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2067: The Year British Christianity Dies

Damian Thompson has been looking at the statistics, and brings the bad news to readers of the Spectator [1](paywalled):

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 [2](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.

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118 Comments To "2067: The Year British Christianity Dies"

#1 Comment By JOnF On June 14, 2015 @ 7:34 am

Re: There’s no reason to assume sinners exist on billions of other planets.

Right now there’s no evidence of sentient life anywhere except on Earth. But if it does exist on other planets I see no reason those beings too could not fall and require salvation.

Re: Why is it God placed Adam and Eve on the very same planet where Satan, that Old Serpent, the Devil, resided

Huh? The Devil does not “reside” on Earth. The Devil resides in Hell, and like Heaven Hell is accessible from any point in the physical universe. One need only turns one’s back on God and one is knocking on Hell’s door.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 14, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

culchan… really… there is NO hard empirical evidence one way or the other as to the existence of a deity. The entire hypothesis, if you want to treat it as one, is that there is a plane of existence that transcends the material, empirical universe we can study empirically.

You are under NO obligation to believe in anything of the kind, but don’t bang your head against a series of brick walls trying to challenge those who do believe on grounds of the absence of empirical evidence.

John_E experienced the numinous presence of God in the mass. Is that “proof”? No, but its good enough for John_E. Something a little different is good enough for me. We don’t have to provide evidence of what Isaiah did or didn’t see. If you don’t believe it, go away and live your life, if you have one.

Clement Clark Moore was hired by a committee of New York City business men to create a pretext for a massive increase in holiday shopping.

Incidentally, on Old Testament terms, “the serpent in the garden” and Satan are two very different beings, and each are different from devils, and from Ba’al Zevuv, a Canaanite god satirized as “Lord of the Flies.” Four different things. Stringing them altogether was one of the most ignorant things John ever did during his exile on Patmos. He really just didn’t understand the Scriptures, and rolled his own.

#3 Comment By Fr. Frank On June 14, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

C.S. Lewis and others before him suspected that God might have limited the effects of the Fall to the area circumscribed by the orbit of the moon. Our Eldil went bad, but we have no reason to believe that the Eldila of the other worlds did, or that the inhabitants of the other worlds did, either.

#4 Comment By J_A On June 14, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

Fr. Frank:

Our Eldil went bad. But Eldila (why not Eldilar?) beyond the circle of the moon are probably ok.

I don’t know in which book from the Bible C. S. Lewis read about that.

But is good to know that a couple of higher apes didn’t spoil, a mere 100,000 years ago, a perfectly good Universe that had gone steady for 14 billion years. It’s also good to know that the dinosaurs’ Eldil is likewise probably ok.

#5 Comment By Fr. Frank On June 15, 2015 @ 1:12 am

“The Devil does not “reside” on Earth. The Devil resides in Hell, and like Heaven Hell is accessible from any point in the physical universe. One need only turns one’s back on God and one is knocking on Hell’s door.”

Brilliant, JonF. Orthodox Catholicism at its very best! Look up the Icon of the Last Judgment, “River of Fire.” Our God is consuming fire. The very river in which the damned are drowning is the same river in which the redeemed are snorkeling and doing the back stroke!

The saddest effect of protestantism and Jansen ism in our American culture is that it is nearly impossible for us to believe that our Heavenly Father really loves us.

#6 Comment By culchan On June 15, 2015 @ 1:23 am

Settle down, Siarlys. You’re the one confusing “proof” with “evidence”, and then coming up with terrible examples. A big part of this thread is a discussion of why Christianity is in decline. You labeled as “navel-contemplating nonsense” Rombald’s comment that “with mass literacy and the Internet, anyone who is interested can see that its claims are demonstrably false”. Then you claimed that there was “an absence of near-certainty” about religion. Now you say that there is NO hard empirical evidence that God exists. Wouldn’t you agree that “absence of near-certainty” is a far cry from “no hard empirical evidence”?

Anyway, do you still think Rombald’s claim is nonsense? I can tell you that the complete lack of evidence of any of Christianity’s claims is exactly why I left it. So at least there’s one data point that Rombald’s claim is not nonsense.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 15, 2015 @ 11:14 am

Of course Rombald’s claim is nonsense, and so are your sophistries attempting to maintain it. Do you really think it credible to cry with magnified emotionalism “settle down” while I’m responding to you with detached amusement? You wish I felt threatened enough to get my blood pressure up.

