Britain Is Losing Its Religion, or at Least Its Official One

Posted By: June 04, 2016

By ALAN COWELL     JUNE. New York Times, 2, 2016

A Christmas Day service at Canterbury Cathedral last year. Across Britain, pews that fill for the holidays are often half-empty in the intervening weeks and months. Credit Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images
LONDON — In these times of flux and challenge, when Britain’s post-imperial place in a globalized world has rarely been so minutely scrutinized and the nation’s very identity can appear to be little more than a work in progress, pity the poor parish priest.

Ever since Henry VIII broke with papal authority in the 16th century, the Anglican Church has stood at the nation’s core. In towns and villages across the land, churches offered formal services and a deeper succor for those seeking life’s meaning or, perhaps, just companionship among the like-minded.

Still, at the highest levels — ecclesiastical as much as political — 26 Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, where they are known as the Lords Spiritual.

The titular head of the church is the monarch, and when royals wed or die or are crowned, these moments are solemnized in grand Anglican cathedrals.

But for how much longer? Over the years, Anglicanism’s status as what is called the established church has been undermined by dwindling congregations and by evangelical insurgents drawing greater throngs of worshipers.

Immigration, moreover, has broadened Britain’s definition of religiosity to embrace the faiths of erstwhile imperial possessions. London just elected its first Muslim mayor. The spectrum of religion embraces many other beliefs.

The God inherited over generations from Henry VIII’s day has long ceased to represent an exclusive franchise.

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For Christian believers, the most alarming news came in recent days in a report based on a British Social Attitudes survey, which concluded that, for the first time, the number of people in England and Wales identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation (49 percent) exceeded those who cleaved to Christianity (44 percent). And within that decline, the Anglican Church had lost the greatest share of adherents. (The Roman Catholic minority, the study said, fared better in maintaining its share of souls.)

“A cultural shift is to blame,” the columnist and historian Tim Stanley wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “People raised in the faith but who don’t practice it have ceased to identify with it. In other words, they are just being honest. Church attendance has been plummeting since the 1960s; hardly anyone baptizes their kids anymore. Britain is slouching toward Gomorrah.”

The decline may be cyclical. In the 19th century, Mr. Stanley said, “with the rise of empiricism and new technology, it looked as if science might hold better answers than the Bible.”

The same calculation finds its echo today with the headlong rush to new technological frontiers.

The latest statistics, according to The Spectator, a weekly magazine, show that “a landmark in national life has just been passed.”

With the nation consumed by the debate over Britain’s future in Europe, the milestone seemed to pass with little fanfare. And yet, The Spectator said in an editorial, “the decline of Christianity is perhaps the biggest single change in Britain over the past century.”

The result is that “we can more accurately be described now as a secular nation with fading Christian institutions.”

The assessment will hardly surprise clerics peering out from their pulpits over pews that fill at Easter and Christmas but are half-empty in the intervening weeks and months.

That, of course, evokes the central contest of faith in a material age.

“Buying stuff, filling our lives with pointless distraction, means we miss what we really need: to live generously, unselfishly, and open to the risk and adventure of loving others,” the Rev. Richard Coles, a former atheist who has become something of a celebrity vicar, wrote in The Mirror.

The consequences for Britain’s sense of identity are far-reaching. Church bells once resonated as markers of shared destiny, signaling events from the momentous to the mundane. These days, The Spectator said, “Christians are finding out what it’s like to live as a minority.”

Follow Alan Cowell on Twitter @cowellcnd.

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