THE national Census is a hugely valuable exercise, assembling people’s own descriptions (it must be remembered) of their identity, relationships, living conditions, and employment. It is the envy of many governments around the world, apart from the ones who prefer to promote national myths rather than facts, and who certainly wish to keep such information from their populations.
It is a reminder that even raw facts have a political power. Perhaps the most powerful are the ones that are least welcome: evidence of poverty, maybe, or deviations from assumed values and behaviour. A 13-per-cent drop in the past decade of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christian is unwelcome, certainly. Commentators who describe this as a shedding of labels rather than a mass loss of faith are plausible. None the less, there is genuine loss even if the statistics mean that fewer people want to be identified as Christians. Anglican churches have always been happy to embrace the nominal, the half-hearted, the uncertain, and the occasional, welcoming them whenever they choose to show up to something — perhaps too happy, hence the recent attempts to promote the notion of discipleship, currently making only very limited inroads in parishes.
The advantage of national sampling is that it is hard to manipulate. The disadvantage is that it is also hard to interrogate. There is no space for nuance or explanation on a Census form; so there are few limits to speculation about causes and remedies. Those who believe the drop to be caused by a general perception among the public that the Church is irrelevant and out of touch with present-day concerns can argue keenly with those who say that the Church has lost its distinctiveness and thus the incentive for people to explore it.
Allies of the first group might campaign for more modern, accessible liturgy; of the second for traditional austere beauty. Both should take more heed of the many other bits of research that draw attention to, for example, the lack of intergenerational pass-on; the number of former attenders who have left unnoticed; the general anti-institutional trend; the association of church with abuse; and so on.
But out of the many individual reasons why fewer people see themselves as Christians, the most worrying for the Churches is ignorance: too many people now simply do not know what a Christian looks like — and thus, what Christ looks like.
As an aside on the theme of unwelcome facts: it is surely time for the Anglican Communion statistics to be revised. The often-quoted figure of 85 million Anglicans worldwide includes 26 million “members” in England, and a further half-million in Wales. Going by this week’s Census total, that leaves exactly one million spare Christians to be claimed by the other denominations in the country, such as the Roman Catholics (4-5 million), Non-Conformists (2-3 million) and unaffiliated “Christians” (8-9 million).