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14 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:58pm

Christmas without Christians: how do we celebrate in a secular age?

Just 15 per cent of people now consider themselves to be members of the Church of England.

By Alec Marsh

How long has Christmas got? The question is not quite as absurd as it appears. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that more than half of Britons now describe themselves as being of no religion, up from 48 per cent in 2015. In 1983, the first year of the authoritative survey, that figure was a mere 31 per cent.

A similar trend applies to Anglicanism. The survey found that just 15 per cent of people now consider themselves to be members of the Church of England, less than half the proportion in 2000 – a rate of decline of around 1 per cent of Britons a year. Catholicism is faring rather better at 9 per cent (perhaps bolstered by the arrival of so many Poles), which is what it was in the early Eighties. A further 17 per cent identify as “other Christian” and 6 per cent of people belong to non-Christian religions.

Other trends bode ill for Christians. Only 3 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds describe themselves as Anglican, compared with 40 per cent of those aged over 75. In addition, more than seven in ten of 18- to 24-year-olds say they have no religion, up from 62 per cent in 2015.

So the future of Christianity in Britain is not bright, and the light is fading fast. At this rate, the traditional Anglican Christmas could be history within 15 years.

When I asked the historian Peter Heather of King’s College London for the long view on the state of Christianity in Britain, he told me that it was in its worst position since the third century. That’s before the idea of Christmas was invented in Rome in the fourth century to combat the pagan midwinter festival of Saturnalia. “Before Constantine’s conversion [in 312 AD], about 2 per cent of the population was actively Christian, and I would have thought that’s not far off the number of people who go to church now,” Heather told me. Back then, he said, Christians were regarded reasonably affectionately as a slightly odd minority. “People don’t actively hate them any more,” Heather said, slipping into the present tense favoured by historians. “Christians are an accepted part of the environment, just a bit odd.”

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Which sounds rather familiar. One consequence, Heather noted, citing developments such as women priests and equal marriage, is that Christian institutions “are having to come into line with broader societal values, rather than the other way around”.

This is a major change, certainly in the context of what happened in the last two millennia in Europe.

In view of this, it is easy to imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury weeping into his cups this festive season. For him, the title of the perennial pop hit “Last Christmas” by Wham! may have greater resonance. At least, one would think so.

On the contrary, John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, who is also the lead bishop for cathedrals and church buildings, was decidedly bullish when I asked him if he was troubled by the decline of Christianity. “All the statistics show an increase in attendance, particularly at cathedrals, and the same is true for parishes,” he said. “There are the headline statistics, which show a lesser proportion of the population declaring themselves to be Christian, but it’s still about 50 per cent. That’s a heck of a lot of people.”

His point is well made: last year, a record 131,000 people in Britain attended Christmas Day or Eve services at Anglican cathedrals, a year-on-year increase of 5 per cent. The church regards Christmas as an important opportunity to engage with the public, and as a moment to explore existential questions (highlighted by the #GodWithUs Twitter campaign). Bishop John believes that society may have reached peak atheism, even if he concedes that the “very hard-line approach” of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, has had an impact. For him, secularism “is a spent force”.

We’ll see. The hard truth is that it won’t take long to find out. And Christmas? Having survived Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans – who banned its celebration in 1647 and suppressed it for more than a decade – this midwinter festival won’t be giving up the ghost any time soon.

Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s magazine 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special