Britain's Crisis of Faith

By Thompson, Damian | The Spectator, June 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Britain's Crisis of Faith


Thompson, Damian, The Spectator


England's churches are in deep trouble

It's often said that Britain's church congregations are shrinking, but that doesn't come close to expressing the scale of the disaster now facing Christianity in this country. Every ten years the census spells out the situation in detail: between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million -- about 10,000 a week. If that rate of decline continues, the mission of St Augustine to the English, together with that of the Irish saints to the Scots, will come to an end in 2067.

That is the year in which the Christians who have inherited the faith of their British ancestors will become statistically invisible. Parish churches everywhere will have been adapted for secular use, demolished or abandoned.

Our cathedral buildings will survive, but they won't be true cathedrals because they will have no bishops. The Church of England is declining faster than other denominations; if it carries on shrinking at the rate suggested by the latest British Social Attitudes survey, Anglicanism will disappear from Britain in 2033. One day the last native-born Christian will die and that will be that.

These projections are based on the best available statistics: the censuses, the British Social Attitudes surveys and the British Election Study. But because these surveys are constructed differently, it's not easy to crunch them into a single timeline. Crucially, a projection is not the same thing as a prediction. So feel free to take any apocalyptic vision of religion in Britain in 2067 with a pinch of salt.

But the point stands: Christianity is dying out among the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain. The Gospel that Augustine and his 30 monks brought to England when they landed at Ebbsfleet in ad 597 is now being decisively rejected.

Saint Paul tells us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; the Almighty is not interested in 'heritage', the new name for ethnicity. But since Britons with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic ancestors make up 90 per cent of British Christians, that rejection represents a devastating loss of faith.

It has all happened so quickly. Anglicans in particular are abandoning their faith at a rate that (in more ways that one) defies belief. According to the British Social Attitudes surveys, their numbers fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1983 to 29 per cent in 2004 and 17 per cent last year.

This is a horrifying prospect for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby. As a former treasurer of an oil company, he is the first successor to St Augustine to master statistics. Yet, understandably, he is not keen to draw attention to the crisis.

His predecessor but one, however, is happy to do so. Lord Carey of Clifton, a more formidable figure in retirement than he was in office, last month warned the C of E that it was 'one generation away from extinction'. The new Social Attitudes figures support his conclusions.

Between 2012 and 2014 the proportion of Britons describing themselves as Church of England or Anglican fell from 21 to 17 per cent: a loss of 1.7 million people in two years. That's what you might expect if the established church had been engulfed in a gigantic paedophile scandal. But it hasn't been.

Self-identifying British Catholics fell from 10 per cent to 8 per cent between 1983 and 2014. But that decline would have been far more dramatic without the arrival of Catholics from the Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Philippines. No wonder Cardinal Vincent Nichols stresses the 'Gospel imperative' to welcome migrants.

But he's deluding himself if he thinks foreign Catholics will continue to fill his pews. Young Poles in England and Wales are noticeably less devout than they were ten years ago: I'd be amazed if more than a fifth of them were Mass-goers.

This applies to Scotland, too. The Poles propping up Catholic parishes won't do so for much longer. …

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