Christianity is growing around the world and some churches in Britain are growing. But one of the main motives for praying for Revival in Britain is the widespread decline of the church numerically, spiritually and morally.

Church attendance

Church attendance in Britain is declining but what does that tell us about religious belief? Dr Peter Brierley, an expert on religious statistics, pointed out recently that in 2000 72% of British people said they believed in God and 5% attended church. In 2015 the figures were 60% and 4% respectively and he estimated that, at this rate, in 2020 they would be 50% and 3% respectively. So, despite the decline in church attendance, many of those who have left the church still have religious beliefs. Some may be genuine Christians but disenchanted with the church. Some may be nominally Christian. Some may believe in God as creator. Some may be adherents of other religions.

Steve Aisthorpe, Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland, published a book in 2016 called “The Invisible Church.” He did a survey of people who no longer attend church and reported that, of the 2000+ people who leave churches each week, the majority remain committed to their faith. He added that many meet up with others informally or online.

The important question is how much Christian belief amongst those who have left the church is purely nominal and not a saving faith.

Digital religion

It is interesting that smart phones and social media are playing an increasing role in Christianity. The Rev Pete Phillips is director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University. He has said “A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing. One that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” It is focused more on the charitable and moral side of the Bible – the underlying tenets of religion, rather than the notion that the Universe was created by an all-seeing, all-powerful leader. This very individualistic approach means that people can pick and choose what doctrine they believe and avoid doctrines they don’t like. Phillips wrote “Millennials prefer this generalised picture of God rather than an interventionist God, and they prefer God to Jesus, because he’s non-specific. He stands behind them and allows them to get on with their own lives rather than Jesus, who comes in and interferes with everything.” But this pick-and-mix religion is hardly Christianity. True Christians who have left the church are missing out on Christianity as essentially corporate, as the New Testament makes clear. For example, at the heart of the faith is meeting together for Communion.

Unbelief amongst those claiming to be Christians

A Com Res survey in 2017 found that 28% of people who identified as Christians (including 5% of those who identified as “active” Christians) did not believe in the resurrection. Yet a third of people who identified as non-Christians believed in the resurrection. 10% of “active” Christians didn’t believe in life after death.

A 2017 YouGov poll about the importance of the 10 Commandments found that less than one third of Christians believe in preserving Sunday as a day of rest, only 38% were against using the Lord’s name in vain and only 43% disapproved of the worshipping of idols.

So, again, although there are people claiming to be Christians who don’t attend church, their beliefs sometimes conflict with Christianity.

Then there was the 2017 Christian Greenbelt Festival which invited participants to “Experience dhikr (remembrance), meditation, and poetry, and witness the sacred movement of the whirling dervishes. Participants can learn basic universal Sufi chants that are rhythmic, healing and a unique form of mystical worship.” I am thoroughly in favour of interfaith dialogue and respect but such worship in a Christian context is unbiblical and conflicts with the fundamental belief that Jesus is the only way of salvation.

Also in 2017 there was a controversial reading from the Quran at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Epiphany Service in Glasgow. A Muslim law student went beyond the reading included in the order of service and added verses explicitly denying Jesus was the son of God. The dean, Kelvin Holdsworth, commented “This same Quranic reading has been given before in services and no outcry has happened. Is it because this is in a cathedral run by a gay man?” Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali commented “Christians should know what their fellow citizens believe and this can include reading the Qur’an for themselves, whether in the original or in translation. This is not, however, the same thing as having it read in Church in the context of public worship. It is particularly insensitive to have this passage read in Church on the Feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate not only Christ’s manifestation to the gentiles but also his baptism and the divine declaration, ‘You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’”

Distrust in the church and clergy

A survey in December 2016 by nfpsynergy found that 56% of the British population had very little or not much trust in the church. An Ipsos/Mori poll found that 25% of people did not trust clergy or priests. 69% said they did trust them compared with 93% trusting nurses, 91% doctors and 88% teachers.

One of the worst factors which has damaged the church is, of course, sexual abuse by clergy. This has seriously affected the Church of England. But more recently the Roman Catholic Church has been the focus of concern. In Ireland sexual abuse has seriously damaged the Catholic Church. Twenty years ago 90% of the population were regular attenders at mass. Now the figure is about 18%. In America, after a two-year investigation, Jos Shapiro, Attorney General of Pennsylvania discovered 1000 victims but said there are likely to be many more. He added that in some cases, “the cover up stretched all the way up to the Vatican” and that bishops “protected their institution at all costs”. His colleagues believe that, even today, bishops are working hard to protect themselves. All of this has done enormous damage to the church and to the cause of the gospel.

On a different level, the apparently uncritical support of American Evangelicals for Donald Trump has undermined their credibility and some are dropping the description “Evangelical” accordingly. In fact, there is a support group on Facebook called “Exvangelical”! Inevitably people in Britain will conclude that British Evangelicals are Trump supporters too, which is not helpful.

