Comments: People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales

I don't attach much credence to the actual figures. A lot of people have historically expressed a kind of 'allegiance' to church without actually attending more than very occasionally - weddings, funerals etc. However, at least in the past people didn't mind being associated with the church.

However, what seems to be happening - I'd suggest - is that the church has actually alienated people by appearing prejudiced and discriminatory, and that - along with publicised abuse scandals - has resulted in people no longer wanting to be associated with the church. A vague allegiance has collapsed, and the church has in some people's minds, become a stigma rather than a vague association people used not to mind identifying with.

The country has moved on, with regard to human sexuality (to cite the most obvious example), and many people seem to be appalled by the church's refusal to really affirm lesbian and gay sexuality as valid as heterosexual sex. Young people in particular view the church as a tarnished brand that they will emotionally disassociate from.

There is an urgent need for the Church of England to empower local churches that are more accepting to exercise their consciences and reach out to their communities with a language and modern inclusive view that can demonstrate that the 'brand' is not monolithically against gay and lesbian sex.

The other way - the Higton position - hasn't worked. The church has become more and more alienated from the public, and frankly seems hard to be taken seriously. People who kind of liked to associated with church have become frankly disgusted. Times have changed, and it's not the British public that has the problem. More and more people just don't want to be associated.

It's time to take a different approach, instead of this top-down fixation with demanding uniformity ('or else'). Local churches, PCCs and priests need to be allowed to explore a more inclusive approach. To follow their conscience and unreservedly affirm the tender love and relationships (and marriages) of *everyone*.

The other option is what happened to the dinosaurs.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 24 May 2016 at 10:24pm BST

This is striking news, and deeply troubling for people of faith. If these figures are indeed accurate, they tend to suggest that a tipping point has been reached, and many people are now willing to discard even the thinnest garb of confessional allegiance (or, indeed, belief) and advertise to the world that they are not people of faith - or, at least, of faith in a divine power.

I think it worth referring to R. W. Bulliet's 'Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History' (1979). Bulliet tried to explain how it was that the lands conquered by Islam in the middle decades of the seventh century succumbed so completely to the faith of the conquerors when they had been pre-eminently Christian (although, as with those parts of north Africa tending to Donatism, problematically so). Of course, there were several reasons for the comprehensiveness of the change in allegiance, but Bulliet was interested in the rate of conversion, and noted that once a tipping point is reached the transformation in allegiance amongst the great majority occurs very quickly, completely and irreversibly, leaving only a rump of 5-10% who adhere to the old ways (as in Egypt), and who are more prone to demographic decline. The majority flip chiefly because it is socially desirable to do so. Thus today a profession of agnosticism, or of indifference or hostility to faith is now seen as intellectually cogent and respectable by the great majority, whilst a profession of faith (at least amongst those not of pensionable age) has lost its intellectual and social respectability.

Here, it is the rate of the transformation that is most striking, and it tends to validate - at least by analogy - Bulliet's analysis of the conversion process, albeit from faith to no faith.

These trends suggest to me that we can expect the numbers of even notional Christians to decline to below 10% of the population within the next decade or two - not least because of the demographic profile of most nominal Christians. The findings also indicate to me that, whilst internecine debates within the churches may have had some effect upon the reputation and credibility of theism, the core reason for the decline is more attributable to the manner in which a plural society tends to become neutral in the religious sphere and therefore, by extension, non-religious.

Posted by Froghole at Tuesday, 24 May 2016 at 10:41pm BST

What a sorry state of affairs these depressing figures represent. Surely we must look beyond the mere statistics and look for the reasons why and the causes for this sad decline?

Posted by Father David at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 4:22am BST

I doubt the church's homophobia has alienated people, since most people are utterly indifferent to gay rights. There was close to zero public pressure to reform English law: change only came 'cause a few brave activists took the British government to the European courts; and the government used it as cover to attack moral conservatives. Now the status quo's changed and people go with it for a quiet life, but if it changed back tomorrow, doubt most would even notice.

