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As Church Attendance in England Declines, Future of Christianity Is Debated

What can stop the growing lack of interest?

The latest figures on Sunday church attendance for the Church of England showed a decline to only 764,700, a fall of 7% in five years and just 1.4% of England’s population.

The proportion of the population going to Sunday services is now only one-third of what it was in the 1960s, the Telegraph newspaper pointed out in its January 12 article.

One of the causes of the decline is the large proportion of elderly people among churchgoers. It is estimated that the Church of England loses around one percent of its membership each year through deaths.

For some the news was an occasion to rejoice. “Far from being something to regret, declining church attendance shows that society is getting wealthier and wiser,” commented Philip Collins, a Times newspaper columnist, on January 15.

Other reactions showed a more positive view of Christianity. The previous day, in another Times column, Edward Lucas, called for a return to a more robust Christianity as the way to reverse the decline.

“The real problem is that so much of the Christian church in Britain has lost its conviction — and thus its power to convince,” he declared.

The elimination of Christianity from public life would be a serious mistake, Lucas said, because not only has it been for so long an important part of the country’s history, literature and culture, but also because its absence “eases the path not for modernity, but for the nihilistic medievalism of the jihadists.”

Belief in Britain

The data on Church attendance falls in line with some of the points raised in a report published last December by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. The commission was set up by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain.

The report, “Living With Difference: community, diversity and the common good,” identified three major trends over the last 50 years. The first is an increase in the number of people who are non-religious, with almost half of Britain’s population today in this category.

The second is a general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago around two-thirds of the population identified as Christians. Currently that has diminished to four in 10. At the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Protestant churches.

The third is the growth in non-Christian religions, mainly Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. While these other religions count for less than 10% of the population they have a younger age profile and are growing faster.

The report made a number of recommendations centered on the need for dialogue between the different religious communities, the need for greater religious literacy and, more controversially, a call for recognition of religious diversity in national and civic events.

It also said that schools based on a particular religious tradition should reduce the selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.

The report was strongly criticized by some and, “provoked a furious row as it was condemned by Cabinet ministers as ‘seriously misguided’ and the Church of England said it appeared to have been ‘hijacked’ by humanists,” the Telegraph reported, December 7.

“The Church of England said the report was a ‘sad waste’ and had ‘fallen captive to liberal rationalism,’” the Telegraph added.

The increasing opposition to the role of Christianity in public life was later the subject of comments by William Nye, a former senior government official for many years, and now Secretary General of the Church of England.

Nye said there is a “secularizing spirit” in the way government operates and that Christianity is being subtly “silenced” in the U.K.’s public sector, the Telegraph reported January 3.

Our Father banned

His comments came after a pre-Christmas controversy over the screening of an ad in cinemas based on the Our Father. The theme of the ad was to encourage people to pray.

The company that coordinates the ads for the main cinema chains, Digital Cinema Media, prohibited the screening of the ad.

In a commentary published November 22 in the Guardian newspaper Giles Fraser observed that the ad would have coincided with the release of the latest Star Wars film. “Apparently, the Jedi religion is fit for the big screen, but the Christian one is not,” he said.

Many public figures, including Prime Minister David Cameron, and Stephen Fry, a fierce critic of religion, decried the decision to prevent the ad’s screening.

In a reflection on the issue the Anglican bishop of Sheffield, Steven Croft, pointed out that the 60-second commercial consisted of the words of the Lord’s Prayer recited by various groups of people and that perhaps the real reason for its banning was the challenge it posed to contemporary consumer culture.

The words of the Our Father, he said, shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator. No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.”

“The past 50 years show that the creation of a moral vacuum in society has not been a success,” noted Lucas in his Times column.

It can only be hoped that the latest news from England will help stimulate a reaction to the decline of Christianity in England, Europe and other parts of the world.

About Fr. John Flynn

Australia Licenciatura en Artes de la Universidad de Nueva Gales del Sur. Licencia en Filosofía por la Pontificia Universidad Gregoriana. Licenciatura en teología de la Reina de los Apóstoles.

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