The situation in the Church of England

There are good things going on in the Church of England, for example various initiatives reaching out to local communities such as the new Advance 2020 initiative. The organisers hope it will mean “the gospel being taken to the nation on an unprecedented scale.” One of the organisers said “We’re dreaming of seeing the United Kingdom come back to relationship with Jesus.” Evangelistic initiatives like this are very good and should be fully supported. But we have to face up to experience. They have very limited effects and tend to influence only the minority of churches already into evangelism. Also we are dealing with a population which is very resistant to the gospel. It is very important to do evangelism but it will only scratch the surface. We need more. We need revival.

There are also prayer initiatives such as “Thy Kingdom Come” – an international, ecumenical call to 10 days of prayer around Pentecost which grew out of an initiative of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2016. It involves over 50 denominations in 85 countries. There is a lot of faithful work going on in parishes, although the overburdening of the reduced number of clergy is a growing problem (however a growing number of younger people want to become ordained). And some churches are growing. At its best the Church of England has a lot to offer.

However it is facing enormous problems. There is serious numerical decline in many churches and many have small elderly congregations which doesn’t bode well for the future. The number of people identifying with the Church of England has more than halved (from 31% to 14%) in the last 15 years according to a recent British Social Attitudes survey. One Christian commentator said: “The Church [of England] is becoming less and less embedded in the public consciousness as representative of their own spiritual identity. It has become strange.”

Controversy over sexuality

The main issue it is struggling with is controversy over sexuality. There has been extensive bad publicity over sexual abuse by clergy and even one bishop. The Church of England has been facing 3,300 allegations of sexual abuse. It has been made worse by the fact that the issue has not been handled well by some bishops – a fact which has hit the headlines.

The other prominent aspect of the sexuality controversy in the C of E is the issue of homosexual practice, gay marriage etc. Officially the church is committed to the biblical view that sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed only within the context of heterosexual marriage. Anglican Canon Law states: “the Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is a union permanent and life-long, of one man with one woman…”

However, in an interview in October 2017, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked “Is gay sex sinful?” He replied: “Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.” In just a few words the archbishop seriously undermined the biblical stance of the Church of England.

In addition Canon Giles Goddard, chair of the Human Sexuality Group of the Church of England’s General Synod, said the church could not maintain its traditional position. He wrote an open letter on behalf of 240 of the 483 synod members, saying: “Marriage between a man and a woman is the majority stance of the Anglican Communion, but just because so many people say something does not mean it is right.”

A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 73% of Anglicans don’t think premarital sex is wrong, and 55% don’t think gay sex is wrong. 62% of Roman Catholics support same-sex relationships. In 1985 only 9% of Christians in Britain supported same-sex relationships.

Confusion in the House of Bishops and General Synod

There is huge controversy over the issue in the General Synod which has a strong pro-gay lobby led by such people as Jayne Ozanne, an Evangelical who recently ‘came out’ as a lesbian.

Hereford Diocesan Synod passed a motion calling for “official prayers and a dedication service for gay couples after their civil partnership or marriage.” This has not been discussed in General Synod but it does not take much imagination to see that the church is moving towards such a position.

One of the problems is the confusing messages coming particularly from the House of Bishops. On the one hand they say they are maintaining the biblical teaching on marriage. On the other they appear to be moving towards accepting homosexual practice.

A 2017 report from the House of Bishops supported the official definition of marriage but also backed a greater role for practising homosexuals in the Church. The archbishops have promised “radical new Christian inclusion” in the church. The bishops were accused of “looking both ways” in sexuality.  The house is working on a report on sexuality to be presented in 2020.

In August 2018 Ely Cathedral flew the “Pride flag” to support the local pro-gay organisation held its first festival. The bishop defended this and said it did not represent a shift away from traditional church teaching on sexuality and gender. But the festival was not just supporting the correct idea that homosexuals should be treated with full respect as people. It was affirming that homosexual practice is acceptable.

On the 50th Anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK the archbishops made a public statement which included the words “Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people. Sin is the same for all of us. And the challenge to take onto ourselves the obligation to be yoked with Christ, to bear the load he gives us, is the same for all of us.” This statement is true but anyone who follows events in the Church of England knows that the intended implication is that the church should therefore tolerate homosexual practice. The correct implication is that the church should not accept any unbiblical behaviour – in any of us – but urge repentance on everyone. This is certainly not the message the church is giving.

