Is Britain a Christian country and, whatever the case, what then?

In the last weekly round-up we noted the current debate on the place of Christianity in the UK but refrained from making any comment ourselves. However, Bob Morris, who has written widely on issues of Church and State, has kindly supplied the following guest post.


Unusually, British politicians have been talking about religion this Easter.

Events, dear Boy

First, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, whose Department – rather oddly, one might think – leads on faith relations, and then the Prime Minister, David Cameron, both averred that Britain was still a Christian country – Mr Pickles, with customary brutality, reminding us that there is an established Church and advising people to ‘get over’ that fact. A large number of worthies then wrote jointly to the Daily Telegraph (editorially sympathetic to establishment) to challenge ministers’ views, labelling them as both false and divisive in a pluralised society of multiple belief and unbelief. This was countered by a joint letter disagreeing.

This lukewarm pot was then stirred by the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg. Out of the blue in a radio programme, he floated the thought that the day was coming when church establishment should be stood down for everyone’s benefit, including that of the Church of England. The Prime Minister and others immediately rejected this view – long Liberal Democrat policy deriving from that party’s ancient Christian Nonconformist roots.

Understandably, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, head of the church established in England (and long ago disestablished in Ireland and Wales) felt moved also to comment – no tablets of stone, just a blog. Acknowledging that church attendance had greatly declined, he maintained that nonetheless much of the nation’s life had been ‘shaped and founded on Christianity’, and that ‘in the general sense of being founded on Christian faith, this is a Christian country’. Characterising objectors as atheists, he pointed to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh support for the Prime Minister’s remarks.  This claim, which has been called ‘Anglican multifaithism’ [N. Bonney (2013) Monarchy, religion and the state], is a trope employed by Anglicans to assume a new role and purport to speak for the interests of all religions. On offer is an implied conduit into government valued apparently by a number of non-Christian faiths but not willingly by minority Christian denominations.

The Prime Minister also supported comments by the Welfare Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, that ‘the influence of a moderate and careful and generous Christian faith has enabled us to be welcoming to other faiths’. This line reflected the approach taken by the Queen, constitutionally head of the Church of England, at the beginning of her 2012 Diamond Jubilee year:

“Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life.  The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated.  Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions.  Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths” [15 February 2012].

To put it mildly, these remarks (which it must be assumed were approved by ministers) are by no means uncontentious. The Bishop of London, though he supported them, has called them ‘not uncontroversial’ – bishop-speak indeed.

The data – what are the facts about belief?

The censuses of 2001 and 2011 both asked voluntary questions about respondents’ religious beliefs. In England and Wales, 72 per cent said they were Christian in 2001 and 59 per cent in 2011. There was an increase from 15 per cent to 25 per cent reporting no religion. All other main religions increased – Muslims standing at 5 per cent, Hindus at 1.5 per cent and those identified as Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist each at less than one per cent. In Scotland where the question was also directed at enumerating particular Christian denominations, the Christian quotient was similar to that of England and Wales in 2011 but – probably a question effect – the proportion of those with no belief higher at 36 per cent.

The British Social Attitudes Survey (set up in 1983) has reported findings most recently for 2012. They show that nearly half of all respondents did not regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion – up from the third in the same category in 1983. (The growth from 31 per cent having no religion in 1983 is almost wholly accounted for by the halving over the same period of those affiliated to the Anglican Church.) Moreover, a generational replacement effect seems destined further to increase the proportion of non-believers. This is because the data show that each generation tends to be slightly less religious than the one that preceded it, and that levels of religiosity do not vary very much over the lifetime of a generation. This and other data sources may be found at the British Religion in Numbers website. All sources show the same direction of travel.

The Church of England’s own statistics chart the nature of its current state. Professor Linda Woodhead (consultant editor to How Healthy is the C of E?April 2014) has pointed out that “Anglicans are dying out”; that the rate of decline is not slowing; that the church is not transmitting membership to its young; and that there is a values gap between its leadership and its remaining members in a situation where religion has become generally “a toxic brand” to young people. Like the membership, the clergy are ageing too: the majority of full-time stipendiary clergy are over 50 and are not being replaced. Whilst shortfalls have been made up by non-stipendiary women and readers, they are ageing and, particularly in the case of readers, a declining source. Putting things unsparingly, Linda Woodhead concludes: “To put it bluntly, there are no longer enough troupers to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change”.[How Healthy, p. 54]

Constitutional implications

These Easter exchanges surface  to an extent unwittingly  uncertainties which lurk towards the bottom of the murky pool of British continuing social change. The relative absence of constitutional discontinuity in Britain means current generations at any one time often have to deal with hangovers from past dispositions struggling to find contemporary meaning. The Church of England is what has descended from the former confessional state. This was where the Church was part of a joint project of governance and social control with the executive, originally with the sovereign personally – hence the sovereign as ‘supreme governor’.

The modern state has taken up many of the functions formerly undertaken or shadowed by the Church. This is the reason why it sets a high priority on retaining some control of what bits, like education, have been left to it and regrets with bitterness what – like marriage law being opened to same sex couples – it feels has been arbitrarily taken away.

In trying to placate the Church (and his more elderly party members) by stressing the Church’s continuing national importance, the Prime Minister as the author of same sex marriage has merely exposed the extent of unfinished business he has no intention of addressing. In the same way, his planned removal of the ban on Catholic marriages for succession to the Crown has exposed the extent our polity continues to impose a confessional requirement on the head of state that no-one would dream of imposing on a president if the UK became recognised as the actual, as opposed to the virtual, republic it already is.

What, then, now?

Following seem to be the main points:

  • Christian belief and, above all, church attendance is likely to continue to decline with implications for all denominations in Great Britain.
  • The Church of England is slowly imploding to the extent that in its case it may become unable soon – a decade or so? – to offer a national presence in England. This will call directly into question the present form of its “establishment” and how the best of its built estate can be preserved. (The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s £20m fund for cathedrals could in this context be seen as a trial run reconnoitring a larger prospective responsibility.)
  • There are also other reasons why establishment may be questioned: whilst we have religious freedom in the UK, we do not have religious equality, and freedom and equality are not the same. The long term effect of human rights jurisprudence domestically and in Strasbourg already challenges the privileging of particular religious forms.
  • The joint effect of religious pluralisation, human rights criteria and the growth of religious indifference will be to challenge the extent to which religion itself falls to be regarded as special and therefore justifiably privileged, for example as to taxation and other benefits.
  • The link between the Crown and the Anglican church will become perceived as increasingly anomalous. The constitutional advantages in a pluralised society of breaking the link will become more apparent, especially for the monarchy itself – the perception in the end underlying Prince Charles’s wish to become regarded as defender of faith rather than the faith.
  • It is impossible to predict the combination of events that might precipitate change. The most likely conjunction might be at the next accession. [Recent observation of the Almeida Theatre audience for the current play Charles III showed it bemused/incredulous when the still current 1689 coronation oath was declaimed in full at the play’s climax.]
  • Disestablishment does not have to take a particular form or happen completely all at once. The state will need to move carefully and in a clement and coherent religious policy which extends to all belief systems and the interests of non-believers too.

This has been cross-posted from the UCL Constitution Unit blog.

2 thoughts on “Is Britain a Christian country and, whatever the case, what then?

  1. Pingback: Is Britain a Christian country and, whatever the case, what then? – Law and Politics | Fulcrum Anglican

  2. Pingback: Religion and law round up – 4th May | Law & Religion UK

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