Julian Browning finds some hope among the naysayers and doom-mongers
So; it’s all over. At the end of May the National Press, led by The Guardian and The Spectator, with a host of online commentators, declared that Christianity was about to disappear. ‘The number of people who say they have no religion is rapidly escalating and significantly outweighs the Christian population in England and Wales, according to new analysis.’[Guardian, 23 May 2016] This analysis turned out to be a Catholic Research Forum Report by Dr Stephen Bullivant, entitled Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales: A statistical report based on recent British Social Attitudes survey data. The cover shows a fairly full Westminster Cathedral. The online commentators drew on the standard anti-Church Press photograph: a low level shot showing rows of empty chairs in an empty church. We know those chairs well. Have you endured services on the wobbly rush-seated ones with the thin kneelers hanging on little hooks? They were never comfortable. Stack them, arrange them in a circle, reduce the number per row, bring forward the altar on a huge empty platform, make people sit on the floor. It made no difference. The chairs stayed put, each one a memorial to the discomfort of Anglo-Catholic piety.
Dr Bullivant’s report is about the Roman Catholic population and their church attendance, not Anglican church attendance. We have to dig through the detail to find the statistic that fired up the Press, and which might alarm Anglicans. ‘During this time [1983-2014], the most noticeable change is in the numbers of people affirming Anglicanism: from almost one in two in 1983, to one in five in 2014 – a decline, in terms of overall population share, of over half. Within the same period the ‘No religion’ option has grown in popularity from two in five, to one in two.’ This statistic is not about church attendance. It is about belonging.
For centuries our religion has been about belonging. We pick a winning side. We sign up to a belief system which is culturally conditioned. Maybe we all have to start that way. But if we are honest about it, our belief system doesn’t demand much of us. The transformational change which Jesus preached remains optional. What is demanded instead is conformity, piety and likemindedness, doing what we’re told, a passive-dependent congregation. This way of belonging works for most people. It provides a shelter from the storm and a continuity of the certainties of childhood, another family. Minds are fed, wounds are healed. In days gone by, the decision was made for us. We picked the national religion as part of our identity. In the last thirty years all has changed. Liberal individualism has taken over our hearts and minds. There is now no place for religious society, or indeed for congregations of any kind. Belonging is for jihad, for the dispossessed who need each other, for teenage gangs, for North Koreans. Everyone else manages just fine on their own. When so many ‘cradle Christians’ responded to Dr Bullivant’s questionnaire with a tick in the ‘No Religion’ box, what they meant, I suggest, is that they had grown away from that way of belonging, belonging to anything, not just Anglicanism or Catholicism. What we are witnessing is not the end of a religion, but a cultural change in the way we belong.
By way of practical illustration, let me bring to these pages the Margaret Street Corpus Christi procession, which hit London’s Oxford Street at peak evening-shopping hour on the Feast itself. It was a grand affair, with a band, banners, choir, servers innumerable and a large crowd following. The response appeared favourable: some quizzical grins from the pubs, shy smiles of recognition along the street, many of erasable photographs. Overheard at the first bus stop, one young man to another: ‘What did I tell you? Christians have the best incense; we always do.’ A few Continentals flopped to the ground, jolted by memories of childhood in Catholic Europe. But at the second bus stop I did begin to wonder. How is it possible to stand within twelve feet of an ambulatory embroidered canopy, sheltering a golden monstrance borne aloft, and not notice it? Because the eyes were resolute in their unseeing, the faces blank. We could have been anybody: Hare Krishna, something put on by Westminster Council, the Pensioners’ Action Group, it made no odds. Liberal individualism keeps each person in a sealed air pocket, with little appetite for risk, and none for commitment. Perhaps we’d got it wrong. We thought we were taking Our Lord out into the streets as a great act of witness. Maybe He was taking us out, in our retro finery, to show us this cultural divide which He alone can cross. We have a sacred mission entrusted to us, but we are no better at it than anyone else. We talk of transcendence, yet remain caught in a restrictive quaint culture, having annexed God and Jesus because we know so much about them. But our religious learning is not faith, nor is our piety self-sacrifice. Anyone can see that. Why join us?
There are many Anglicans today who want to reinforce the old way of belonging: signing up to belief. So in the week up to Pentecost we all prayed for the evangelisation of the nation. We wish the evangelists well, but I do wonder what effect this will have on the ‘No religion’ box-tickers of Dr Bullivant’s report. Cultural imperialism no longer works here. There is the danger of religion becoming a purity contest: a list of codes of behaviour to decide who’s in and who’s out – the very things that Jesus condemns in his ministry.
There is another way, an older wisdom: the Gospel truth which has always undergirded Anglican pastoral theology, parish by parish. Christ is Risen. He alone crosses the boundaries which we have placed around ourselves. He is in everyone and everywhere in equal measure, which is why in the Church of England every parishioner is entitled to ministry, whether of some religion or none. How they describe themselves in a statistical report changes nothing. Trinity is our life: God’s life lived out at the centre of every human life. This is the reality to which Jesus directs us. So when Love draws us, through God’s grace, to our own centre, where God lives, we are in touch with the centre of every human life, and those cultural divisions fall away. What we hold is a Way to make that divine life plain for all to see in the whole world. But we yield to this mystery; we cannot impose it.
Christianity is not going to disappear. The search for human identity, a way of belonging, will continue, however many tick the ‘No Religion’ box. But the cultural landscape in which we know and recognise Christ is no longer mapped out for us. To be born again, to find our way, there is that which has to die: pride, religious superiority, alarmist questionnaires, the skewed vision which sees everyone as ‘them and us’. Those rickety chairs can go as well.