Uncritical emotional reactions

Another serious problem is the tendency of the church to act on a purely emotional level. Take for example the tragic case of 14-year old Lizzie Lowe who committed suicide because she did not believe she would be accepted as a Christian because she believed she was gay. Who could not be deeply distressed at such a tragedy? It shows the importance of the church making it clear that it accepts and respect homosexuals as people just as much as heterosexuals. But, sadly, in addition to this, her traumatised church has radically changed to accept homosexual practice. For example, it invited the first Didsbury [Gay] Pride event to take place in its grounds. It has also joined with 11 other neighbouring churches to become the first “inclusive” Deanery in the Church of England. The area Dean is gay.

The church must warmly welcome all human beings but it should not necessarily welcome their behaviour.

Increasing support for homosexual practice in other churches

The Scottish Episcopal Church decided in 2017 to approve same-sex marriages taking place in their churches. One third of its clergy have asked to be licensed to take them. However St Thomas’ Edinburgh has left the Episcopal Church because of the decision. The rector, David McCarthy, said “We have not done it easily. We have had many tears and many sleepless nights. It is a tragic necessity. But it is the Episcopal Church who are leaving us. They are leaving orthodoxy.”

A few months later, in a meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury, a decision was made to exclude the Scottish Episcopal Church from ecumenical and leadership roles in the Anglican Communion.

In September 2018 the head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange gave a presentation on same-sex marriage to the Church in Wales. Afterwards the governing body stated: “It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.”

Meanwhile the Presbyterian Church in Ireland decided against allowing same-sex marriages and not to allow those in same-sex relationships to be full members. This resulted in 232 senior members of the church writing to express their “profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger” at those decisions.

In May 2018 the Anglican Church in New Zealand voted in favour of blessing couples in same-sex relationships. But it does not permit same sex marriages to take place in churches.

Serious division

In view of all this, it is hardly surprising that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are facing serious division (and will face more in the future). The Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) is a new organisation which seeks to establish Anglican Churches in England outside the Church of England. However it also supports Church of England churches which are seriously struggling with the way the Church of England is going. AMiE grew out of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) which involved archbishops, bishops, clergy and lay leaders. The first conference happened in 2008 and its aim was to take a “united stand against the moral compromise, doctrinal error and the collapse of biblical witness that were becoming prevalent in parts of the Anglican Communion.” The conference said that the Episcopal Church of the USA, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church had departed from the Christian faith (over the issue of homosexual relationships and same-sex marriage). They called on the Archbishop of Canterbury not to invite representatives of these churches to the Lambeth Conference in 2020 and said if he didn’t the archbishops in GAFCON would not attend.

AMiE has taken the very controversial step of arranging the consecration of an English clergyman as a bishop outside the structure of the Church of England. He is Andy Lines and is legally the Missionary Bishop to Europe of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which is outside the Anglican Communion. He has ordained people as Anglican clergy (again outside the Church of England). In addition Jonathan Pryke, a senior minister at Jesmond Parish Church, Newcastle, has been ordained bishop without Church of England authorisation.

If the Church of England approves of homosexual relationships and same-sex marriages the division is highly likely to spread.

What should be the attitude of biblical Christians to homosexual people?

As Christians and churches we should welcome sinners (there is no one else to welcome – we’re all sinners) but we should NOT welcome sin. So homosexual people should be warmly welcomed and respected as much as everyone else. But we should not welcome either their sins or anyone else’s, including our own. Jesus died bearing the penalty for their sins and ours. We all fall to temptation sometimes but if we repent, i.e. express sorrow and seek to mend our ways, God will forgive us. Christians should always forgive the penitent sinner. But if people persist in sin, we should treat them with love but we should in no way give them the impression we approve of their sin. Many people can fall to sexual temptation, which can be a powerful temptation for most of us, but we need to exercise self control. This is the conviction of “Living Out”, a Christian organisation run by same-sex attracted people committed to homosexual celibacy. It is run by three same-sex attracted Anglican Ministers who say “We experience same-sex attraction and yet are committed to what the Bible clearly says, and what the church has always taught, about marriage and sex. See http://www.livingout.org/

Tony Higton

So, yet another report of the dramatic decline of Christianity in the UK has emerged in May 2016. It was based on British Social Attitude surveys from the last 30 years and showed that in 2014 48.5% of the population claim they have no religion (compared with 25% in 2011). On the other hand 43.5% claimed to be Christians. Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University, said that 40% of people raised as Anglicans have abandoned their faith. Another report by ScotCen Social Research said that 52% of Scottish people claimed to have no religion compared with 40% in 1999.

A YouGov report in March 2016 said that only 41% of British people who claim to be Christians say they definitely believe in a Creator and 18% said they didn’t. Also 44% of British “Christians” believe in heaven but only 27% believe in Hell. In 2015 YouGov found that only 55% of people claiming to be Christian believe in God.

One thing is clear from these figures. Many British people claiming to be Christian are not really Christians. Part of what is happening is that fewer British people are claiming to be Christian when they aren’t. Many people who were not involved in the church superficially regarded themselves as “C of E” but that rather irrelevant practice is now dying out. This is hardly a decline in Christianity but more a facing up to reality.

