Being something of a maths geek, I rather enjoyed watching all the number crunching happening on Tuesday as the results of the 2011 census came out. There was plenty to get your teeth into, but a few days on, most people are now aware of the headlines relating to the religion question, ‘What is your religion?’ Christianity is still by far the biggest religion in this country. 59 per cent (33.2 million) of respondents in England and Wales described themselves as Christian. This is down from 72 per cent in 2001. On the other hand those of ‘no religion’ now account for 25 per cent (14.1 million) of respondents compared to 15 per cent in 2001. The most godless place in England and Wales is Norwich and the most Christian is Knowsley in Merseyside.
I’m not going to go into too many more details on this as it has already been covered extensively in the media. Stuart over at eChurch has done an outstanding job collating most of the top stories on the religious statistics from the census. Do have a look if you want to delve deeper into the details. There are hours worth of material to pour over.
What I’d like to consider for a bit is whether the significant drop in those calling themselves Christians is genuinely a disaster that should be giving church leaders sleepless nights. Certainly the British Humanist Association (BHA) seems to think so. They were very keen to announce on their website that according to their calculations, if the change in Christianity shown between 2001 and 2011 continues at a linear rate, then Christians will be recorded as in the minority by the Census question from September 2018.
Ahead of the 2011 census the BHA organised a public information campaign with the inspired title of ‘The Census Campaign’, with the slogan ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so!’, to encourage the non-religious to tick the ‘No religion’ box on the census form. In their eyes it has been a huge success and maybe it has to some extent. You can almost feel the joy of the BHA’s chief executive, Andrew Copson’s as he gave this statement:
‘Religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country, and non-religious identities are on the rise. It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.’
The thing is anyone who pays any attention to these sort of statistics will know that plenty of people are cultural Christians. They might say they are Christian because they consider themselves to be more accustomed to Christianity than atheism or Islam for example, but will never go to church except for weddings or funerals and have little knowledge or understanding of what it means to literally be a Christian. In reality they are agnostic. The results from last year’s British Social Attitudes survey which is published annually found that 56 per cent of Anglicans never go to church. 14 per cent of respondents said they attend church weekly, which is still likely to be greater than the actual number who do. It also indicated that 18-24s were least likely to be religious and over 75s were most likely to be. As older people tend to die more frequently than those who are younger, it’s not entirely surprising that the proportion of people who say they don’t have a religion are increasing.
Whilst acknowledging the apparent steep decline in Christian belief, the Church of England was much more bullish in its official response to the census figures:
“The death of Christian England has been greatly exaggerated. Despite a decade of nay saying and campaigning by atheist commentators and groups, six out of ten people in England self-identify as Christians, a figure which rises to more than two-thirds when including people identifying with faith as a whole.
“During the past decade alone the CofE has baptised an average of 2,500 people a week – with a 40% increase in adult baptisms – conducted more than 1000 weddings a week, celebrated the ordination of more than 5,000 new priests and maintained more than 16,000 parish church buildings. While 253 churches closed over the past decade, 1,000 new congregations were started through the Fresh Expressions initiative.
“Today’s figures pose questions – not least for most of the London based national media – about whether their perceptions and reporting of faith accurately reflect the reality of a faithful nation, especially when considering the figures in the North East and North West of the country.
“Doubtless, campaigning atheist organisations will attempt to minimise the significance of the majority figures for faith and Christianity. In fact, these figures draw attention to the free ride that had been given to these bodies whose total membership would barely fill half of Old Trafford. For instance there are an estimated 28,000 members of British Humanist Association – the same membership as Union of Catholic Mothers, whilst the National Secular Society has an estimated 5,000 – the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society.”
It’s all become a war of words, but with no clear winners. What the census figures are showing is a reflection of what we’ve known for years now. Britain is by and large a Christian country in terms of heritage and values, although these values are being continually challenged. Certainly in terms of the percentage of the population who have a genuine Christian faith this country is definitely not Christian and we’re currently living with these two paradigms in tension. Christianity is certainly not fading away into extinction. Even two years ago a study by Christian Research found that church attendance was no longer in decline. London churches have in fact grown rapidly in number from 4100 in 2005 to 4900 in 2012.
If you ask any serious Christian whether it’s more important to churches that lots of people think of themselves as Christian or that smaller numbers of people come to know Jesus as their saviour, they will only give you one answer. The Bible makes it quite clear that plenty of people who think they are Christians will never get to Heaven. The Church’s job is never to be a cultural institution. It’s about being God’s visible presence on earth. Any church that is more concerned about attendance numbers than discipleship and following Jesus’ teachings is in big trouble.
So lets allow the atheists have their moment of elation. The sad thing for them is that their misguided delight comes from trying to stop people finding a better life through a relationship with a God who loves them and stopping those who are trying to live out their faith from putting compassion and love into practice by serving others in a whole range of ways that benefit us all irrespective of our beliefs. As it is the number of people in our nation coming to know Jesus appears to be on the rise, so maybe in fact it should be those who are writing off the Christian faith as irrational and outdated who have actually got the most to worry about.