The latest census data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that less than half of British people now identify as Christian. Only 46.2 per cent (27.5 million) claimed to be Christian in the 2021 survey, a decrease of 13.1 percentage points from 2011. This has led some church leaders to react with surprise and disappointment, and more levelheaded commentators to wonder why the decline isn’t greater.
It’s interesting that a census report in Canada last month showed something extremely similar, and the pattern is replicated throughout most of Europe and North America. Where there is religious expansion it’s often in the growing Hindu and Muslim communities, and humanism and atheism – or sometimes sheer indifference – are flourishing.
A factor that should give pause to progressives, whatever their religious beliefs, is that Christian growth in Britain is often within conservative elements, whether they be Catholic, evangelical or inside the Church of England. No surprise really, in that certainty sells in times of transition and instability, especially when it’s glued to religious culture.
And here’s where it all becomes so frustrating. Mainstream churches – based on authentic Gospel principles of love, justice, forgiveness, acceptance, progress and peace – simply aren’t doing a very good job of selling the brand. It’s almost as though we’re more concerned with apologies than apologetics.
There’s some good reasons for that of course, in that churches often have a lot to answer for, and no denominational record is spotless. But given that we follow a first-century Jewish rabbi who was terrifyingly revolutionary, and preached a way of life that would change the world, you’d think we could interest younger people who are often profoundly spiritual and searching.
A major obstacle is the public face of Christianity so often depicted, not entirely unfairly, in media. We hear of activists when they oppose equal marriage, make homophobic statements, protest against women’s reproductive rights, or generally scream “no” instead of singing “yes”. In the US that problem is much deeper, and more representative of the massively influential Christian right. In Britain the reputation is less deserved, and the right less prominent, but the noisiest splashing tends to come from the shallowest end of the pool.
There are also positives for Christians in the census. The early church had it about right, and the organised faith only lost its way when Rome, empire and governments took control, and as a consequence a communal and peaceable minority became an aggressive and intolerant majority. The field is being levelled, and that requires Christians to make their argument anew, which is no bad thing. State church or otherwise, we who try to live by the Gospel should be given no favours, and mustn’t assume privileged entry into the public square.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that 46.2 per cent was even lower if we asked a few more questions, but that means opportunities rather than despair. If we want people to become Christian, it’s up to those already there to get on with it. We have, as they say, some explaining to do.
[See also: The rise of non-religious Britain]