This is a two-part series on the decline of Christianity in Britain, written by Jacob Williams.
Christian Britain is our land of lost content. We may see it shining plain in our national memory, but never again will we walk its highways. The years since the 2011 Census have seen a spate of articles claiming that the long-term decline of the Christian faith in Britain has reached a tipping point, and questioning whether we are still “a Christian country”, in whatever sense we still were one in the dying days of the last Labour government.
The statistical basis to this intensifying narrative has been exaggerated slightly. Various attention-grabbing headlines have claimed that rates of self-reported Christian affiliation have fallen from nearly three quarters in 2001 to just 45%, lower than the number of the non-religious, now. This overplays a strong hand by comparing census figures with those of the latest Social Attitudes Survey, which consistently reports lower levels of affiliation; and 2001 saw a spike in Christian affiliation on all measures, probably caused by the aftermath of 9/11—calling oneself a Christian was a way of saying that one was not a Muslim, and not part of a newly threatening ‘other’.
Even making the required adjustments, it seems that the proportion of British people who call themselves Christians has fallen by around 15 to 20% in the last sixteen years. This is by any standard a remarkable shift. Granting that few of this lost sixth ever went to church with any degree of regularity, knew much about Christian doctrine, or even allowed their conduct to be influenced by the specifics of the faith to any great extent—perhaps beyond being encouraged in a generalised sense of benevolence and kindness—it still represents a profound shift in the country’s self-conception and culture.
David Cameron informed us last Easter that “we are a Christian country, and we are proud of it”, continuing his habit of periodically expressing this claim at key Christian festivals, in what seems to be the Conservative Party’s last token effort to reassure traditionalists and social conservatives that it is still in some sense on their side. If his successor decides to continue his tradition, Theresa May could easily be the last Prime Minister ever to say this. Within perhaps ten to twenty years, the country will have changed so much that this claim will no longer be either plausible or popular. We have already come a long way indeed since Mrs Thatcher could arrive at Number Ten and quote Saint Francis of Assisi.
But much as Christianity’s decline as a nominal affiliation or a cultural allegiance is interesting, it is in truth a distraction from the real strangeness of Britain’s religious situation. If Christians are becoming a minority, then we are witnessing what is on paper by far the biggest religious change in Britain since the Reformation, if not since we received the faith fourteen-hundred years ago from Augustine of Canterbury. Yet if this is so, we are greeting the revolution with a baffling muteness. Our tired professional atheists continue of course to express their pleasure, but even the notionally traditionalist Spectator was barely able to confect a sense of alarm from its columnists. For the most part, neither glee nor horror predominate. We have greeted this transformation with little more than a resigned shrug.
Any serious questioning as to why must start by recognising that this collapse of nominal affiliation is nothing but a delayed reaction to monumental events that took place half a century ago, but which also went unnoticed at the time to a quite incredible extent.
In 1952 an ageing Lord Reith complained darkly of the growing religious indifference of the age, commenting on the secularised character of the British Sunday on which the nation’s churches sat half empty. “I well remember”, he went on, “when it was not so—and I rather wish I did not”. Much of the establishment during that decade warned the country of what they felt was growing disinterest in our national religion and public discourse was full of anxiety about the threat to morality this was presumed to pose.
When Reith addressed those words to the House of Lords, weekly church attendance stood at nearly 20%, and moreover was actually rising. In May 1954, nearly two hundred thousand people packed out Wembley and White City stadiums to hear Billy Graham proclaim the Gospel, in the culmination of an evangelical crusade which reached over two million, not counting viewers and listeners at home. And though Reith was right to note a loss of piety since his Edwardian youth—though a crude measure, overall weekly church attendance had probably halved since then—by some metrics, Christianity was as healthy as it had ever been since the end of the seventeenth century wars of religion. The proportion of children baptised in the Anglican Church had fallen little since the 1920s, when, at nearly two thirds, it had been at a similar level for over a century; confirmations across all churches stood at around fifty percent, also comparable to nineteenth century norms; and the level of popular understanding of Christian doctrine was likely much higher than it had been a hundred years before. When asked, around 65% of the population claimed to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and it is doubtful if that figure would have been much different had it been possible to ask in the 1850s, or even the 1750s.
And what none of these statistics can capture is the depth of the cultural penetration of Christianity as recently as six decades ago. At the start of the twentieth century it was normal for a teenager to leave school having memorised every Collect of the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Hymnal (with its tradition of heavy cross-pollination with the dissenting churches) was as much part of the average person’s mental soundscape as synthetic popular music is now. All the “little platoons” of civil society were informed or inspired to some degree by the peculiar English sense of the transcendent that the Established Church then embodied: the brass band played the same traditional tunes on which many hymns were based, the church choirs were the foundation of musical education; and the ethos and mission of our civic institutions—the Women’s Institute, the Rotary Club, the local trade union branch—was deeply informed by a more-or-less explicit Christian ethic, even if things had changed somewhat since high Victorian days, when striking colliery workers would march to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers.
