The results of the 2021 Census were published this week, and one of the striking features was that for the first time less than 50% of the population claim to be Christian, just 46.2%, down from just under 60% in only 10 years, and over 70% 20 years ago. The predominant shift is not that people have become members of a different religion but that they have said they have “no religion” – 37% (25% in 2011). Those self-defining as Muslim increased by about 1.5% from 4.9 to 6.5%.
This shift has been happening for longer, but has accelerated in the last twenty years – what seems to be happening is that those who were happy to put C of E on a form, to claim some sort of nominal allegiance, are now preferring to put “no religion”, no longer want to put, or feel they should put, Christian. What is also (more) significant is that the number of regular church attenders is dropping, as is the number of families seeking a baptism, the number of couples wanting to get married in church, and the number of families requesting a Christian minister for a funeral.
There is a quote from an Evelyn Waugh novel, so set just before WW2, in which a character is declared to be Church of England, in as much as that was the church he was currently not attending. I have tried to find the exact quote and which novel, but haven’t found it. The number of people, baptised in the Church of England who do not go to church is very high. The proportion of those who come to a baptism in a church, who do not attend church, even at Christmas is very high. On any Sunday maybe 10% of the population is in church. That means another 36% of the population are people who call themselves Christian but not in church!
Church attendance was dropping from after WW1, but it rose again in the 1950s and then has dropped steadily since the 1960s. In recent years younger people especially say they find the church “nasty” / homophobic and turned in on itself, rather than caring for justice and the world. Whatever we may ourselves think, headlines about the Church not allowing gay weddings, and the support for Donald Trump from American Christians have influenced opinions. The Church appears on the wrong side of debates on things that matter. And there have been high-profile scandals of child abuse and sexual abuse, and then cover-ups, denials, and obfuscation on the part of church leaders; why would people say they belong?
Some would say that the more aggressive, more divided, angrier world of politics we see today, is – at least in part – caused by an erosion of Christian values – a loss of tolerance and acceptance; truth now just one version among whatever story people want to make up; the loss of a sense of duty with politicians grabbing and grasping and ducking and diving; a growing nationalism which becomes racism. Trust in all institutions is at rock-bottom, not just the church.
The Human Rights Movement is seen as secular, but it developed from core Christian values; But if the fire has gone out in the boiler, then the building will cool down, become more like the surrounding temperature.
It is a thing of sorrow that the figures show such decline – not because we want to be bigger, but because the evidence is that the church is perceived by so many as either or both of irrelevant and nasty. May the invitation of Jesus be heard loud and clear this Christmas. ‘God with us’, ‘Light of the World’, Saviour’ – may our churches and our lives be neither irrelevant to the needs of the world, nor perceived as ‘nasty’. There is a challenge to holiness of course, even more in a world which is getting darker, but holiness is clothed in mercy in the person of Jesus.
If our churches are welcoming and attractive, and if we are inviting people to come, then there is no reason why these census statistics need to continue on a downward trend. Two “ifs” which we have some control over!