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Time to get serious

Linda Woodhead has undertaken a series of surveys into religion and public life. She argues that her research shows a Church that must face up to the reality, or die

Dave Walker

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Credit: Dave Walker

LORD CAREY, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, made headlines last November by telling the world that the Church of England was on the brink of extinction. There are reasons to take him seriously, and reasons to be seriously sceptical.

The props to Lord Carey's prognostication are sagging charts and drooping graphs, which extrapolate to a point when the Church disappears in a puff of smoke.

Yet trends do not always continue. Other factors usually come into play which render the future different from the past. Indeed, decline itself is one such a factor: once it reaches a certain point, it triggers new choices and actions which alter the course of things.

Extrapolations to a religious zero point often rely on a dubious account of secularisation which sees religious decline as an inevitable outcome of modernisation. As more societies modernise, it becomes clearer that this outcome is far from inevitable. Think of religion in the "BRIC" [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries, for example, or Korea and the Philippines in recent decades.

Nevertheless, Lord Carey is right to express concern. He presses us to look steadily, and honestly, at what research reveals about the Church of England in the UK today.

Here is an overview, drawing on large surveys I carried out with YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates last year, analysed with Bernard Silverman, and supplemented by other data.

 

STILL SIGNIFICANT

WHAT is immediately clear is that Anglicanism is still a significant part of British society. About one third of the population identify as "C of E" or "Anglican", when asked what their religion is. If we average over all age-groups, theC of E remains thesingle largest religion or denomination in the country.

It still has advantages of which other religions can only dream: the history and heritage of a national Church; huge wealth and resources; a stake in about one third of schools; and deep insertion into the élite institutions of England - the monarchy, Parliament, the judiciary, public schools, Oxbridge, the armed forces, and so on.

 

DYING OUT

BUT it is equally clear that Anglicans are dying out. The third of the population who say that they are Anglican is heavily concentrated in older age-groups. Almost half of those over 60 are Anglicans, but by the time you get to people in their twenties, it is more like one in ten. Again, this is not inevitable. Not all religions are declining in Britain. The number of people identifying as Roman Catholic, for example, is fairly steady (probably boosted by migration), and most minority religions are doing a good job of transmission to younger generations.

As for actual church attendance, of those who say they are C of E, about 83 per cent say that they do not go to church other than very occasionally - perhaps for a funeral. The remaining 17 per cent are the churchgoers. Of these, about half attend weekly (those who go unless something stops them), and half attend less regularly (those who go if nothing stops them).

The accumulated evidence shows that attendance has now been declining for more than a century; became much steeper after the 1970s; and has not yet slowed down significantly.

 

TRANSMISSION FAILURE

WHAT we also see is that Anglican identity is not being transmitted from one generation to the next, and that this has been true for many decades. It is as true for older age groups as younger ones. But the decline - starkly demonstrated by the rise in people who said that they had "no religion" between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses - is so rapid that it cannot be accounted for simply by young people's not becoming Anglican like their parents. There must also be older people who disidentify with the C of E at some stage in life.

Belief in God is also declining, but not as fast as belonging. It is interesting to compare the graph below, which shows Anglicans by age, with the one on page 24, which shows belief by age. What is clear is that numbers of people cease to belong, or identify with, the Church, but do not cease to believe. Atheism has been growing, but only a little - about one in five people are atheists. The rest of us believe in God with various degrees of certainty, or are not sure.

 

A TOXIC BRAND

THE important point is that younger people are still open to faith, but increasingly closed to the Churches, and indeed to "religion" in general. Religion has become a toxic brand. The most common response among the young to the census question "What is your religion?" is now "None". Nearly half of young adults under 30 years of age say this. But less than half of "Nones" (43 per cent) say that they are atheists. What they reject more decisively than God is "religion".

Attitudes towards the Church of England are not encouraging. When asked if they view the Church as a positive force in society, only 18 per cent say "Yes", and only 14 per cent say "No". The majority (58 per cent) say "Neither", and the rest "Don't know". In other words, most people are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the Church rather than hostile.

As for the reasons for disapproval, older people are most likely to say that the Church is "boring and stuffy", but younger people now state a strong moral objection: "The Church is prejudiced - it discriminates against women and gay people."

 

VALUES GAP

THIS disconnect between wider social values and the Church's official teachings is striking. There has been a values revolution since the 1980s in Britain over the status and treatment of women, gay people, and children. The change has been swift, each generation being more likely than the one before to insist on equal treatment for the first two groups, and greater protection for children.

Among Christians under 45 years of age, for example, less than 30 per cent think that same-sex marriage is wrong, and an absolute majority think it is positively right (the rest "Don't know").

This results in a gulf in values between over-60s and under-50s. The Church is officially on the side of the former, and set against a moral shift as significant as that which took place earlier in the 20th century in relation to race.

There is also a gap in values between Church and people on socio-political issues. Most people in Britain are now centre-right, and Anglicans are even further to the right than the majority. For example, nearly 70 per cent of "Anglicans" believe that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency - almost ten percentage points higher than the general population. But official church teaching is positioned much further to the left of both the population and, even more so, Anglicans.

This leaves the Church out of step with most of its supporters, as well as its detractors. It is both more left-wing in politics and more conservative in morals, and both more paternalist and more puritanical.

This values gap is certainly a reason for decline, but so is distance and indifference, given that each generation is increasingly unchurched. Only half the population say that they have had any contact with the Church in the past year, and the most common reason (given by 20 per cent) is for a funeral. Thus many people only know of the Church indirectly -through entertainment and news media, for example.

 

AREAS OF GROWTH

DESPITE overall decline, there are some parts of the Church that are regarded positively. Reasons given are that it is "integral to English culture", "an ethical voice in society", and "part of our heritage".

Areas of wider Anglican success include chaplaincy (school chaplains are being actively recruited by many new academies, for example); some voluntary bodies with Anglican input; Christian Aid, the Children's Society and other charities; cathedrals; and schools.

In the congregational realm, there are also some areas of growth, as Peter Brierley (below) and Madeleine Davies (page 26) point out. There is clearly no single magic bullet. Formulaic solutions will not fit an organisation as broad as theC of E. What works for the majority of Anglicans who are irregular attenders is not what attracts enthusiasts.

The recent rapid decline in Anglican baptisms, weddings, and, increasingly, funerals, is therefore particularly serious, since this is the Church's core business, and of enormous importance to what has traditionally been a Church for the whole of society rather than just for the most committed churchgoers.

The Church's greatest failure in our lifetime has been its refusal to take decline seriously. The situation is now so grave that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe, and creative and courageous decisions need to be made.

 

Dr Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.

The full data tables and further analysis of the research discussed here can be found at http://faithdebates.org.uk/research

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