A recent editorial in The Guardian stated: “This decline in self-identification probably has very little to do with belief. The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe.” There is some truth in that.

In its Statistics for Mission 2014 the Research and Statistics Department of the Archbishops’ Council reported that in 2014, the worshipping community of the Church of England was 1.1 million people, of whom 20% were aged under 18 and 29% over 70.  It also said: “Most measures of attendance show a similar trend: a steady decline of 10-15% over the past decade, although adult weekly attendance is down by 7% since 2004. However, I would urge caution when considering trends. Some questions, such as the usual Sunday attendance, have been asked in almost the same way for many years. Others have changed, to reflect changes in church activity or the evolving interests of those using the data; these changes potentially make it difficult to compare figures from year to year.”

In his recently published book “The Invisible Church” Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission development worker for the Church of Scotland, writes: “Changes in wider society and in the practices of Christian people mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”

It was interesting to read in the same Guardian editorial comments about the effects of the serious decline of Christianity in the UK: “Such an enormous change is bound to have implications for the rest of us. A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.”

It is important to keep a sense of perspective on the decline of church attendance in the UK etc. Canon Giles Fraser wrote recently in response to the recent statistics: “In 1900 … there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate. God wasn’t dead. God was reborn. Indeed, far from being the century in which religion went away, … the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified … By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world … 31% … of the world population … The secularisation hypothesis is a European myth, a piece of myopic parochialism that shows how narrow our worldview continues to be.”  He adds that projections from the Pew Research Center show that by 2050 the number of Christians will have grown to near 2.9 billion.

Fraser puts the decline in church membership down largely to Western individualism “we in the west are less and less a society of joiners. And religion begins not with the metaphysics but with the taking part – belonging preceding believing. Which is why the communitarian spirit of religion is declining in places where liberal individualism thrives.”[1]

The Church and Sexual Behaviour

Speaking on sexual morality is by no means the most important subject on the church’s agenda. But it has become an issue which will do more damage to the church than most others, not least because it is so important in society. The main damage is caused by the church compromising biblical teaching. However, on the other hand, in so far as the church reaffirms biblical sexual morality, it will make itself unpopular in society and create barriers to its witness.

The above-mentioned Guardian editorial commented on the report that there are now more irreligious people than Christians in England: “Over the last 50 years ‘religion’ has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. ‘The religious’ now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both. But the Church of England was so much a part of the old imperial state that life in post-imperial Britain was never going to be easy.”

We Christians have to take that comment seriously. That is how many people see us. The devil has used the liberalisation of sexual behaviour to marginalise the church. Should we therefore keep quiet about sexual immorality or even give way to modern liberal views? Not at all, although it should not be the most important subject the church addresses.

The snare of seeking popularity

All too many Christians think we are meant to be popular and that this is the way to win people to faith. But Jesus said: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). He adds: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). He goes on: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21). So, being hated and rejected is meant to be an on-going experience of committed Christians (although we should not, of course, fan such hatred by insensitive or unwise words and actions). We do not belong to the world, says Jesus, because he has chosen us out of the world. Therefore the world hates us.

Jesus also says this rejection and hatred will be a sign of the End Times: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:9-13).

Obviously, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be unpopular or do unnecessary or wrong things which cause people to reject us. We should (prayerfully) choose our battles. However, we are not to compromise on important matters, in order to try to win unbelievers. Even if we succeeded in being popular with unbelievers we would find they still regarded us as irrelevant.

Yet the church is doing this. The Church of Scotland has just decided that local churches can appoint a Minister who is a partner in same sex marriage. That, of course, is completely contrary to God’s Word. But the context is that Church of Scotland Ministers are not allowed to take same sex weddings. This adds ludicrous hypocrisy to the situation.

The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, the Very Rev John Chalmers said the church was not changing the theological definition of marriage (which, of course, says same sex marriage is wrong) but allowing congregations to opt out if they want a minister who is in a same sex marriage. In other words, he is saying we are still calling sin sin but we are officially allowing congregations to sin if they want to! This makes the church a laughing stock.

In April 2016 archbishops of most of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion met in Zambia for the Anglican Consultative Council. Only Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda were unrepresented. The Archbishop of Canterbury had to use all his diplomatic skills because the ACC was facing the possibility of a major split over the US Episcopal Church approving same sex marriage. He said that the Episcopal Church had changed the “basic understanding of doctrine, ahead of the rest of the Communion and without consultation.” Again this statement can give the impression that eventually the whole of the Anglican Communion will eventually accept same sex marriage – the current problem being that the Episcopal Church hadn’t waited for all the others to catch up and agree with them.