People have stopped going to church not out principle, but 'cause shopping malls are a lot more entertaining. The church's sin in their eyes is that it's boring. If they were driven by principle, there'd be a mass campaign to separate church and state, and hundreds of thousands marching to protest the church's discrimination.

Most people aren't bad; but, it's crucial to remember, neither are they particularly good. The majority want a decent job, family, and a quiet life. Right now, that doesn't benefit the church, but it could soon change.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 8:13am BST

This town is divided by the river. The river is the diocesan boundary. The biggest church over the river is Reform and, I am told, imposes conditions parents wanting their children to be baptized. Many of them then come to me. I refuse to limit divine grace. Quite what effect such limiting has in the public perception of the church and of Christianity can be the left to the imagination.

Posted by Fr William at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 8:58am BST

It seems to me unlikely that the presence of discrimination is the main cause, but then I have some sympathy for the CofE's predicament. I am in my seventies, and I recall with shame the barbarous attitude I had, when I first came to manhood, towards those men whose sexual direction was different from mine.

Like the rest of England, I have travelled a road since, which has seen a remarkable transformation of attitudes in an historically short period. Institutions are not fleet of foot, of course, but the CofE, too, has moved. I am convinced it will come (much, much, too slowly) to a better place. Meanwhile, of course, Christians do well to be very angry that discrimination still exists.

I, and my family, and many of my friends, have no religion, not because of the discrimination (or the worship style, or the music, or whatever) but because we simply do not find the religious narrative credible.

The problem for us is how we can possibly replace, as the CofE declines, its still very considerable contribution to our communities.

Posted by Picky at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 10:52am BST

I could write a lengthy comment but I think all I truly want to say is that the church ought to debate, "If St Paul wrote us an epistle, what would he say to us?x

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 12:30pm BST

I think that's a great comment by Picky. People have stopped finding the religious narrative credible. I'd also concede some ground on James Byron's point (re-iterated by Picky) that perhaps the whole LGBT thing is not the crunch factor.

Rather, perhaps we're just witnessing the narrative of the Enlightenment and science winning more hearts and minds... appearing more convincing... than a narrative of Christianity that in many cases has remained quite conservative, and constructed around a view of the bible as being more authoritative than it maybe actually is.

When a 'tipping point' (as interestingly defined by Froghole) occurs... it may not be because of huge moral imperatives, but (in James Byron's version of rather self-interested humans) because the original allegiance was a convenience, a vague sentiment, but a dispensable one. The Church may just not seem that important.

At that point, I think single issues like attitudes to gay and lesbian people feed into a general picture of an outmoded institution... and 'I don't identify with Christianity' becomes more fashionable or socially acceptable than 'sure, I am a Christian, C of E'.

Nor may that be unreasonable, or merely fickle. If the Church cannot present a convincing and persuasive narrative, and reason for its faith, then why should people who are trying hard enough to get through life really bother to defend it anymore. Or marginally identify with it, which is what people did in the past.

I think Church needs to be a servant part of community. I think it needs to be welcoming and inclusive. I think it needs to stop tarnishing its brand on issues like gay sex, which genuinely alienate a number of decent people. And even then...

...it is an uphill battle to counter the amazing assertions of the Enlightenment and Science, which present a highly convincing 'narrative' to sincere truth-seekers.

This is not helped if people in Church perpetuate tales of Noah's Ark or Adam-without-ancestors, or the 'them and us' of the many are called but few are saved kind, and the sledgehammer of the concept of Hell.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 1:25pm BST

In all kinds of ways, if we make Church seem less credible as a narrative (and the narrative of the resurrection is already pretty challenging enough) then people get to a point where they switch off.

