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Alarm, smugness, and statistics

03 June 2016

Then picked up by everyone: church statistics in The Guardian last week

Then picked up by everyone: church statistics in The Guardian last week

FUNNY stuff, news. You can write the same story four or five times and it has no impact at all, but the sixth time everyone picks it up as if it were some tremendous novelty.

The report by Stephen Bullivant, analysing the British Social Attitudes survey, which shows that nearly half the population of England and Wales self-identify as “no religion”, was picked up by Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian, and then by everyone. It offers a similar picture to the one that emerges from Professor Linda Woodhead’s work with YouGov, and, in fact, to any reputable survey with which I am familiar.

But let’s assume there is something new in the thing. The best shot at that was John Bingham’s in The Daily Telegraph. He picked up on the speed of the decline, so that his report was headlined “Exodus: churches lose 11 worshippers for every convert.”

The story began: “Mainstream churches are haemorrhaging worshippers around 11 times as fast as they can attract new converts, stark research on the state of faith in Britain shows.”

And — while many journalists can write good leads — it takes real skill to produce a second paragraph as forceful as Bingham’s: “The estimate, in a study by researchers at St Mary’s University in west London, does not count the impact of older churchgoers, who make up the bulk of many congregations, dying.”

The Times didn’t run the story at all, so far as I could see, while the Daily Mail hardly bothered with more than copy from the Press Association. Those two treatments in themselves tell you a lot about the failing place of Christianity in British consciousness.

Most of the reactions were thoroughly predictable. It’s a nice question whether the smuggest responses were to be found in The Guardian’s letters column or in Tim Stanley’s piece for the Telegraph. The Guardian had a letter from Peter McKenna in Liverpool, who stated: “Human rights were variously encoded long before Christianity and beyond Europe, for example, by Babylonian King Hammurabi 2,000 years before.”

Given that the code of Hammurabi prescribes the death penalty for anyone who helps a slave to escape, and, indeed, for any nun found entering a tavern, this is either a remarkably broad-minded take on human rights, or else, just possibly, a piece of routine Christian-bashing by someone who cannot even be bothered to read the Wikipedia entry on Hammurabi, let alone the code he is praising.

In the opposite direction, we had Stanley, a clever right-wing convert to Roman Catholicism, showing what he hadn’t read or thought about: in this instance, the report that he was discussing. “That’s what’s missing from 21st-century British Christianity: evangelisation. The only people you’ll see doing it in the streets are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Scientologists. Why are there no nuns, friars, preachers and vicars out there trying to win souls? You’ll never bring people to Jesus if you don’t tell people about him.”

Actually, the Churches have all been banging on about the need for evangelism for as long as I have been writing about them. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work. Standing on the street and shouting doesn’t work. Putting up hideous billboards doesn’t work. Knocking on doors doesn’t work. If it did, the country would be overrun with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be fair to Stanley, he does mention two things that did help the Victorian Churches: social action, and the empowerment of women. Foodbanks and feminism are the only possible way back into society. But it cannot be said that they dominate the popular image of Christianity or the efforts of the Churches themselves.

Canon Giles Fraser, in The Guardian, pointed out that Christianity is doing fine in Africa, and religion generally is doing well in Asia. “Christianity is currently dying in Europe and the US may gradually follow suit. Pew Research predictions have US Christianity declining from three-quarters today to two-thirds in 2050. But Christianity has been around for centuries, and it remains by far the largest ideological collective the world has ever known. This hasn’t died at all. It has simply shifted its global centre of gravity south and east. And the future is China.”

He also thinks that the future of religion is poverty: “Religion . . . thrives in places where liberal individualism fails. That’s the real clash of civilisations: the shopping centre (now moved online) versus the temple, a battle between those who are wealthy enough to think in terms of the first person singular and those forced to think in terms of the plural collective.”

I’m not sure these two arguments hang together. The rise of Christianity in China seems associated with increasing prosperity. The poor in material terms are not necessarily poor in spirit; and they certainly haven’t been the carriers of religious faith in this country, unless they are immigrants.

I look at that report, and I don’t think anyone, on either side, has begun to think of the magnitude of the change it may be signalling.

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