In the end a major split was avoided by the Episcopal Church only being allowed a limited role in the ACC for the next three years. The Archbishop said: “We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion.” The agreement stated: “It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

It is reported that eight of the 38 provinces are open to accepting same-sex unions: the US, Canada, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, South India, South Africa and Brazil.

Misleading compassion

It is wrong to reject homosexuals as people and if we have done so we need to apologise. The church has been doing this or rather over-doing it. I fully support an apology where necessary but not such repeated apology that it gives the impression the church has unofficially changed its mind on homosexual behaviour. The latest unhelpful example is from the Church in Wales. It apologised unreservedly for the church’s prejudice towards gay and lesbian people. Fine. But then the Archbishop of Wales adds: “We are not ready, as a church, to take the step of authorising same sex marriage.” This comment conveys to society “We won’t get away with authorising same sex marriage at the moment but just wait and we will.” Other churches have conveyed the same message and society clearly believes the majority of the church privately accepts not only homosexual behaviour but also same sex marriage, but will take some time to find the courage to say so.  This is hugely damaging to both the church and society. The church must accept serious responsibility for encouraging the radical liberalisation of sexual morality in society. And we will answer to God for it.

Little wonder that a January 2016 YouGov poll found that 45% of those claiming to be Church of England approve of same sex marriage and only 37% believe it is wrong. Three years earlier the figures were 38% and 47% respectively. 56% of the general public favour same sex marriage and 27% oppose it.

The church has to decide which of two signs of the End Times it will be: an obedient church hated by many in society or a compromising church which is departing from the faith or deceiving people by false teaching (Matt 24:9-13).

 

[1] Giles Fraser, The world is getting more religious, because the poor go for God, The Guardian 26 May 2016.

 

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.

I have said before that, whereas there is a serious decline in many churches, especially in Europe, this is not the whole picture. Overall the church is growing, as are some European churches. 700 mostly black Pentecostal churches began between 2005 and 2012. Many of them are in London, for example some 240 in Southwark. Also Roman Catholic numbers have been boosted by immigrants from Poland and Orthodox from Romania. Independent and New Churches are also growing.

However we must take the decline seriously.

The end of British Christianity?

“2067 – the end of British Christianity” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph on June 13th 2015. Damian Thompson wrote that between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. He added that, at this rate, Christianity amongst those born in Britain will finish in 2067. Peter Brierley discovered that in 2013 there were 5.4 million church members in the UK, 10.3 per cent of the adult population over the age of 15, 0.3 million less than in 2008. A recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that British people claiming religious affiliation had declined from 68.6% in 1983 to 52.3% in 2012 and regular attendance at church had declined from 21.3% to 17% in the same period.

Thompson pointed out that the Church of England is declining faster and will disappear by 2033. 40% of the population were Anglican in 1983, 29% in 2004 and 17% in 2014. That is a loss of 1.7 million people in the last two years. British Catholics fell from 10% in 1983 to 8% in 2014 and the Church of Scotland has declined from 36% of Scots in 2001 to 18% in 2014. The Methodist Conference recorded a loss of 96,233 members between 2003 and 2013.

One of the reasons for the decline is that unlike in the past, people who don’t attend church no longer feel the need to be identified with the Church of England. Also some people may just regard themselves as Christian rather than as belonging to a particular denomination. However although Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, said the poll figures “should be treated with some cau¬tion, she added: “Where all the polling agrees is in finding that An¬¬glican affiliation has declined dramatically since the 1980s, and continues to do so.” Of course, there are many churches which are exceptions, but the overall pattern is of decline.

Distrust of the church

A 2014 survey discovered that 55% of the British public distrusts the church as opposed to 37% who trust it. In fact the church was the 11th most distrusted institution, doing worse than supermarkets, TV and radio stations, the BBC, Police, Royal Mail, charities, the royal family, schools, small businesses, the NHS, scouts and guides and the armed forces.

Sexual abuse

Of course, one of the highly publicised factors contributing to this distrust is sexual abuse within the church. In May 2015 the Methodist Church made an unreserved apology for 1,885 cases of physical and sexual abuse of children since the 1950s. Ministers or lay employees were involved in a quarter of them. Other churches have reported cases of child abuse. In 2014 Pope Francis revealed that Vatican data suggested one in 50 Catholic priests is or was a paedophile. It was also revealed that in 2011-12 Pope Benedict defrocked 400 priests for child molesting. Where is the fear of God in such people?

Unbelieving clergy

Trust in the church is hardly increased by the recent report that one in 50 of the Church of England clergy don’t believe in God. It is not clear how many of these clergy are functioning in the church but if they are they should immediately resign and stop causing harm to the church’s credibility. If they are secret unbelievers who simply responded to the survey then they should resign because they cannot take anyone spiritually further than they have gone themselves.

