It’s often said that Britain’s church congregations are shrinking, but that doesn’t come close to expressing the scale of the disaster now facing Christianity in this country. Every ten years the census spells out the situation in detail: between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. If that rate of decline continues, the mission of St Augustine to the English, together with that of the Irish saints to the Scots, will come to an end in 2067.
That is the year in which the Christians who have inherited the faith of their British ancestors will become statistically invisible. Parish churches everywhere will have been adapted for secular use, demolished or abandoned.
Our cathedral buildings will survive, but they won’t be true cathedrals because they will have no bishops. The Church of England is declining faster than other denominations; if it carries on shrinking at the rate suggested by the latest British Social Attitudes survey, Anglicanism will disappear from Britain in 2033. One day the last native-born Christian will die and that will be that.
There are no good signs. None. What’s the reason? Says Thompson: Secularization.
is a one-word answer, but it requires a lot of unpacking: secularisation.
Let’s not get sidetracked into another argument about Islam. Although it will probably become Britain’s largest religion some time this century, it isn’t emptying our village churches. The deadliest enemy of western Christianity is not Islam or atheism but the infinitely complex process of secularisation.
Or, to put it another way, choice. Long before digital technology, social mobility was undermining what the American scholar of religion Peter Berger calls ‘plausibility structures’ — the networks of people, traditionally your family, friends and neighbours, who believe the same thing as you do.
I’m not saying that my Catholic grandparents accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation only because the people closest to them shared that conviction: faith can’t be reduced to social processes. But supernatural belief is hard to sustain once plausibility structures collapse.
You go away to university and suddenly almost nobody believes what you do, or did. Your siblings move to different towns, so you won’t see them in church any more. Your laptop plugs you into any social network that takes your fancy. Even if you’re born again as an evangelical Christian, life pushes you from one congregation to another. Many Evangelicals get bored and turn into nones.
The mainstream churches can’t cope with this explosion of choice. Also, as you may have noticed, they’re led by middle–managers who are frightened of their own shadows.
For now, you can’t read the whole thing unless you have a subscription. But it’s grim stuff, though completely unsurprising to people who follow this story closely. I am grateful to Thompson for bringing up the “plausibility structures” point, because I think we don’t pay enough attention to it. Many of us religious conservatives complain (rightly) about the failure of our churches and schools to catechize with any doctrinal depth, and we also gripe (rightly) about vapid worship. But if rigorous catechesis and rich liturgies were widespread, I am not hopeful that the challenge of collapsing plausibility structures would be met.
We can’t just sit here and wait for the end. My contribution to the fight is to develop and promote the Benedict Option concept, based on the conviction that the secularization drive is so overwhelming that the greatest challenge to the churches right now is … well, let’s hear from church historian Robert Louis Wilken (ca. 2004):
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations. [Emphasis mine. This was written in 2004; we have moved much farther down that road, and are picking up speed. — RD]
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
I am far, far less worried about any kind of anti-Christian persecution from the government than I am about my children, and their children, having their faith washed out from under them by the ebb and flow of the secular culture.
Note well that something can be true without being plausible. Christianity seems far more plausible to people in south Louisiana than I imagine it does the the people of Leeds. It is easier to be Christian here than in Britain, because it’s more normal. But this is not likely to be the case for the long term. So, the question facing all of us now: How do we stay Christian, and keep our descendants Christian, when the orthodox Christian faith (or Christian faith at all) appears less and less plausible? How do we maintain its plausibility?
What the churches have been doing is not working — and time is running out. We are not going to reverse this thing, not in our lifetimes. The best we can feasibly do is to hold our own through the long night ahead and wait for the sunrise. We have to play the long game, and build the habits and structures that can endure. This strategy is what the Benedict Option project will attempt to define and explore. As ever, I appreciate your constructive criticism and suggestions.
I don’t know what our British brothers and sisters can do at this point. But we American Christians would be fools to sit back and wait for ourselves to drift as far downstream toward the falls as the British have done. This came upon them so swiftly that it perhaps could not have been stopped. We have had the luxury of time. As I said, time is running out — and Christians who believe in American exceptionalism on this front are whistling past the graveyard.