Discrimination then adds to the negative impression. Most people in this country regard gay sex as okay, if not as a high principle, then because they have a relative or friend who is gay, who they owe more allegiance to. Also, being open-minded makes them feel good. A brand (the Church) that has declining credibility, may then get criticised and disassociated from on any number of grounds. If the Archbishop is reported in the media as being unfair to gay priests, it may not be the decisive thing, but it contributes to the overall credibility of the narrative (which, after all, is supposed to be loving).

I would argue that the main reason for decline of allegiance to the Church is (a) science and the enlightenment (b) an outmoded version of the Church, which seems 'better than everyone else'... something that really irritates non-Christians.

When that gets compounded by dogmatic versions of the faith, suggesting that people will go to Hell unless they join 'us'... and when people reflect on loved ones who've lived their lives outside the church... well that adds, I think, to the cursory shake of the head and 'nah, I don't believe it'.

Just look at the change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Was there some profound reason for that change? People's allegiance just didn't run all that deep.

Personally, to win back allegiance of the nation (and we ARE the national church supposedly), I see little alternative to local service, community building, welcome, inclusion, all-comers baptism, and a message that says 'doors open'. We need people to see the Church as a decent, involved, modern, inclusive part of community life. Because that's what we can do. What God can do is the work in people's hearts.

Allegiance can switch back. Goodwill can exist. Our priesthood is a priesthood of service. Furthermore, many people are longing for community.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 1:27pm BST

"I doubt the church's homophobia has alienated people, since most people are utterly indifferent to gay rights. There was close to zero public pressure to reform English law: change only came 'cause a few brave activists took the British government to the European courts; and the government used it as cover to attack moral conservatives. Now the status quo's changed and people go with it for a quiet life, but if it changed back tomorrow, doubt most would even notice.

People have stopped going to church not out principle, but 'cause shopping malls are a lot more entertaining. The church's sin in their eyes is that it's boring. If they were driven by principle, there'd be a mass campaign to separate church and state, and hundreds of thousands marching to protest the church's discrimination."

Very true in terms of the first part.

As to the second paragraph, the last sentence seems right to me but in the first sentence I would say "unwelcoming" rather than "boring". Far too many churches feel like clubs which don't welcome newcomers. All the talk about numbers reinforces that because it defines an us-in-here and you-out-there mentality. One of the first steps has to be dropping any sense of membership, parish roll and all other nonsenses and reaffirm that everyone is always a member and are unconditionally welcome at any time and will not be treated as newcomers but as long standing members.

It's easy to blame those-out-there as soon as that othering of them as those-not-attending-church permeates thought processes.

We must anyway be cautious of numbers. I suspect the number of people who are religious changes little over time. At some points in history, it has been fashionable or prudent to appear religious; at the moment it is increasingly fashionable not to appear religious. What matters is whether people in their hearts reach out to the Lord. In times past, I suspect a proportion of churchgoers didn't. At present, many non-churchgoers do. Plus ça change.

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 1:56pm BST

You know, this side of the water there has been research about the growth of those in the category of "None" or "Unaffiliated" (which title depends on the researcher). When polled as a separate group, something like 75% of them still talk about values that guide their lives, and talk about those values in terms we would call religious (and not just spiritual in some abstract sense). Surveys continue to show, too, that something beyond 80% of folks in the United States believe in God or a Higher Power, but are not likely to be associated with a congregation. So, the question becomes how we are relevant to those folks who might be interested but are "institution-shy." And, how can we measure our work, our relevance, in categories other than membership?

From the North American perspective, establishment blurs some of the numbers. At the same time, I wonder if that isn't also true in England and the wider UK.

Posted by Marshall Scott at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 3:48pm BST

I must applaud Susannah's post, and wish to echo it from personal experience: my LGBT friends have been thrown out of their families, read every day about not only the C of E's eternal waffling and allowing the most homophobic national churches to set the agenda, but also the horrifying lies and hysteria put forth by right-wing christianists, that they dismiss religion in general, and Christianity in particular, with repulsion. And no wonder.