Christian compromise and spiritual failure

Compromising the Gospel

A Muslim at the Church of England General Synod in February 2015 began his address with words in Arabic which mean “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is basically a denial of the Trinity. In a service commemorating the First World War Muhammad was referred to as “Muhammed Mustafa” which means “the Chosen One.” But Christians do not believe Muhammad was chosen by God or that his message was from God. A prayer service was led by Muslims in St John’s Church, Waterloo and Christian imagery in the church was covered up. (We can be grateful though that the Bishop of Southwark subsequently said that Muslim services are banned in consecrated churches). A similar service was held in an Episcopal Church of Scotland church in Aberdeen. I am all in favour of dialogue and co-operation with Muslims which does not involve any compromise of the faith but back in the nineties I campaigned very publicly against interfaith worship events where Jesus was excluded or marginalised, especially when they were held in churches. I am still of the same opinion.

Corruption

The Pope has attacked corruption particularly in finances at the Vatican. He accused Vatican bureaucrats as hypocritical, having a lust for power and guilty of “careerism and opportunism.” There have also been examples of financial corruption in other denominations.

Spiritual failure

The Evangelical Alliance reports that 50% of (especially younger) evangelicals don’t read the Bible daily and 37% don’t pray daily. Only 40% feel their church is good at making disciples of new Christians and only 26% feel equipped to share their faith with others.

The Bishop of London said in September 2014 “Western religion is feeble.” He added: “The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us … The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.”

Why is the church declining?

I have thought a great deal about why many churches are declining and here are some of my conclusions:

1. Clergy are often not people of prayer and so do not encourage and facilitate adequate corporate prayer in their congregations, outside brief intercessions in the Sunday services or mid-week liturgical services.

2. Clergy are often very inadequately taught about the content of Scripture and consequently often do not teach it to their congregations.

3. Clergy very often are not taught New Testament principles of church growth and development and so do not adopt them or act on them.

4. Clergy are very often not taught how to do evangelism and so do not do it, even in sermons and addresses where there are people present who are seeking God.

5. The church has little effective prophetic voice.

6. The church is maintenance-minded and most outreach is fundraising. Even Fresh Expressions are often initiated to stem decline rather than spread the gospel to new people.

7. The church seems to think that if it accommodates itself to secular attitudes, e.g. on sexuality, it will lead to church growth whereas, in fact, it will lead to even greater irrelevance. The church will be brought into line with secular opinions and will lose even more of its distinctiveness and of its visibility.

These weaknesses need to be addressed and if the established congregation is unwilling to support a ministry which corrects them it should be carried out in a Fresh Expressions context, using any willing individuals.

Jesus said that one of the signs of the End and of his return would be that “many will turn away from the faith” (Matt 24:10). Is that beginning to happen today?

Religion “does more harm than good”

The majority of UK citizens now believe that religion does more harm than good. The Huffington Post discovered that only 25% of British people think religion is a force for good. Professor Linda Woodhead (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University) commented “This confirms something I’ve found in my own surveys and which leads me to conclude that religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK.”

Another survey revealed that only 7% of British people included religion as one of their three main personal values. It was in 11th position after respect for human life, human rights, peace, equality, rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, respect for other cultures, tolerance and self-fulfilment. It is interesting that in the European Union as a whole religion came bottom of the list of values. In most EU countries religion was not seen as an important value (with the exception of Malta and the Republic of Cyprus).

British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys discovered a large increase in the number of British people who say they have no religion: 31.4% in 1983, 36.8% in 1993, 43.4% in 2003 and 50.6% in 2013. BSA also asked people over a period of 13 years about “Attitudes towards whether being Christian is important for being truly British.” Those who thought it was not very important or not at all important formed a majority of 64.5% in 1995, 64.9% in 2003 and 75.1% in 2008. The percentages saying it was very important were 19.1%, 15.6% and 6.2% respectively.

A study recently published by the UCL Institute of Education found that 54% of men said they were atheists or agnostics and 34% of women.

It is interesting to note that America is becoming less Christian with church membership static or declining. Americans born between 1982 and 2000 are the least religious generation in US history and they are becoming less religious as they get older.

Growing ignorance of the Christian Faith

The Bible Society discovered that:
• 25% of children have never read, seen or heard the story of the Nativity.
• 43% of children have yet to hear, see or read about the Crucifixion.
• 29% of children don’t know that the Nativity story is part of the Bible.
• 30% of secondary school children (aged 12-15) did not know the Nativity story appears in the Bible.

