I PUBLISHED Religion in Britain since 1945 back in
1994. It is mostly remembered for its subtitle: Believing
without belonging. In due course, the publishers requested a
second (comprehensively revised) edition, now published as
Religion in Britain: A persistent paradox (Wiley
The paradox in question is easily stated: in terms of their
statistical contours, the Churches (and related organisations) have
continued to decline. This is undeniable and well documented. In
terms of the public presence of religion, however, the debate has
intensified, and includes not only the part played by the Churches
as such, but a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith
and faith communities in a liberal democracy.
The urgency of this debate reflects the changing nature of
modern Britain, a country with a deeply embedded Christian culture
which, at the same time, is becoming increasingly secular and
increasingly diverse with regard to its religious profile.
The new book explores this paradox in the light of six key
factors that push and pull in different directions. These are:
1) the place of the historic Churches in forming British
2) an awareness that the historic Churches still have a place at
particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are
no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great
majority of the population, nor would they want to;
3) an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of
Britain, which are increasingly operating on a model of choice
rather than a model of obligation or duty;
4) the arrival into Britain of groups of people from many global
regions and many different faiths, which has led to the increasing
significance of religion in public as well as private life;
5) the reactions of Europe's secular elites to this shift;
6) last, and a little different, a growing awareness that the
patterns of religious life in modern Europe, which includes
Britain, should be considered an "exceptional case" in global
terms: they are not a global prototype.
THE Church of England has been influenced, and at times
buffeted, by each of these points. Without doubt, it has been
formative in British (specifically English) culture, and to an
extent it remains so. Its buildings are some of the most visited in
the country, and they continue to host the liturgies associated
with national and local life.
Closing a church, either temporarily (St Paul's Cathedral) or
permanently, provokes displeasure among a wide variety of
Parish churches, moreover, remain the default institution for
substantial numbers of people as they mark the turning points of
life, though more so in some cases than others. The figures for
baptism and marriage continue to plummet; those associated with
death are more stable.
That said, the rites themselves are changing. Baptism is no
longer associated with Englishness, but has become a sign of
membership in a voluntary community.
The unbelievably rapid acceptance of same-sex partnerships has
radically altered assumptions about who can and cannot be married
in church. And, even in death, a growing number of alternatives
erodes the taken-for-grantedness of the parochial model.
Indeed, whatever indicator is selected, an unmistakable process
is taking place, as "contracting in" replaces "contracting
Even residual forms of obligation are no longer meaningful, as
the parish church, along with all others, has to compete for
attention in a population which will frequent - let alone commit to
- only an organisation that makes such an activity worthwhile.
There are losers in this situation, but there are also gainers,
both within and without the Church of England.
WHO falls into which category is doubly interesting: current
preferences are revealed, but so also are the mistaken predictions
of an earlier generation. The actively religious these days are
disproportionately drawn to two kinds of religious organisation:
Charismatic Evangelical churches on the one hand, and cathedrals or
city-centre churches on the other.
In both cases, there is a noticeable experiential element,
albeit differently expressed. The purely cerebral, often associated
with liberal Protestantism, is losing out - which is exactly the
reverse of earlier expectations.
A second reversal is equally interesting: that is the turnaround
between urban and rural. Some 20 years ago, the former (notably the
main conurbations) were still considered stony ground as far as
religion was concerned; the latter were relatively conservative,
and sustained churchgoing habits from earlier generations.
The opposite is now the case. Rural parishes struggle, compared
with striking examples of growth in urban areas - most of all in
London, where patterns of religious life are more like those in the
This is unsurprising, given that the Global South continues to
arrive in London in considerable numbers. Immigration clearly
stimulates growth; it also expands the market.
GROWING religious diversity, moreover, is the principal reason
for religion's return to public discussion. Britain, like all
European societies, must strive to accommodate those whose cultural
backgrounds are different from our own. It is a tricky process in
itself, which is compounded by the growing visibility of religion
in the modern world-order.
Secular voices respond accordingly, some of them more sharply
than others. "New atheism" is a noisy but not all that numerous
component of a section of the population which is expanding
That said, the "secular" in Britain is as distinctive as its
religious counterpart: both are coloured by the specificities of a
past in which religious diversity, and the tolerance that comes
with this, has a longer history than for most of our European
Britain, for example, may be less democratic than France, but it
is markedly more tolerant. Britain has retained its monarchy, an
unelected second chamber, and its links with its historic churches.
Justifiable or not, all three affirm a space for faith and faith
communities at the core of our society.
France's majoritarian democracy is less able to accommodate such
identities; indeed across the Channel communautarisme (the
French form of communitarianism) applied to anything - gender,
ethnicity, and so on - is considered a markedly negative term,
AGAINST this background, the Church of England is making some
very critical decisions. No longer able to maintain the public
utility that the parochial structure represents, it must find a new
way forward that sustains the best of the old model, while
responding to new challenges.
Here, the market rules, like it or not. Parish churches, like
all other churches, will only "succeed" if there are good reasons
for parishioners (and others) not only to come, but to stay.
There are two things to say in connection with this. The first
is to appreciate that the current crisis is hardly the fault of the
Church of England; it is a mutation that is taking place right
across Europe, though in different ways in different places.
Critical in this respect is the funding model of the Church in
question. In the Lutheran Churches of northern Europe, church tax,
or its modern equivalent, ensures the survival of the parish system
in societies which are every bit as secular as Britain.
Across Roman Catholic Europe, there is huge variation, from a
largely intact state of affairs in Italy, to the massively eroded
structures in France. The Roman Catholic Church in Spain is sliding
rapidly in the same direction. Ireland is moving faster still.
The second point follows from this. Appreciating that there are
others in the same boat does not make the English situation any
easier; it does, however, suggest that finger-pointing and blame
are unhelpful. It is more constructive to look forward than back,
and to realise when looking for solutions that it is very unlikely
that one size will fit all.
There is a huge variety of possible alternatives: a traditional,
or even traditionalist parish is as much an option as the freshest
of Fresh Expressions. Either can be done well or badly. Put
differently, it would be unwise to limit the possibilities to what
is currently in favour. That, as we have seen, can change
A POSITIVE step within this continuing flux is to recognise
- and then to build on - the advantages of a weak Established
Church. It is abundantly clear that a strong State Church runs the
risk of being both excluding and exclusive - as, indeed, does a
strong state. A weak State Church has the capacity to be more
Discerning its strengths from a distinctive past - that of a
partial monopoly - it can use these imaginatively to welcome rather
than exclude, and to encourage rather than to condemn. It is,
moreover, a way of working that can be applied at national,
regional, and local levels.
Most important of all is to foster a better quality of
conversation about faith in British society. Religious literacy has
become a buzz word - rightly so.
We need, however, to go further, and establish not only ground
rules for the debate (the common courtesies of exchange), but
distinctive bodies of knowledge, in order to facilitate
constructive contributions by people of many different faiths to
communities of very different kinds.
The spiritual care of elderly people demands one thing; legal
advice to an employer on "reasonable accommodation" in the
workplace quite another. The accurate assessment of what has become
known as radicalisation is different again.
Given its reach, however, even a residual Established Church has
a unique part to play in encouraging and refining such
Grace Davie is a Professor Emeritus of the University of