Our church, Trinity Episcopal, Seattle, made it very clear when we were searching for anew rector that his willingness gladly to perform same-sex marriages was a non-negotiable condition for consideration. We have had LGBT clergy, LGBT persons at all levels, the parish marches in the Pride parade, and one very conservative vestry member insisted that we must have at least one LGBT person on our search committee.

We are growing. We have a steady influx of 30-something members who are becoming very involved and even starting new outreach programs. They came to us because we are seen as a progressive community which welcomes all to the table, does not ask anyone to leave his brain at the door, and is walking the path we talk about. This is the atmosphere in which they want to raise their children, and we will shortly be bringing back a child care option, something that has not been needed in a very long time.

The Church needs to stop having yet more compassionate listenings, to stop agreeing to march at the same pace as the most conservative body, to take some chances and bravely shoulder the responsibility to LEAD. It is not enough even to do these things, though they might save the C of E, but the church must also be SEEN and HEARD to deprecate homophobia; Anglicans (old meaning) have before them a rich opportunity serve as the much-needed counterbalance to right-wing extremists. Do we have the courage, or the energy? I believe it is call to a prophetic role in today’s world. And it may be religion’s last such chance.

Posted by Nathaniel Brown at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 6:13pm BST

Very well put, Susannah, with more nuance than my own take: the church was undoubtedly an alliance of convenience, and now it's broken, its attitude to LGBT people certainly reinforces negative impressions (especially among the many people who aren't just following the crowd, but who've changed their minds).

Also agree with Kate that too many congregations are clubs that don't go out their way to welcome newcomers. Whatever else I may say about evangelicalism, its churches often have dedicated "welcome teams," and make a serious effort here (also in making services lively). So do many churches in other traditions, but it's a particular focus of evangelicals, that could be learned from and adapted.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 9:46pm BST

Do you not think that the downward spiral has been going on for years and we keep making excuses why we as a church are losing members. It's because we discriminate against women so women priests and bishops will restore things. Or we accept gay people and gay priests will restore things. It's because we discriminate against lgbt people. Whatever we do doesn't seem to help maybe delay the inevitable. Society generally doesn't see religion of any importance and it's a relic that will go away. Fast forward another 10 years and how many churches will still be viable Perhaps nows the time to consolidate and concentrate on one church per town and hand the keys of the others back to the diocese. Give ourselves and our priests the breather to stop worrying about raising money for the roof repairs or the heating or covering 3 churches on a sunday Instead focus on going out into the community and having the enthusiasm to encourage people through our doors and hopefully they will see a vibrant and cheerful and welcoming bunch of folk

Posted by henry dee at Wednesday, 25 May 2016 at 10:41pm BST

"I could write a lengthy comment but I think all I truly want to say is that the church ought to debate, "If St Paul wrote us an epistle, what would he say to us?x

Posted by: Kate on Wednesday".

I wouldn't choose Saint Paul. Give me Francis of Assisi every time - he was an advocate of 'the great love of God as revealed in the Son'. Just what the world needs today.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 2:04am BST

Father Ron,I am no lover of Pauline philosophy so I would much prefer to hear what St Francis had to say. But with St Paul we have enough epistles that we might ourselves actually attempt to identify what Paul might say.

For instance, St Paul might observe that the church spends a lot of time bogged down in discussion about marriage because the bishops set such a poor example, seeming to prefer marriage for themselves rather than dedicating their lives to Christ. He would suggest not all marriages should be avoided - a marriage caring for a disabled partner can be service of an high order - but he would point out that having so many married bishops and priests means the flock becomes preoccupied with marriage for themselves too.

St Paul would boast (self-aggrandisement is one of his weaknesses) about his own recent mission work. He probably would not encourage mission by CofE but suggest that a healthy Church in a region will grow naturally.

I guess what I am saying is that the church and Primates are good at telling individuals how they should behave but the Bible has a lot to say about how churches should behave too.