If you don’t understand the difference between “demonstrably false” and “absence of near-certainty,” then I must invoke the rule of ceasing to argue with you, because people might not be able to tell the difference.

#8 Comment By James Kabala On June 15, 2015 @ 11:42 am

“Clement Clark Moore was hired by a committee of New York City business men to create a pretext for a massive increase in holiday shopping.”

Something got lost in translation here. This seems like a very garbled account of the shift of Christmas from a rowdy holiday to a family-centered holiday as described in Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas.

#9 Comment By KD On June 15, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

J_A:

You have not told me how you understand what the “truth” or “falsehood” of Christianity would consists in. I asked the question, and gave two examples of different things we might say are true, but in entirely different ways.

If you understand “truth” in terms of scientific measurement, then neither Christianity nor Shinto can be true or false in those terms. But likewise, what Christians or practitioners of Shinto mean when they invoke the truth is not the same as physicists studying gravitational effects.

I would say a human religion is true, and true by degrees, to the extent that it resembles its true source, like the portrait. The desire to hang a picture on your wall is similar to the impulse to worship.

So it is not as if we cannot make gradations–they are not equal–but at the same time, there can be no ultimate resemblance, at best it is like a portion of a fractal. Thus, religion becomes more like a good work of art, beautiful without ever being able to fully capture Beauty. (Thus, Durer against Kinkade).

#10 Comment By KD On June 15, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

J_A:

What good would an incarnate dinosaur be?

Christ became like man so that man could become like God. I don’t see what point an incarnation would serve unless you had symbol-using animals who lived in complex organizations.

As far as sentient aliens, I don’t know if they would actually be like us or not. If they were, then I would not be surprised if they made similar claims about an incarnation (for example, there are some similarities in Hinduism).

#11 Comment By KD On June 15, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

Has anyone proved the existence of the color blue yet? Or equality? Or the existence of imaginary numbers? Should we reject qualia, mathematics, and mathematical physics because they rest on assumptions which cannot be established on the basis of scientific observation?

#12 Comment By CatherineNY On June 15, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

My family and I spend our summer vacation in England, where my husband and children ring bells in as many ancient churches as will have them. As a Roman Catholic, I confess to feeling envy when I see the beautiful medieval buildings that have such very tiny Anglican congregations, and are in danger of closing, like the 12th century church Father Frank describes. Perhaps the Catholics and Anglicans can do a deal of some kind — a timeshare arrangement. I have been to Roman Cathlolic Masses in Anglican churches on occasion. One time, the occasion was a going away Mass for the local Catholic pastor. The Catholic church was too small to hold the crowd, so the Anglican vicar obliged with his larger church. On another occasion, the Catholics actually did have a timeshare arrangement with the Anglican church, although our Mass was said in a side chapel. Still a very lovely and moving experience. And I have been to Mass in the Catholic church in Dorchester, England, which the RCs bought from the Anglicans.

#13 Comment By Fr. Frank On June 15, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

@CatherineNY: A timeshare! What a great idea! There are several young Catholic families in the village who, like my son, are in the military and have a long drive to Mass. Presbytera and I will be there day after tomorrow and you can be assured that I’ll bring this proposal up to the churchwarden. It’s interesting that in Metheringham the C of E parish council is also the Town Council, and determined by election. It seems to work reasonably well, but I will never get used to Hindu and/or Muslim parish council members voting on how often the vicaress offers the Communion Service.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 15, 2015 @ 10:20 pm

This seems like a very garbled account of the shift of Christmas from a rowdy holiday to a family-centered holiday as described in Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas.

Steve Nissenbaum lacks class consciousness. Read up on “The Hunting of the Wren,” and then cross reference “A Dream of John Ball.” And yes, whatever gossamer and sugar plums Nissenbaum wrapped his account in, the businessmen who paid Moore were looking from the beginning for a massive increase in sales.

#15 Comment By J_A On June 16, 2015 @ 8:16 am

KD, if you are still reading

I don’t know what Truth is. I am always suspicious of capitalized words like Truth, Beauty, or Good. So, yes, If I were to use your descriptors, I’d say I think both Shinto and Christianity are more like portraits than blueprints. I agree that there are gradations, but because the original is so far away, and so different from anything I can conceive in my mind, then I don’t know which one is closer to the “Truth”. Is Ninigi no Mikoto Verily the grandson of the Sun kami? Is he God’s true incarnation on Earth?