On the other hand, this ignorance can show itself in more creative ways. One firm produced a “British Christmas Jumper” which bears Christmas trees plus symbols of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikh, atheism, Chinese philosophy and also the peace sign. The firm commented: “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season – however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Church Decline

Dr Peter Brierley recorded in June 2014 that the number of churchmembers in the UK in 2013 was 4.5% fewer than in 2008. Professor David Voas of the University of Essex wrote: “Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents in Britain have a roughly 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are only half as likely as they are to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them. Institutional religion in Britain has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” In the same year another survey discovered that 69% of the UK population do not trust religious institutions. The church came in 7th position after the NHS, police, social services, local authorities, judiciary and government/parliament. It is, of course, highly probable that the scandals about child sex abuse in a church context have contributed to this.

Secularisation

Assemblies

The National Governors’ Association has called for an end to Christian assemblies in state schools because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian children and because staff are “unable or unwilling” to lead them. The NGA claims that schools are “not places of worship but places of education” ignoring the fact that education should surely include experience of Christian worship which is important in itself and vital to an understanding of British history. The Church of England commented that stopping assemblies would “deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives”.

Faith schools

An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 58% of UK residents believed faith schools should lose state funding or be closed down. Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission said that segregation between people of different classes and ethnic groups is being increased because of the increasing numbers of faith schools. He called on governors to publish regular reports on how pupils are mixing with other groups in society. One of the serious trends in society is that policies with laudable aims can easily lead to unintended damaging consequences. Of course, contact between different faith groups is a good thing but it can easily lead to pressure to avoid appropriately expressing important religious views for fear of causing offence to other groups. This leads to an undermining of religion.

The Church of England responded to Taylor by saying that former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, went to Church of England primary and secondary schools and commented: “We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.” In Birmingham some Church of England primary schools have an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city.

Church Establishment

In April 2014 Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote in the Independent, calling for an end to the establishment of the Church of England: “Religion is a vital part of a decent, civil society. When archbishops speak up for the poor (and irritate Iain Duncan Smith), when rabbis offer support to asylum-seekers, when Sikh priests give food to the hungry in their temples, when Muslim imams encourage charity, when faith leaders oppose state violence, they are the nation’s conscience. But, bit by bit, religions are demanding special rights and dispensations, and with well-honed piety are emasculating human rights, equality and autonomy. (They actually use the concepts of human rights and equality to get their own fiefdoms, segregation and legal adjustments.)”

However, she concluded: “This column is a song for secular democracy – the only fair, safe and universalising governance system. America, hyper-diverse and the most fiercely Christian nation in the West, is a secular state. Yes, we can be, too. And must be.”

Nick Clegg also called for disestablishment. Arun Arora, director of communications for the Archbishops’ Council responded: “Critics of establishment commonly fail to understand the duties of establishment where priests serve all the people in a parish and not simply their congregations. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

It is interesting that Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, also responded, saying disestablishment would “weaken British democracy” and undermine the voice given to faith groups by policy makers.

Mary Warnock commented: “I would not like to live in a country that was entirely secular. As long as no one is in a position to tell me how to interpret it, or that I must believe in the literal truth of holy writ, then I like there to be an established church, a repository of a long-shared cultural heritage, with a ceremonial function, and a source of genuine belief for many people, of whom I am not one.”

David Cameron’s controversial commitment to “Christian values”

David Cameron (who, of course, has upset the church with some of his reforms) reiterated his commitment to “Christian values” in his 2014 Christmas message. Earlier in the year he had written in the Church Times: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives. … Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all. Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”

In response, various well-known humanists wrote to the press objecting to his saying that Britain is a Christian country: “Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country.’ Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities … We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society. Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the secularists’ letter by saying: “Judging by the reaction, anyone would think that [David Cameron] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition (complete with comfy chairs for Monty Python fans), compulsory church going and universal tithes.”

There was also controversy over a backbench bill that will enable local councils to have prayers before its meetings. The National Secular Society had taken Bideford Council to court over the matter. Cameron had appointed Eric Pickles as Faith Minister in August 2014 in succession to Baroness Warsi. His job is to work with religious and community leaders “promote faith, religious tolerance and stronger communities within the UK.” He facilitated the progress of the bill.

The Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury said: “Christianity is the single most important element in England’s history. From our legal system to our constitution, it is at the very foundations of national identity. There is a danger of airbrushing this from our memory and the intolerant secularism that we are seeing expressed does not allow for acknowledgement of that contribution and its importance to our present life.”

Charles Moore summarised the Christian contribution to Britain: “The United Kingdom has been explicitly Christian for more than a thousand years. Its monarchy, Parliament, morality, law and education; its flag, national anthem, key texts, much of its literature, art and architecture; its health care, many of its charities and endowments, public holidays and festivals, the structure of its week and its place-names – all these and many more are Christian in origin.”

Is Britain still a Christian country?

