Do you consider yourself a Christian? If you do, when did you last go to church or have you stopped going altogether? I pose those questions because details from the latest national census have just been published which show that ours is no longer a Christian country. Whatever your own religious (or non-religious) status, does that worry you? And if it does, should we begin to take more seriously those who demand that the Church of England be stripped of its position as the established church, with all the influence and powers that entails?
Christianity has been the religion of the majority in this country since the dark ages. The last census shows that is no longer the case. The number ticking the “Christian” box has fallen below 40 per cent. That has never happened before. And of those who did tick it barely 12 per cent said they were members of the Church of England. In fact more of us go to a mosque every week than to a parish church. But the largest proportion by far ticked the box that said “no religion”. It’s now 37 per cent. That’s three times what it was twenty years ago and makes us one of the most godless countries on the planet. In the United States two-thirds of the population call themselves Christian.
But a total stranger to this land might well form the impression that Christianity is still the driving force of our national life. When Charles III is crowned king next year the ceremony will be in a Christian church (Westminster Abbey) and the liturgy will be based entirely on Christian tradition. The crown will be placed on his head by the leader of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Cangerbury. King Charles will be declared the defender of the Christian faith – almost exactly 500 years since that honour was awarded to Henry VIII for defending the Catholic church against the protestant Martin Luther. That’s in spite of Charles’ own suggestion when he was heir to the throne that he might prefer “defender of faith”, given how many different religions are now practised in this country. Tradition won that battle hands down.
As The Times put it in its leader column, Christianity has “shaped our politics, values, society and nation for well over a thousand years… Our country’s laws are founded on principles that derive from the teachings of the Church. Its institutions, including parliament and the monarchy, owe their authority to the faith that once encompassed, at least nominally, the entire population.” Twenty-six senior Anglican bishops have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords and thus influence the laws of the land.
But the shift away from Christianity has been under way for at least a century and has accelerated in recent years and The Times asks: “Should a religion that no longer commands the allegiance of the majority still play such a determining role in public institutions, education system and notions of justice and morality? Is it right that one church in particular, the Church of England, which has seen a sharper decline than most other Christian denominations, should remain the established church, with a constitutional role in the House of Lords? Or is antidisestablishmentarianism holding its own, particularly with the support of other faiths who believe that religion, even if confined to the Church of England, should still be influential in the formation of our laws?”
There are many who believe that, whatever the census may have revealed, this remains at its heart a Christian country. The historian Tom Holland says it does so by virtue of its history and state institutions – parliament opens with “prayers” – and in the belief system that underpins its political values. He quotes the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.”
But should this be a debate about “giving up” the Christian faith or about taking another look at the role the Church of England specifically plays in our national life?
The National Secular Society has been campaigning since it was established in 1866 for religion to play a less prominent role in public life. The separation of religion and state, it says, is the foundation of secularism. In a secular state religious groups would not interfere in affairs of state and the state would not interfere in religious affairs. Christianity is one major influence among many, it says, that shape our current ways of life: “We are a nation of many denominations and religions. Large sectors of the population do not hold, or practise, religious beliefs. If Britain were truly a secular democracy, political structures would reflect the reality of changing times by separating religion from the state.”
Secularism, it points out, is not the same as atheism: “Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularists want freedoms of thought and conscience to apply equally to all – believers and non-believers alike. They do not wish to curtail religious freedoms…. It ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.”
The Guardian columnist, Sir Simon Jenkins, says the case for dismantling the Church of England’s relationship with the state is now overwhelming. He writes: “The church cannot retain the monarch as its governor ‘by the grace of God’. It should retire from its prominence in state and civic ceremonies, remembrance days, judicial oaths, the BBC and the daily service. The church cannot justify its privileged access to state schools and its reserved seats in parliament, the latter perk shared only with Tory party donors.”
He takes an equally robust view on the relationship between the monarch and the church: “King Charles should declare this tradition obsolete. He is shortly to be crowned and ‘anointed’ as monarch in a religious service representing just the Anglican 15% of his subjects. Modern hereditary monarchs, such as those of Denmark, Sweden and Spain, are “proclaimed” in a secular, democratic parliament. The king in council should appoint a commission to advise on disestablishment in advance of his coronation. It could go further, and reform the entire House of Lords. There is a place for ceremony and history, but Queen Elizabeth’s constitutional antiquarianism was contingent on her age and was her unique selling proposition. Again, those days are over.”
It's worth noting that some religions and faith groups are faring better than others in this country. Black and Pentecostal churches are thriving, particularly in the inner cities. There has been an increase in the number of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs – presumably because of increased immigration. And a recent survey of 5,000 people by the religion think tank Theos produced some intriguing findings. It suggested that only about half of the 5,000 people they questioned who said they had “no religion” went on to say that they “don’t believe in God”.
That may come as some consolation to those church leaders who say the census findings do not prove that we have become a godless nation. They argue that those who say they are no longer Christians may still hold to the underlying moral values of Christianity. They also say that a community in grief will still often turn to the Church for support. In the words of The Times a church is seen as “the natural focus of a community in grief, and in the wake of natural disasters, terrorist outrages or mass shootings, churches play a vital role in articulating loss and comforting survivors. Retaining the established church as a national unifying symbol underpins this important role.”
Do you share that view? Are you one of those who has clung to your faith – assuming you ever had one – or are you someone who finds your comfort and, indeed, your moral guidance, elsewhere? Do you believe the Church of England has done enough to remain “relevant” in this modern, materialistic world – especially to the young? And should the Church retain its status as the established church with all that implies. In short: who should place the crown on Charles’s head next year?
Do let us know.