By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, DEC. 14, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On Wednesday, Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) published details of the 2011 census for England and Wales.
The figures revealed a substantial decline in the number of those professing Christianity. According to the ONS the number of residents who recorded their religion as Christian in 2011 was four million lower than in 2001.
This means their numbers in 2011 fell to 33.2 million, or 59% of the overall population, from 37.3 million, 72%, in 2001.
Moreover, people who said they had “no religion” rose by more than six million to 14.1 million, almost double what it was in 2001, the ONS said.
The North East of England has the highest number of Christians, with 68% of the population. By contrast Wales had the highest percentage of people stating they have “no religion,” at 32%.
Information was also published regarding Northern Ireland, revealing that there are a bare 54,000 more Protestants than Catholics. In 2011 there were 864,000 people from a Protestant tradition, compared with 810,000 from a Catholic background, the Irish Times reported Dec. 12.
In the last 10 years there was a 1% increase in the Catholic population from 2001 and a reduction of 5% in the Protestant population. For the first time the Protestant population has dipped below 50%, the Irish Times noted.
Another notable finding of the census was that for the first time ever in England and Wales, a majority of the population was unmarried in 2011. The percentage of married couples fell from 51% to 47%. Reasons for the decline include women outliving men, leaving an increased population of widows, as well as a greater number of younger couples choosing instead to cohabit, the Independent newspaper commented in its report on the census.
Witnesses of beauty
The publication of the data led to an interesting contrast in reactions. A Dec. 11 report published on the Christian Today Web site quoted a spokesman for the Catholic Church, who described the fall in the number of Christians as a “challenge.”
The article did also note that separate polling shows that the Catholic population has remained consistent at 9% of the total population in the last few years.
The spokesman cited the address by Pope Benedict XVI at Westminster Cathedral during his visit in 2010, “How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
An editorial published in the Dec. 12 edition of London’s Times newspaper was in sharp contrast. It also used the words of challenge, saying that: “The decline in Christian affiliation is a challenge to the Church.” It proposed a very different solution to that proposed by the Pope. Christianity, the editorial said: “should respond by embracing modernity.”
The editorial said that “the Church,” particularly the established church, meaning the Anglican Communion, could respond by continuing to assert the truths of Scripture and tradition, or it could “accommodate itself to modern sensibilities.”
The Times opted for the second course of action, saying the Anglican Communion is a national institution, “not a sect.”
“It would be an historic disservice to the nation if the Church were to divorce itself from the society it serves,” the editorial concluded, giving the impression that the Times views churches more as social and cultural welfare agencies than as a source of any sort of revealed truth.
The change from “religion as truth” to “religion as lifestyle” was noted by the Anglican bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, who will soon be the next archbishop of Canterbury, the Times reported Nov. 15.
In a public lecture Bishop Welby said he did not accept the view that religion should become merely a sort of leisure activity.
This is a view clearly shared by Pope Benedict XVI, who reflected that it is important to know that the first word, the initiative comes from God. He said this in his meditation given Oct. 8 at the opening session of the synod on the New Evangelization.
“So when we are carrying out the new evangelization it is always cooperation with God, it is in togetherness with God, it is based on prayer and on his real Presence,” he added.
God communicates himself and faith has a content, Benedict XVI observed. We allow ourselves to be penetrated by God’s message and then we have the opportunity to confess our faith, even in situations of persecution and suffering, he said.
Christians must not be lukewarm, the Pope warned. “Faith must become in us the flame of love, a flame that truly ignites my being, becomes the great passion of my being and so ignites my neighbour.”
Accommodation or evangelization? Many in secular society urge Christians to choose the former. There will be plenty of opportunities in the coming years for Christians to demonstrate their preference for evangelization.