The historian Simon Schama (himself Jewish) believes Britain is becoming more religious. He said recently: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong. We were arrogantly isolated from that, thinking religion was just an ornamental part of Britishness. Now look at the success of the Alpha Evangelicals, how important Christianity has been to the community of West Indians, the huge place of Islam. Britain is becoming a more religious place, not less.” A poll conducted by OnePoll in April 2014 found that 35% of non-religious people in Britain believe in God and 43% of them pray at times. Also 32% want a religious funeral.

In 2013 the European Social Survey published the results of a 2012 survey on the question: “Regardless of whether you belong to a particular religion, how religious would you say you are?” The results were as follows and show more people regarding themselves as ‘highly religious’ in 2012 than in 2002:

Religiosity score  2002  2004  2006  2008  2010 2012
Low (0-3)              39.7   39.9    46.0    45.9    47.1   44.8
Medium (4-6)       36.1    34.6    31.2     30.5   29.9   29.1
High (7-10)           24.2   25.6    22.9     23.6   22.9   26.2

A 2013 Theos survey reported that:
• 61% of non-religious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.”
• 59% of non-religious people believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual being.
• 52% – think spiritual forces have some influence either in the human world or the natural world.
• 51% believe “prayer works, in the sense that it makes you feel more at peace”.
• 30% believe in God “as a universal life force.”
• 30% believe in spirits.
• 25% believe in angels
• 39% believe in the existence of a soul
• 38% think prayer could heal
• 32% believe in life after death
• 26% believe in heaven
• 16% believe in reincarnation
• 13% believe in hell
• Only 25% of the non-religious – agree with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”.
• 17%) of people said that prayer works “in the sense that it can bring about change for the people or situation you are praying for.”
• 13% of people say they prayed “daily or more often”, 8% say they prayed a few times a week and 34% said they prayed occasionally.
The Report went on to comment: “For all that formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging has declined over recent decades, the British have not become a nation of atheists or materialists. On the contrary, a spiritual current runs as, if not more, powerfully through the nation than it once did.”

It is also a fact that a substantial amount of belief in the supernatural is more superstitious than Christian. A survey conducted by OnePoll on the 27 March 2014 found that belief in the supernatural and superstition ran at 55% against 49% believers in a God. The most popular supernatural beliefs were in ghosts (33%), a sixth sense (32%), UFOs (22%), past lives (19%), telepathy (18%), the ability to predict the future (18%), psychic healing (16%), astrology (10%), the Bermuda Triangle (9%), and demons (8%).

60% of people in the UK think of themselves as Christian, which is more than go to football matches. 23% say they are very or fairly religious. 55% say they believe Britain is a Christian country. 58% say they think Britain should be a Christian country and 50% agreed with David Cameron’s comments on the subject. Also, whereas 39% of people in 2011 agreed that “God created the earth and all life on it”, the percentage in 2014 was 41%.

British Religion in Numbers published a helpful survey of polls ranging back to 1965 over opinions as to whether Britain is a Christian country:

On the question: “Is Britain a Christian country?”

% Agency                      Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
3/1965 NOP                   80          19                 1
12/1989 Gallup               71           21                8
4/2007 YouGov               39          51                9
12/2007 YouGov             43          57                0
11/2010 ComRes            50          47                3
2/2012 YouGov               56           33               11
4/2014 YouGov               55           33               12
4/2014 ICM                    56           30               14

On the question: “Should Britain be a Christian country?”

% Agency                 Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
1-2/1968 ORC            81         15                   3
3-4/1984 Harris          67         31                   3
6-7/1987 Insight         69         22                   8
2/2012 YouGov          61          22                 18
4/2014 YouGov          58         23                  19
Linda Woodhead said recently: “In culture and institutions Britain is more Christian than not. What is happening is that people are leaving the churches, not faith.”

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity. To that extent atheism doesn’t appear to have made much progress in this country at all …Our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values.” He added: “As I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1,500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They (the atheists) are deluding themselves.” He also said that he believed people were hesitant to express their religious beliefs because of the “deep intolerance” of religious extremist in British society.

Lord Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think … A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Professor David Voas commented: “There is general agreement that young people increasingly do not regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, much less practise it. What is still debated is whether they are prone to ‘believing without belonging,’ in the phrase popularised by the sociologist Grace Davie. Many other scholars echo the view that religiosity is being transformed, not eroded. They point to the persistence of supernatural belief and the relative popularity of ‘spirituality.’ Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20% … people are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.”

Conclusion

The serious decline in church attendance in many places is, of course, a cause of real concern. Although it may seem that there is a massive turning away from the Faith (which will happen in the End Times) the reality is more complicated. It is instructive to keep a sense of history in this matter. An 1851 survey showed only 40% of the population were in church or chapel on any one Sunday. In 1881 another survey showed that only about 33% of the population were attending. So organised religion, although much more important in those days was in decline even then. The Faith will not die out. Spiritual renewal will come. But turning away from the Faith will also happen, as Jesus predicted.