THERE are a number of standard reasons given for the drop-out
rate of young people from church. They include: inconvenient times
of Sunday services; predictable preaching; an average
congregational age of 50-plus; and alienation from church culture,
from liturgical verbosity to superficial jollity.
Secularisation theorists have long argued that the cumulative
impact of the social processes that marginalise religion is that
people simply lose interest. It is not that most have become
fervent atheists: they just cannot be bothered to "do God".
Christianity and the University Experience was a three-year
study into undergraduates who describe themselves as Christian. We
could have imposed a definition of "Christian" that was credal, or
emphasised being a regular communicant. Instead, we asked those who
chose to describe themselves as Christian to tell us their moral
convictions and religious practices.
It turned out that nine out of ten Christian students are not in
Christian Unions, and the vast majority rarely or never attend
church during term time.
The 1960s moral revolution has had a double impact. First,the
traditional moral constraints of the Church were overturned. Then
the Church increasingly came under judgement from the new moral
consensus. People no longer consider themselves to be behaving
"immorally", let alone "living in sin". Instead, they have embraced
a new morality, and it is the Church that is now considered
Our results among students, and Linda Woodhead's parallel
studies among adults, suggest that the moral consensus has shifted
irrevocably - not just among non-Christians, but among Christians,
too. These Christians take it for granted that sex is no longer
confined to marriage; contraception and abortion are standard
interventions; living together is sensible; and those who are gay
should have fully equal rights and the opportunity to marry.
They think it is common sense that there should be women and gay
bishops. They also consider voluntary euthanasia infinitely more
humane than doctrinaire enforcement of prolonged suffering on the
ONLY Anglicans and neo-Pentecostals recruit significant numbers
of new churchgoers among students. For Anglicans, those recruited
are far outnumbered by the drop-outs; but these new Anglicans
mostly attend Evangelical and Charismatic churches, and uphold
traditional Christian morality. Even here there are signs of
change: 60 per cent of today's Evangelical students consider that
gay sex is always wrong. That is a solid majority, but not many
years ago it would surely have been almost 100 per cent.
The impact of university on Anglicanism is therefore twofold.
For the majority of "hidden Christians", Sunday attendance becomes
infrequent, and they reject traditional morality, but their
Christian identity and spirituality remain important.
For the conservative minority, Sunday attendance is very
frequent, their Church should militantly defend traditional
morality without any compromise, and many doubt that the "hidden
Christians" are really Christian at all.
The Reformation was a paradigm shift, as was the abolition of
slavery, and now we have entered another mega-shift of Christian
consciousness. Young Christians have embraced a paradigm shift in
morality. A new set of moral convictions has become self-evident
This is far more important than the crisis of contemporaneity
which makes church services seem boring and old-fashioned. From the
perspective of the new paradigm, the Church has become a bastion of
reactionary attitudes, and moral blindness. The Church has lost its
moral authority among Christians, let alone in society, because it
has lost its moral credibility, and is seen to defend indefensible
FOR some clergy and bishops, this new moral consensus is
painfully difficult to accept as authentically Christian. The
priesthood, however, no longer has moral authority over the laity.
Long before David Cameron made gay marriage illegal in Anglican
churches, the hidden Christians had made up their minds to the
This remarkably rapid evolution of Christian morality, mirroring
the broader moral revolution in Western society, belies the
meta-narrative of dogmatic secularisation theory. Christianity
turns out to be more durable than many expected, and more capable
of cultural adaptation.
While the hidden Christians have overturned traditional
Christian moral teaching, they continue to practise personal
spirituality. At university, nearly half of all Christians pray
more than weekly. In some universities, this means one in four of
all their students are praying regularly. That is an awful lot of
praying by a supposedly secular generation.
From the old paradigm, senior clergy want the Church to be more
engaging, without softening its traditional moral absolutism. One
recently described modern Britain as "floundering amid meaningless
anxiety and despair". I find little evidence of this existential
angst the other side of the paradigm shift.
New paradigm Christians, unless they are Roman Catholic by
birth, will almost always identify to some extent with their
national Church. Many pray regularly in private, and affirm
confidently their new Christian morality. But they won't often be
found in the pews.
In Richard Hooker's terms, these hidden Christians are surely
part of the Established Church. But will the Church seek to include
them, and give them a voice? Or will the Church alienate them still
further, entrenching the absolutist morality of the old Christian
Dr Robert Warner is Dean of Humanities at the University of
Chester, where he is the Head of Theology and Religious Studies,
and Professor of Religion, Culture, and Society.
Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding
student faith by Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma, and
Rob Warner is published by Continuum at £21.99 (CT Bookshop