Each year at the main religious festivals, the national newspapers carry stories of the decline of Christianity in this country. Last year was no exception. But, in three respects, something different did happen.
First, figures from Christian Research, published just before Christmas, suggested that, while attendances were still falling, the average number of Roman Catholics in church each Sunday (861,000)
was exceeding that of Anglicans (852,000) for the first time. The Sunday Telegraph reported this on its front page on 23 December, and was so carried away with the news that it produced a headline proclaiming that Britain was now “a Catholic country”.
Those who wrote the story seemed to have overlooked the fact that, in addition to Anglicans, there were also members of Free Churches, who numbered almost as many as each of the other denominations (822,000). In other words, there are twice as many Protestants in Britain as Roman Catholics. But why let that spoil a sensational headline?
The real headline should have been “Catastrophic decline in mass attendance masked by inward migration” — since the Roman Catholic numbers have been boosted by the (perhaps temporary) arrival of EU citizens from Poland and Lithuania (News, 18 January). Yet an indelible idea has now been put into the consciousness of many: that the Roman Catholic Church is the real voice of Christianity in England, while the Established Church drifts inexorably towards oblivion.
The second feature of the coverage was the sheer number of articles or references to this decline, and the willingness of so many columnists — such as Matthew Parris in The Times and Polly Toynbee in The Guardian — to write about their lack of belief. The mood was no longer one of sorrow, as in previous years, but showed some vitriol towards the Church. There is a confidence and stridency about contemporary atheism which I have not seen before.
Yet there was a third aspect to the coverage and the reaction to it last year which has so far escaped notice, but may turn out to be even more significant. This was a change in what I would call the religious default position of the English.
During the course of the past half-century, Britain became increasingly a marketplace of faiths — both in the sense that there were many faiths on offer along most high streets, and also that people see the various faiths and Christian denominations in that light. Until the past few years, most people, if they were not adherents of another religion, or active in another Church, or committed secularists, probably thought of themselves as “Church of England” in some way.
This was the taken-for-granted or default position of the English. It is why hospitals and the armed forces would routinely write “C of E” in the box for religious denomination. You had to make some intellectual effort not to be Anglican, by declaring for another Church or faith, or for no faith at all. But this is changing. The default position is becoming something else: the religious equivalent of “Not today, thank you.”
For most of my lifetime, opting for another faith, or even no faith, would have been regarded as a big deal. It meant repudiating something — your religious birthright as “C of E” — and taking a step away from family, friends, and neighbours. But not any more.
Since the default position is no longer Anglican (or anything else), choosing a denomination or faith no longer involves moving away. The English have learnt to become consumers of religion in the way that they have become consumers of everything else, from music to health care.
This process has been assisted in the first place by the state, which, for at least a decade now, has been pressing home the unrelenting message that no one faith or denomination, nor indeed religion in general, can have any privileged position in British life.
This was done for the sake of being fair to all religions, but was probably the atheistic Trojan horse. Religion was assumed to be a matter of private choice; there could be no default position.
This is why the pre-Christmas row about nativity plays in schools was so illuminating: it pointed to a shift. The head teachers who banned them were genuinely taken aback by criticism of their refusal to have anything overtly religious at Christmas, because their assumption was that religion is something that has to be chosen, not something that is yours by birth.
At the same time, the Church of England itself has been laying increasing stress on the need for commitment. This is not only true of Evangelical Anglicans, but — under Evangelical influence — of the Church as a whole.
Consider, for example, how our understanding of infant baptism changed, as we departed from the Book of Common Prayer to more recent rites. The Prayer Book assumes the Anglican default position, and parents could give notice to the vicar “over night, or in the morning before the beginning of Morning Prayer”. Now, parents and godparents attend preparation classes on the assumption that they need detailed instruction in the nature of their commitment.
As a result, the idea that being born in England means that you are Anglican, even if you never attend church regularly, is being eroded.
This is changing the nature not just of the Church of England, but also of secularisation. We were a secular country before, in so far as the Church’s privileged position in the state had been worn down gradually. But, until relatively recently, I would not have called the British people secular.
They might not attend church often; they might not believe very much (the idea that they believed without belonging never seemed convincing to me), but their default position was not secular. This is what is changing. And we, with our increasing stress on intellectual assent and commitment, are contributing to it.
Canon Dr Alan Billings is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of Lancaster University.