Back in February of last year, Richard Dawkins decided he was going to have a public rant about the number of people who call themselves Christians but don’t go to church. Ipsos MORI had carried out a survey the week after the 2011 census for his humbly named Richard Dawkins Foundation to find out what people really meant when they described themselves as ‘Christian’ in the census. Obviously miffed that so many people (72%) had put their religion down as Christian in the previous 2001 census, he appeared to be preparing to confront the 2011 figures when they came out using his own data to rip them apart. As it turned out the census number dropped to 54% with 25% describing themselves as ‘non-believers’. Dawkins pronounced this shift as an “Exhilaratingly high figure”.
Coincidentally, 54% of those in Dawkins own survey also identified themselves as Christians. At over half of the population, this would appear to be a significantly high figure, but some of the other percentages clearly would have made Professor Dawkins’ day. The results found that of those calling themselves Christians, 40% defined it as ‘I try to be a good person’, 26% chose ‘It’s how I was brought up’ and only 16% selected the statement ‘I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour’. 49% had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months. Also more worryingly, 49% did not think is Jesus the Son of God and bizarrely 6% did not believe in God at all. Dawkins must have been jumping for joy when he read these numbers.
This sort of outcome, whilst disheartening, is not totally surprising. Most of us will know people who call themselves ‘Christian’ who have an extraordinarily wide range of beliefs and views on spirituality. ‘Christian’ can mean a whole range of things in a day and age when most people’s genuine understanding of the Bible and Christian teaching is often non-existent or limited at best. This week one of my friends who gave their life to Jesus just a few years ago was telling me how they were convinced that they were a Christian until they starting going to church. It wasn’t long before they realised they had been way off the mark.
Part of the difficulty with the presentation of Dawkins’ findings, as you would expect, is that it has picked out the bits that make genuine believers who are fully committed to their faith appear as an insignificant fringe group. It’s not easy to trust someone who is so blatantly biased on this matter to give the whole picture.
This week, however, the Church Times has published data from a new survey carried out for the respected Westminster Faith Debates, which approach issues of religion and faith in society in a much more academic way. The director, Professor Linda Woodhead, commissioned a large YouGov survey interviewing almost 4,500 people (twice the size of Dawkins’) about faith issues and personal beliefs. The article in the Church Times, which disappointingly is behind a pay wall, focuses on those from the survey who call themselves Anglicans looking at similar areas to Dawkins’ survey. Fortunately the ever impressive and reliable British Religion in Numbers website has provided a summary.
The Findings divide Anglicans into four categories. Sadly, the results don’t make any better reading than Dawkins’:
- Godfearing Churchgoers (5% of Anglicans) – These are Anglicans who attend church, are very certain in their belief in God, and who say that God is the main source of authority in their lives. They are also likely to score highly on other indicators of religiosity (such as prayer and Bible-reading) and to hold conservative views on many issues of personal morality, particularly sexuality (setting them apart with Baptists and Muslims rather than fellow Anglicans).
- Mainstream Churchgoers (12% of Anglicans) – These have more in common with Non-Churchgoing Believers than with the Godfearers. Apart from their churchgoing, they differ in being a little more religious than Non-Churchgoing Believers on a number of measures and a little more morally conservative.
- Non-Churchgoing Believers (50% of Anglicans) – These share a good many of the attributes of Mainstream Churchgoers, notwithstanding that they do not attend church. They all believe in God (although some prefer the word Spirit), and significant numbers practise religious or spiritual activities regularly. ‘These “nominals” are more than Anglican in name only: they believe, practise, and identify with Anglicanism.’
- Non-Churchgoing Doubters (33% of Anglicans) – These Anglicans are also more than merely nominal. Only 15% are outright atheists, most being agnostic or unsure about God, and more than one-fifth claim to practise some religious or spiritual activity in private. They are the most morally permissive of the four groups.
So, out of those who call themselves Anglican, only 17% go to church and of those who do, less than a third take their faith seriously. With almost as many Anglicans claiming they don’t believe in God as go to church, that’s far, far from being anything to celebrate. It’s no surprise therefore that the Church of England still has an image of being vague and fluffy and unsure of what it believes. ‘Anglican’ through these interpretations can mean pretty much anything you want it to – to the point of almost losing all meaning. Professor Woodhead’s conclusion from this research is that the Church of England needs to engage more fully with non-churchgoing Anglicans, rather than concentrating on the ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’. Woodhead is concerned that the Church is in danger of becoming too clerical and congregationally-based, and of abandoning its sense of being a lay institution governed by monarch and Parliament, and responsible to the people.
Professor Woodhead is right to draw attention to the Church’s role beyond its congregations. Jesus commanded his followers to be missional and to get out into the world and share the Good News with everyone. Reaching out to those who identify themselves with the Christian faith is as good a place to start as any. Beyond that point though, I start to get worried. Yes, the Church of England is the established church and that brings certain responsibilities, but if any church starts to take its eyes off Jesus and puts anything else on equal standing or even above him, it is in deep trouble. Rather than being inclusive to the point of embracing anyone no matter what they might believe, the Church of England, or any other church for that matter, will do better pointing out that being a Christian is much, much more than just believing there could be a god or having some family connection with a church. You can’t leave salvation out of the equation even if it’s not politically correct.
Part of the reason church numbers have declined so much is that people have realised that going to church for no reason beyond habit or tradition is a boring and unfulfilling exercise. If you look at the churches that are growing in the UK, you’ll find that they are full of ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’ and those serious about finding out more, both of whom have little interest in woolly niceties. They are much more interested in having a life-changing encounter with the living God. Leaving people to think that being a Christian or an Anglican isn’t anything worth taking seriously does both the church and those it should be engaging with a huge disservice. Jesus Regularly emphasised that following him was a big commitment and that being a hanger-on wasn’t a credible option.
If the Church of England doesn’t want to fade into extinction as Richard Dawkins dearly hopes it will, then it has to make it clear that its role is not a social club to keep ancient traditions going nor a national institution to do the religious stuff on behalf of everyone else to make them feel better. The church is, whether it acknowledges it or not, the body of Christ on Earth. Anything beyond that is dressing. Would upsetting a few people by telling them that they’re not actually Christians after all be such a bad thing if it means the Church is able to rebuild its identity and get the Good News of Jesus out more effectively? Non-Churchgoers might start to appreciate what they’re missing and Richard Dawkins might finally realise that the Church most definitely isn’t a lame duck waiting to be put out of its misery.