Tuesday, 12 September 2017
The Real Story
The latest British Social Attitudes survey's data on religion show that the number of people in Britain who describe themselves as having no religion at all is also at its highest ever level.
More than half, 53 per cent, of the British public now describe themselves as having 'no religion'.
This is up from 48 per cent in 2015.
On the face of it, this is really bad news and no doubt will cause much despair in the hearts of lifelong Anglicans who have prayed and hoped for a turn around in the fortunes of what used to be the Church of the land. And maybe there is a kind of poorly disguised glee behind the reporting as Christianity seems to have very few friends among the secular press nowadays.
But looking at things from a different angle I am not in despair. As well as the oft quoted teaching of Jesus that reminds us in Matthew 16 that even the gates of hell/hades will not prevail against the church, I believe that what we are experiencing is a huge reality check. People are being honest in a way that they haven't felt able to for a long time. It used to be the 'norm' that people would not only attend church - at least a few times a year - and have their families baptised, married and buried by the church. But whether there was any real integrity behind those decisions is doubtful in the majority of cases.
So what we are finding now is that people are saying that they won't attend church because they don't believe, which is fine.
Also, we are seeing the final outplaying of a disillusionment with God which started with the Great War and gained momentum after the Second as millions of lives were wiped out. Again this is a more complex picture than it appears as many, alternatively, found comfort and support from the Church which helped them through such a difficult time. However, people have questioned the goodness of God in allowing such suffering to happen and the Church has been ill-equipped to answer the question, in some cases merely telling those who have asked it that they should have more faith or something similar.
I was listening to Tim Stanley a reporter from The Telegraph being interviewed by Premier Christian Radio as part of their 'The Profile Interview Series' available as a podcast. He is a practising and committed Roman Catholic from an evangelical background. Asked about the present condition both of the Church and Christianity in Britain and he takes the view that in some senses nothing much has really changed with regards to Christian belief. In previous centuries statistics have not told the true story about the state of belief because it has been measured in terms of attendance or baptisms and weddings (and possibly funerals). But given that Christianity was the prevailing religion of the culture of society the pressures for people to conform meant that they attended church or had their children baptized as a matter of course and NOT because they had any real conviction that this really meant something. And so Stanley - who is a historian by background - sees today's situation as much more realistic and that what we are in fact seeing is not an end of the Christian faith - far from it - but an end to nominalism, and about time too. If you are a Christian today, generally it is because you are serious about your faith, although it must be said that there are still strong strands of nominalism in the Church today.
So I am optimistic about the future and although I would love to see larger congregations - especially in my own church - perhaps our weekly attendance is much more the 'norm' than we think. In fact, I read the other day that the average size of a New Testament Church was 25!
In addition, with the Church losing its privileged position in society, maybe it will return to the place where it will become less powerful and more like the Church of Jesus Christ. I for one want the Church of England to become disestablished and for the Church no longer to officially marry people but, like on the continent, have all marriages carried out by a registrar with couples going along to church after for a religious ceremony.
The following is a sermon I gave in response to some concerns raised about our application for a Lottery Grant to renovate our church and ch...