UPDATE: Reader Fr. Frank writes:
Presbytera and I have a son who lives in the Midlands of England. There is no Catholic Church in his village, so he drives 10 miles to Mass. The pastor is a wonderful man from Nigeria, and the congregation is made up principally of Polish, Gypsy, and Ukrainian laborers, cooks, housemaids, and nannies. He and his wife are in the very small minority in that they are English speakers. Yet, their congregation is bursting at the seams with Mass attendants. On the other hand, in their own village the 12th century church, occupied by the C of E, is being declared redundant, and so will be closed. The vicaress has 3 other parishes and attendance at Evensong (the most endearing of all Anglican liturgies with its chants and evening hymns) has gone down to an average of 6, including the vicaress and the organist, ever since she did away with the Book of Common Prayer service and the chanting of Our Lady’s hymn, the Magnificat, on grounds that Our Lady apparently was wrong in ever having believed herself to have been the Lord’s “lowly handmaiden.” Correlation is not causation, I know. But still. What’s odd is this: in England even atheists in the villages and towns not infrequently attend Evensong. It is an occasion when protestants, Catholics, secularists, et al can sing exquisite English prose together to beautiful tunes and be united in a cultural treasure of England that transcends the tastes of any particular individual. Even the Indians who run the Tandoori shop used to go to Sunday Evensong. It was part of being a neighbor, a family, and a citizen of Metheringham, Lincs. The butchering of the liturgy was received even by Hindus and atheists (some of the very people to whom the C of E was attempting to appeal) as a personal affront. Even those who did not believe that Our Lady is the Mother of God, or for that matter, did not believe in life after death, felt that something had died. Even those who could not believe in the Christian God could believe in the Christian patrimony of England, and the goodness that had come from it. The townsfolk worry what will happen to the parish church after redundancy, but as for the C of E, the churchwarden himself apparently said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” How unspeakably sad.
UPDATE.2: Edward Hamer writes:
I’m British (English to be precise), and these figures don’t surprise me greatly. There are a few points I’d like to make though, which may be of some interest to my friends on the wrong side of the Atlantic:
Firstly, as the journalist Peter Hitchens has argued, there are such things as religious revivals and they’re not all that infrequent. Britain in the eighteenth century was an irreligious and avaricious place, but the nineteenth century saw a great increase in Evangelicalism, the growth of Catholicism, and the Oxford Movement. The question in this country will be whether Christianity ends up benefiting from the next revival, or if people will become enthusiastic about Islam instead.
Secondly, CS Lewis argued back in the forties that there had not exactly been a decline in belief during the twentieth century, but that fewer people still carried on the vaguely Christianised deism that it was considered polite (and in some places was obligatory) to practice. The number of convinced, practising Christians, who really believed in it, had not changed, but their numbers were no longer being artificially boosted by the presence of vestigial, respectable Christianity. Here too, perhaps, the true situation is becoming more visible as the casual Christians fall away.
Thirdly, in Britain (and maybe it’s the same in the States, I’m not sure), children become familiar with a very hollowed-out, child-friendly form of Christianity-lite early in life, because we still have mandatory prayers in schools. I well remember the thorough boredom of the vaguely religious assemblies we had each morning, and the turgid prayers that followed them.
The effect of this, and of the current state of the Church of England, is to inoculate children against proper Christianity quite early on. I didn’t go to a “proper” church service until I was in my mid-twenties, and I was blown away by it, but I’d been expecting it to be lame and plodding, like one of those school assemblies. It was then that I started taking the whole business seriously, because the prospect of being a practising Christian no longer felt like a dumbed-down cringe-fest.
The upshot (and I promise I’ll stop rambling soon) is that the further our public worship can be from those awful, boring, contemptible school assemblies, the more exotic, unfamiliar, and challenging the Faith will seem to newcomers. I predict that Catholic parishes with traditional liturgy will continue to do well here as their Novus Ordo-using brethren dwindle, and I reckon the Orthodox will do well; with those forms of worship you can feel that in Christianity you have found something deep and powerful and esoteric and rich, which is a world away from school assemblies, and is worth bothering with.
And once (as it inevitable) those compulsory school prayers are done away with, it may be no bad thing.