Posted by Kate at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 12:34pm BST

There can be little doubt that stories like this do give many people a negative impression of Christianity:

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/05/26/northern-irelands-new-equalities-minister-wants-to-legalise-discrimination-against-gays/

It is N Ireland rather than England but it is within the union. Very damaging.

Posted by Kate at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 1:24pm BST

Henry Dee I agree with you. CofE membership actually peaked in the early 1920s. Which suggests something deeper has been at work than simply attitudes to one group or other - important though those are to address. Our diagnosis does not go deep enough.

Posted by David Runcorn at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 2:11pm BST

I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that what has really changed (in my lifetime - I'm 62) is that large numbers of people who have no religion are no longer saying that they're Church of England.

Posted by Daniel Berry, NYC at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 7:47pm BST

Kate, I do agree with your comment about Saint Paul advocating celibacy (a status referred to by Jesus in his remark "Eunuchs, for the sake of the Kingdom") - as being the gold standard for Christian ministry.

This is especially poignant when anti-gay clergy (usually heterosexually married) want to consign Gay clergy to the closet of celibacy - when they (H.C.) would not consider celibacy as the preferred option for themselves.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Thursday, 26 May 2016 at 10:32pm BST

@ Nathaniel Brown re his parish in Seattle: THANKS for that lovely posting. I was especially taken with the newly burgeoning need for chldcare in your parish.

At St Luke in the Fields in NYC, we've had an explosion of need for childcare in the last 15 years, thanks be to God, so that the old custom of "family communion" at 9 has reappeared--with a vengeance! This in a parish in Greenwich Village, well known by many as a "gay" church, though most of us have never felt the moniker really applied. In any event, we've managed to find a way to live as a Christian community that isn't particularly interested in sexual orientation, but on finding ways to be companionable with one another on the journey into Christ and of addressing the complex troubling issues believers face in the world we live in.

Again, Nathaniel, thanks for your posting: it makes me want to visit Seattle.

Posted by Daniel Berry NYC at Friday, 27 May 2016 at 11:42am BST

The diagnosis is that 'the Church'* is dying out.

It has gone beyond the point of no return -in the West certainly, and we need to face it, reflect on it, and make sense of it and our lives as individuals and families....surely.

Maybe Bonhoeffer and John Robinson will be taken seriously....

Bonhoeffer thought for today, perhaps :--

'If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.'

* or if you prefer the Churches *

Posted by Laurence Roberts at Saturday, 28 May 2016 at 1:29am BST

["Our church, Trinity Episcopal, Seattle, made it very clear when we were searching for anew rector that his willingness gladly to perform same-sex marriages was a non-negotiable condition for consideration": um, "his", Nathaniel?]

"I, and my family, and many of my friends, have no religion, not because of the discrimination (or the worship style, or the music, or whatever) but because we simply do not find the religious narrative credible."

It's a (sorry) testament to the Triumph of Fundamentalism, that religious narratives are judged as to whether they're "credible"---a series of propositions claimed to facts---or (as for Picky & Co) not.

For those of us who are not fundamentalists (theist OR atheist), religious narratives provide MEANING. The meaning of the Gospel Narrative has carried me since childhood, and could never be reduced to a question of mere "facts".

Fundamentalism has made propositional fact claims that can't be proven---but worse, IMO, is that their blatant contradictions w/ the example of Jesus, have undermined the meaning of Gospel narrative. It's Lose/Lose, and no wonder religion is waning wherever religion is defined by fundamentalism.

Posted by JCF at Monday, 30 May 2016 at 3:03am BST

JCF's comment makes a lot of sense to me.

There was a piece on the 10 o'clock news radio 4 on the news I commented on on 30th May.

Those who spoke for 'evangelism' made me cringe and high-lighted the problem we face regarding intelligent religion let alone forms of outreach.

If that is christianity I regret that it is untenable. But this kind of thing is very loud, and drowns out more viable approaches in the ears of the general public.

Posted by Laurence Roberts at Wednesday, 1 June 2016 at 12:02am BST
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