A recent survey about religious attitudes and practice in Britain makes challenging reading for anyone who has a vested interest in the place of the church in society. The survey suggests that as a society we are losing our religion.
The numbers of those identifying as ‘belonging’ to the Church of England or the Anglican faith has fallen dramatically in the past 35 years. In 1983, 40% of the population identified as belonging to the Church of England, a proportion that fell to 31% in 2002 and to just 14% in 2017. The fall was greatest among those aged 45 – 54. At the same time, those who regard themselves as having ‘no religion’ (the nones, as they are called) has risen from 31% in 1983 to 52% in 2017, with 70% of 18 - 24 year olds citing no affiliation with any particular faith.
In 2012 there were only six countries where a majority of the population identified themselves as having no religion – China, Hong Kong, North Korea, Japan, the Czech republic and Estonia. Whilst this indicates that Britain is in an unusual position, it also suggests that the march of secularism may not be as insistent as is often assumed.
Furthermore, surveys of the nones reveal that they are not straightforwardly secular themselves. Certainly, nones reject religious labels – but they reject secular ones as well. Only a minority (41%) are atheists and very few (13%) are hostile to public religion and religious belief. The complex picture is further illustrated by their religious practice – a quarter report taking part in some kind of religious or spiritual practice in the course of a month, such as praying. What they absolutely do not do is take part in communal religious practices like church attendance or worship. They dislike being preached at and told what to do; they prefer to make up their own minds.
(For further details and more background see Linda Woodhead’s lecture at https://www.britac.ac.uk.default>files)
So whilst this is indeed sober reading for institutional religion in general and clergy such as myself in particular, the rise of the nones does not suggest that the search for meaning has stopped. Rather, the world has become suspicious of over-arching narratives or programmes that seem to make things too neat. Theories of everything are seen as toxic as they are unifying – in an unashamedly pluralist world, true and lasting unity is not grounded on uniformity.
The local church is thus presented with both a challenge and an opportunity; we have a story to tell and should stick to it, but at the same time we should be sufficiently confident that we can regard differing views as opportunities to learn rather than arguments to trump. This broad approach has been described in the following way:
If a Church can not only tolerate but commit itself to different strands of spiritual and artistic expression, historical interpretation, and contemporary political reflection, then its vocation is holistic, innovative and faithful and will speak – into a society suspicious of religion – of a God who, in Christ, is the God who carries our questions and is big enough for all our uncertainties.
As I take my leave of Marlborough (and Marlborough.News!) and prepare to move to Uxbridge, it will be interesting to discover the points of both overlap and difference that the two very different contexts present.