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Britain After Christianity

A couple of you have sent or posted on an article by Linda Woodhead, a prominent UK sociologist who recently polled British Catholics about their beliefs. It’s not sobering; on the contrary, it makes me want a stiff drink. Excerpt:

Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children, almost 90% agreeing that an unmarried couple with children is a family, and two-thirds saying that a same-sex couple with children is also a family. As for same-sex marriage—something which is not even on the distant horizon of the Church’s official agenda—British Catholics as a whole are now in favour of allowing it by a margin of 3%. In addition, only a third approve of the Church’s policies on women, and only 19% of British Catholics support a ban on abortion.

Even more worrying for Church leaders is the fact that the gap between Catholic opinion and official teaching widens with every generation. My survey finds, for example, that over half of British Catholics under 50 now say “same-sex marriage is right” compared with 16% of over-60s, and support for a ban on abortion has fallen to 14% amongst under-40s compared from a quarter amongst over-60s.

The result is a Britain in which “faithful Catholics” according to official teaching are now a rare and endangered species. If we measure them by the criteria of weekly churchgoing, certain belief in God, taking authority from religious sources, and opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, only 5% of Catholics fit the mould, and only 2% of those under 30.

Zero percent of British Catholics now look to religious leaders for guidance as they make decisions and live their lives. The majority say they rely on their own reason, judgement, intuition or feelings. Catholics over 60 are somewhat more likely to take authority from external religious sources, but the figures are low for all ages. Just 8% of Catholics say they look to “tradition and teachings of the Church” 7% to God, 2% to the Bible, 2% to the religious group to which a person belongs, and 0% to local or national religious leaders.

What’s more, according to this survey, only about one in three Catholics believe their Church is a “positive force in society.” The key line in the entire article questions the spin Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the English primate, puts on the Church’s disastrous situation among English Catholics: that Catholics still aspire to live up to the Church’s ideals, but find it difficult. Says the survey’s author:

The problem with this line is that most Catholics don’t think the teaching is too hard, they think it’s wrong.

Does anyone doubt that where Britain is today, the US will be the day after tomorrow? You know I have a weakness for Chicken-Little-ism, but I can’t see what arrests this trend. The age is darkening for traditional Christians.

Survey results like these inevitably make liberal Christians in the various churches argue that the churches have to liberalize if they’re going to survive. The problem with this is that both experience and social-science research teaches that this is not true. You might remember this blog post I did a while back about the experience of a religion scholar who found that even in the socially liberal Pacific Northwest, liberal churches are floundering, while conservative churches (Evangelical ones) prosper.

Writing in The Guardian earlier this year about UK religion in general and the C of E in particular, Andrew Brown hit on an interesting point, citing Linda Woodhead:

Yet this may not have been inevitable. What is extraordinary is the tally of advantages the Church of England has failed to capitalise upon. Its considerable social reach, its schools, and its place in civic and political life, none of them have seemed to make it convincing. It is not even convincing from the inside: a friend of mine in his early 40s, who has worked at Lambeth Palace and now has a good chaplaincy, says people of his generation are all as cynical about the organisation as the party members were in the last days of the USSR. They know that all the official stories are lies, and are waiting and hoping for some Gorbachev-like figure who will admit this.

Considering what happened to Gorbachev, there may not be many volunteers for the position.

Yet the decline of the Church of England, and of Christianity generally, does not mean that people are rushing towards atheism. “There absolutely isn’t a national decline of religion,” says Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University and one of the organisers of the Westminster faith debates. Those have been based on surveys of public opinion that have shown with great clarity that the congregations in all the mainstream churches are much more socially liberal than the clergy.

“What has happened is a complete disjunction between the values of the church and the values of the population,” says Woodhead. “The church has clericalised until it’s just clergy and lay ministers talking to each other. The public are not an audience for this debate. And you can’t have a minority gospel for a majority religion.”

Woodhead means that the loss of faith in and identification with churches doesn’t imply atheism — a point that Putnam & Campbell brought out in American Grace. There really aren’t that many more confessing atheists today than there ever were — some, but not a significant number, though more recent research shows that is almost certain to change — but there are far more people today who simply do not identify with a particular church, except in a nominal sense. Ross Douthat said last year that while conservative Christians ought to be worried about the liberalization of US society and its impact on churches, there is absolutely no reason to think that liberal churches will benefit. When most people liberalize on sexual morality, they don’t go to liberal churches; they quit going to church at all. 

Britain is far more secular than America is, but again, I don’t quite see how the US avoids or reverses these general trends that have just about killed Christianity in the UK. This is not the end of the world — but it’s the end of a world. It ought to make us all take Pope Francis’s words the other day about a general apostasy and the end of days more seriously.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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