You keep thinking my dinosaur questions are mere trolling. They are not. It’s a symbol of all that organized Abrahamic religions, full of Tradition and Authority that affirm that they know and can explain the Truth ignore with a wave of the hand. The Abrahamic religions’ portrait of God is to small. They made God at the image of Man, and thus He is infinitely worried about what bits of plumbing you put where, and how fumbling with your pummeling can earn you eternal damnation. But He is completely uninterested of whatever happened in the 14 billion years before a particular species of large apes became bipedal. They would argue that something these bipedal apes did 200,000 years ago was enough to cause the whole Universe to Fall (another capital letter), and stained all descendants of the apes with Original Sin.

If how to fit the plumbing, and the attitude of other apes about apes that don’t fit the plumbing in an Authorized way is the Condensed Symbol of what God cares about in Creation, then I think that is a small God.

A God that creates billions of galaxies, that raises the dinosaurs to roam the Earth for a thousand times the span the bipedal apes have been around, surely has to smile when He sees disputes about plumbing in apes (or rams, or penguins) raised to be the defined element about what is important to Him.

Your portrait of God needs to incorporate the dinosaurs somewhere. Otherwise it’s a very incomplete portrait.

Let’s call dinosaurs a Condensed Symbol. What is the telos of dinosaurs is an important question.

A last note, as an electrical power engineer, I do not take disrespect of imaginary numbers lightly. They are symbols too. And damned useful ones.

#16 Comment By Mark Citadel On June 17, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

Your hypothesis: Secularism is the greatest enemy of Christianity, greater than Islam.

It follows from this then that we should defend ourselves, should we not? If Christianity is the enemy of the secular state, then what obligation do we have to that state. I can state confidently that were I a Christian in any Western country, and Russian tanks came across the border, I would welcome them. In fact I would subvert and betray my own country in service of Christian powers abroad. This seems entirely in keeping with our religion. If there are no reinforcements around you, invite them from abroad. Have to allegiance to the heathen.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 21, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

The Abrahamic religions’ portrait of God is to small.

Well, of course it is. That is perhaps why we were forbidden to make graven images? Because our portraits would always be too small?

I suspect God knew we would get it all wrong, but better that than complete ignorance. I also suspect God had his own reasons for keeping some people faithful to the original Covenant, rather than the inspiration of the Holy Ghost converting every last Israelite to follow Jesus as their Messiah. Possibly, because this “trinity” stuff would get out of hand, and some body of people were to maintain witness to the simplicity of “the Lord our God is one God”???

He is infinitely worried about what bits of plumbing you put where, and how fumbling with your pummeling can earn you eternal damnation.

Well, I think gospel columnist James Watkins said it best… Perhaps the union of two men, or two women, simply does NOT reunite the Adam, the image of God, which, as a thorough reading of Genesis will show, required all of male AND female to make up the full image. Bits of plumbing is a secondary set of empirics. Plumbing does however have self-evident primary functions. Whether intense desire to make other uses of them wins the day is a bit conjectural as a moral argument.

But He is completely uninterested of whatever happened in the 14 billion years before a particular species of large apes became bipedal.

Well, he certainly didn’t see any need to talk to Moses about that. Ever hear of “need to know”? Don’t burden people with information they don’t need to do their job. Dinosaurs may have been a necessary link, or an irrelevant possibility of several paths of development, to the series of chemical reactions that ultimately resulted in bidpedal apes, capable of handling the living soul (nefesh chayyim) that God would breath into their nostrils. What more significance do they need to have?

Imaginary numbers are useful symbols because they make it possible to form equations that provide a workable rendition of predictable natural processes — although we don’t know why a rationally nonexistent number should do so.

#18 Comment By AGD On July 6, 2015 @ 7:20 am

Deism has taken a number of oblique shots of late. One might say this at least in its defense: Deism assumes the rationality of a Prime Mover – that is, of God. Deists accepted the idea of God, however impersonal, from the Enlightenment more or less through the Twentieth Century. Contemporary atheists, on the other hand, reject even the detached, impersonal Deity of the Deists. This has done more, IMO, to undermine the rational argument for the existence of God/Prime Mover/Something than, say, the garden variety assault on miracles. At least the deity of Deism (or should I say, the Deity of deism) is still God. Reason ought to bring one to the conclusion that there is a deity, a God of some kind. It is faith, rather than reason, that brings one to the conclusion that there is a personal God who revealed Himself and has a kind of spiritual relationship with humans. So knock Deism all you like. At least it provided some rational basis for religion.