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Angela Tilby: When we lose religion, we turn inwards  

09 December 2022

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I HAVE been pondering the 2021 Census, with its answer to the voluntary “religion” question’s finding that fewer than half the population now describe themselves as “Christian” (News, Leader comment, 2 December). If Christianity is a turn-off, it seems, the word “religion” is worse: having “no religion” is an upward trend.

In the Roman world in which Christianity emerged, “religion” meant the duties and practices that held society together under the gods. Christianity was subversive because it insisted that individual human lives were not controlled by fate. True religion meant that the poor, the unmarried, and the disadvantaged were not destined for lives of misery, but should, rather, be welcomed as beloved children of God. Christian fellowship, koinonia, was inspired by the idea of the Church as a Body: a notion with origins in Stoic philosophy and given Christian meaning by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

It is not surprising that Christianity fostered novel ways of belonging and of exercising Christian caritas: hospitals for the sick, schools for the poor, the obligation of the rich to provide by generous legacies both for the living and the dead. All this led to the emergence of institutions — a very particular Western and Christian enrichment to society. Think of the associations of scholars which eventually became universities, or guilds promoting the welfare of craftsmen and traders, the eventual forerunners of trades unions.

The Christian notion of the Body survives today in words such as “corporate” and “corporation”. It suggests a sacramental basis to the common life: Corpus Christi, we belong together because we belong in God, we are all guests at God’s table, where charity as forgiveness, and belonging is constantly renewed.

In recent years, though, there has been a gradual turning inward in the way in which we understand ourselves. Rather than seek personal identity in belonging to something bigger than ourselves, we now believe that it is the subjective inner self that counts, its choice of identity that now carries sacred meaning. There is a widespread distrust of institutions, along with never-ending demands for personal protection, compensation, and restitution for institutional failure.

I see the loss of Christianity as a religion as a loss of societal flow, a loss of belonging to one another and to nature, a loss of civilised ways of resolving differences, a loss of meaning in the face of death, a loss of the common prayer that once held us together, whether we were fervent believers or not. Loss of our historic faith has driven us inwards and made us hopelessly vulnerable to the invisible predators of late capitalism — those with instant access to our credit cards, our opinions, and our anger, which is weaponised for profit and endlessly recycled as “hate”.

It is at least possible that the C of E is exacerbating the problem by its current policies, but that is for another column.

Read more about the Census in this week’s Letters and Press column

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