious people. But there are also some very influential illiberal secularists – “secular fundamentalists” – who are antagonistic towards religion and are seeking to marginalize and exclude Christians. Some politicians, educationalists, journalists and other media people and even judges are secular fundamentalists, and they are have enormous and increasing influence in our nation which, although nominally Christian is in many ways post-Christian.

It does not help that many of those calling themselves Christians do not appreciate the essential corporate nature of Christianity which makes the church crucial. Without perhaps meaning to, these people can contribute to the marginalization of the church and of organized religion.

Is Britain anti-Christian? Most British people are not but the overall trend is increasing antagonism towards Christianity and Christians need to be aware of it. The church should not seek political power or to coerce individuals. Such power-seeking is alien to Christianity and has led to various evils in the past. But, Christians should take a stand to preserve freedom of religion and freedom to evangelize (respectfully and without pressure). However much we should respect other faiths, we must work to preserve the right to say (again respectfully and sensitively) that Jesus is the only Saviour.