The language of Thomas Cranmer and the King James Bible pervaded this Britain and re-echoed in its people’s imaginations whether they considered themselves believers or not, and perhaps the most fundamental difference between then and now consists in the extent to which religion and the transcendent penetrated the ordinary course of people’s lives. Since the late 1950s, the religious ethos of our traditional public institutions has been anaesthetised, and those institutions themselves have been marginalised by new, Godless upstarts. Baby-boomers, and generations before them even more so, grew up socialising at church youth groups and, if successful in the eleven-plus, educated in institutions that modelled themselves on the ethos of the great Victorian public schools, and thus were centred around collective acts of Anglican worship. They therefore acquired a deep cultural connection to the Christian religion that penetrated every aspect of their lives.
If you believe Phillip Larkin, this shared and meaningfully Christian common culture entered its death spiral at around the same time that the previously puritanical English discovered sexual intercourse—some time “between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”. Callum Brown’s The Strange Death of Christian Britain, a detailed study of the collapse of this “discursive” Christianity, emphasises the suddenness and totality of the cultural transformation that began, he concludes, in around Larkin’s fateful year of nineteen sixty-three. One can also draw from his work the argument that, as a country is a community, it is the presence or absence of a shared, communally-embedded Christianity that distinguishes “a Christian country”, not some arbitrarily specified proportion of its citizens who believe in God, baptise their children, or tick “C of E” on the Census.
Brown cites the free-fall of non-Catholic Confirmation statistics since the early ‘sixties as the best evidence of this rupture, since the commonness of this sacrament gives some hint of the normality of serious and meaningful piety and commitment in individuals’ lives, and of the number of people whose sense of individuality was formed through a Christian matrix.
In 1963, as the Beatles were getting started, the proportion of teenagers going for Confirmation in the Church of England was 35%. By Robert Runcie’s reign as Archbishop, when an anaemic religious right was launching petty prosecutions against album covers featuring the F-word, it was just nine out of a hundred: a fall of nearly three quarters in less than a single generation. And it seems the mid-1980s public thought nothing, after The Life of Brian, of an epidemic of casual blasphemy in public entertainment—Rowan Atkinson could play a debauched whiskey priest swigging on just-consecrated Communion wine and barely raise eyebrows. Today the figure is a little over 2.5%, and no stand-up comic would bother mocking Holy Communion because almost no-one under the age of forty would get the gag.
Who can doubt that this represents the biggest religious change in Britain since a time when men were being burnt alive for heresy? The fact that almost no one in public life really seems to care only shows how total has been the revolution in attitudes. The deep Christian acculturation of every generation of Britons since about 800 AD has ground to a thudding halt in the space of barely half a lifetime.
Residual Christian belief has not entirely disappeared—even now, a quarter of the public claim to believe that Jesus is God—and nominal affiliation seems to outlast real commitment by a generation or so. But millennials are not even inheriting the label from their non-practicing parents, which is why surveys are showing such a precipitous drop in nominalism since around 2000. The child of two notional Anglicans has only a 40% chance of retaining the label on reaching adulthood, but the odds are just one in twenty that the offspring of avowed atheists will rebelliously call themselves Christians.
Of course, few Christian denominations teach that receiving a slightly wishy-washy religious upbringing is a mark of the Elect, and evangelists are naturally more interested in the number of people who have sincere faith in Christ as their saviour. If the central claim of the Christian message is indeed true, and it is through faith in Christ’s atoning work that humans attain salvation for the next world, it scarcely matters how many choose to call themselves Christians or were brought up on a diet of Common Prayer and chilblains.
But this thought obscures as much as it reveals, because it fails to do justice to the both to the ways in which religious acculturation can produce real faith and to the earthly benefits of piety. We are witnessing a religious catastrophe with which all conservatives, whether Christian or not, should be deeply concerned. All societies in human history made it a central part of their business to satisfy man’s craving for the transcendent, and the abandonment of traditional beliefs is usually a sign of a wider social malaise. Our present state of growing social disintegration (barely six out of ten children now live with two married parents) seems to bear this out.
It is true that this country’s Burkean tradition gives a more marginal role to religion than conservative thought in most other Western societies, but all its great thinkers—such as Coleridge, Scruton, and Burke himself—have recognised the indispensability of the transcendent for morality and civil society. The transformation we have witnessed, therefore, gives conservatives an urgent task.
Rather than worrying about preserving what is left of our country’s character, in recognising that we are living through a period of revolutionary destruction we are compelled to try to understand what has happened: and to ask what we could do, or ought to do, to reverse it. In Part 2 of this article, I hope next time to offer some thoughts on this subject.