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Press: British Social Attitudes survey reports dramatic decline in C of E — but few care

19 July 2019


THE British Social Attitudes survey made dismal reading for the Church of England. The religion chapter made much of the collapse of Anglican belonging across the generations; so that those over 75 were 33 times as likely to say that they were C of E than those between 18 and 24 — which is to say that the figures were 33 per cent and one per cent respectively. This is actually slightly worse than anything that I have seen reported before.

Even worse, from a PR point of view, was the fact that this didn’t seem news to most of the papers, who led their coverage of the survey with observations on sexuality: a slight, possibly statistically insignificant rise in the number of people who thought homosexuality wrong, for the first time since the height of the AIDS epidemic. Douglas Murray, of course, writing on the Unherd website, blamed this on the rising Muslim population, but no one else seemed inclined to do so.

The Times dealt with the religious coverage fairly: “The number of ‘confident atheists’ in Britain has more than doubled in the past two decades while there has been a dramatic decline in Christianity, a study suggests.

“In 1998, 10 per cent of people said they were sure there was no God, while 21 per cent said they had no doubt that there was a God. Today 26 per cent of Britons are atheist while 19 per cent feel sure of God’s existence.”

What seems to me really threatening to the future of Christianity in this country is that this is not thought interesting or important. Polly Toynbee tried her best in The Guardian. In the decline of the Church of England, she saw a shining future for humanity: “In these dark times the Enlightenment itself can seem in retreat. Fact-free emotion wins over reason and the hard-earned liberalism of centuries is thrown into reverse. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson succeed by flamboyantly disregarding truth. . . [But] These strange irrational phenomena are only marginalia in the onward march of reason.

“The BSA report reassuringly finds that beneath the surface of our present turmoil, superstition and unreason are on the retreat, with the onward march of trust in evidence-based scientific truths. When it comes to the great climate question and whether life on Earth will survive, that augurs well. Not prayers but only human agency can save us.”

And this is a woman who mocks religious believers for their irrational optimism! More damaging, I think, was the line in the Times report that “Churches and religious bodies are Britain’s least trusted institutions behind parliament, the survey found, noting a profound decline in ‘religious identity, practice and belief’.”

THIS collapse in belief in what are supposed to be the bearing instruments of the constitution is surely connected with the madness over Brexit that has gripped the Conservative Party. Religions are seldom in step with the secular world: in some ways, they are ahead of it; although in other, more obvious ways, they lag behind its attitudes.

And the disestablishment of the Church of England — at least its detachment from the centres of real power, which has been going on all through my professional lifetime — now seems to prefigure the disestablishment of Parliament itself. An MP seems now a figure of no more significance than a priest without freehold, and possibly one who makes less of a practical difference to his or her constituents or congregation, even when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracies of the modern state.

NOT that the IICSA hearings did anything for the credibility of the Church. You could not beat Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian report for deadpan damage: “The archbishop of York has admitted the Church of England’s treatment of a vicar who was raped as a teenager by another cleric was ‘shabby and shambolic’ but denied he had made personal mistakes in the case.

“John Sentamu told the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that more support should have been given by the church to the Rev Matthew Ineson when he told of his abuse. The archbishop accepted an earlier description by the bishop of Bath and Wells that Ineson’s treatment was ‘shabby and shambolic’.

“Sentamu said he had received a copy of a letter sent by Ineson to the bishop of Sheffield disclosing his abuse, but assumed his colleague would deal with it. The archbishop sent a brief response to Ineson, saying he would pray for him and sending best wishes.”

Similarly, the Telegraph’s lead on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evidence was not that he had come round to mandatory reporting, but this: “The Archbishop of Canterbury banned a ‘vulnerable’ abuse victim from cathedral grounds after treating his case with ‘casual indifference’, an independent inquiry heard.”

THE Telegraph also added a wonderfully grotesque detail to the scandal round the Revd Jonathan Fletcher (News, Press, 5 July). “Mr Fletcher administered physical beatings on men’s naked backsides, gave naked one-to-one massages, withheld chocolate from victims and subjected them to cold baths, it is claimed.”

“Withheld chocolate from victims” wonderfully captures that childish nature of these games — which, as any Calvinist will tell you, is a quality quite unrelated to innocence.

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