Christopher Smith worries about what the decline in ambient Christianity is telling us

Even though one of my colleagues locally seems to keep his (many) Christmas trees up until Ash Wednesday, by which time they barely have a single needle left between them, I think we are all agreed that, according to any of the sets of rules we might apply, Christmas is now over. How did it all go? Numbers up? Down? Midnight up, Christmas Day down? It seems to vary according to the weather and the day of the week, and where Christmas falls in relation to the end of the school term.

And how did your “church Christmas” relate to your more secular Christmas? I actually managed to send some Christmas cards this year, which I was pleased about – not least because I have been able to let some of my old friends know that I am in fact still alive. But gosh, we have to work hard now to get the story out. We speak to the children about “the real meaning of Christmas”, but I wonder whether, outside church, that has in fact become a kind of worship of the family – in an idealised form, of course.

Just before Christmas that unlovely organisation The British Humanist Association, which campaigns for euthanasia and against church schools, gleefully released the results of a survey carried out by YouGov. And, as their chief executive said in the accompanying press release, “for an overwhelming majority of people in Britain, this time of year has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with celebrating the life we have with the people we love.” The key question they put to people was “what makes Christmas an important time of the year?” Respondents were asked to pick as many as they felt appropriate for them, and 76% picked “spending time with family”. At the bottom of the list were “celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ” (22%), and “attending a religious service” (15%). 36% of people picked “watching Christmas television”, for heaven’s sake. What on earth were they watching?

Meanwhile, a couple of other surveys carried rather disobliging information about members of the 18-24 age-group: nearly half of them (46%) were happy to say that they positively do not believe in God or in any kind of “higher spiritual power”; and 28% of them would like the shops to be open on Christmas Day – although I imagine none of them were offering to staff those shops.

We might be tempted to dismiss all this as “noise” rather than “signal”, were it not for our own statistics, collected as obsessively as ever by the Church of England. There has been another big drop in Usual Sunday Attendance (USA) recorded in the recently-released Statistics for Mission, which (understandably) take a while to get out. The 2015 set were released at the end of October 2016. The reduction from 2014’s USA to 2015’s was 13,800: not as bad as the 18,700 drop from 2013 to 2014, but pretty awful nonetheless. 30% of us are over 70 years of age, and in some parts of the country that percentage is well into the forties, with Truro diocese topping the league at 48% (although, to be fair, Cornwall may well have a relatively elderly population).

But I wonder whether the decline in occasional offices should be giving us cause for concern, in the way that the “true meaning of Christmas” survey might. Here, the decline is a symptom of something else, which is the falling away of a sort of residual Christianity that we might have hoped would somehow carry the torch until people were ready to come back to church.

Let’s look at the funeral data, since the “humanists” are agitating about funerals as well – hence another BHA/YouGov survey released in December, seeking to raise awareness of the availability of humanist funerals. This year’s Church of England statistics reveal a sharp decline in “crem only” funerals since 2010 alone: from 80,170 to 64,650. That’s a drop of nearly 20%. Church funerals have declined too, but only by 5%. One way or another, we now only do 30% of the nation’s funerals, and we only baptise 11% of the nation’s babies. In some dioceses, the CofE retains its role as provider of these offices (Hereford diocese coming out top at the end of life, with 57% of funerals, and Carlisle diocese still baptising 33% of babies), but in London diocese, we only get 3% of babies, and 14% of funerals.

Confirmations, too have been a sign of families’ relationship with the church, and we have always prepared for confirmation a fair number of children whom we know are principally in the line-up because mum or grandma want them “done”; but we have prepared them in the hope that the experience will keep them in the orbit of the Church as they go through their teenage years. But now look at the confirmation statistics: the number of people being confirmed has fallen by 44% in ten years. 18 dioceses could muster no more than 30 confirmation services in 2015, and of those, eight put on fewer than 20 services (although I ought to point out that one of those was Sodor and Man, which is tiny).

It fell to the noble William Nye, Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council, to issue the press release. “These figures represent a realistic assessment of where we start from in terms of weekly attendance. We are confident in a hopeful future where our love of God and service of neighbour will form the basis for future growth.” You couldn’t gainsay that, could you? But when all is said and done, the only statistic that really counts is the one we can’t collect: how many souls did the Church make fit for the Kingdom of Heaven?