Briefing Paper: Spiritual Silicon – could robots one day have souls?
Hannah Waite and Nick Spencer’s briefing paper on spiritual silicone. 23/05/2022
This is the first in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain.
The ‘atheist church’ in north London is a collection of people who seek to preserve some of the practices of congregational life, but from a standpoint of atheism. It illustrates the secularisation of Britain. Such evidence of secularisation chimes with developments in universities, the media and Westminster in recent decades. It seems likely to continue. But it is not the whole picture. A recent survey of a single London borough found over 200 new churches had been started there in recent decades. A walk down the Old Kent Road, instead of around Bloomsbury, shows a dizzying range of proliferating churches.
This post on the future of religion in Britain will focus on Christianity. Discussions of the future of Christianity tend to pivot around secularisation. This is, undoubtedly, a key part of the future of religion in Britain. But much else is happening and it is on these developments that this post will focus. It offers seven ‘pointers’ to the future which together suggest a paradox of secularisation from above, but resacralisation from below, death and resurrection in Christian Britain. However, all this needs to be heard through the first pointer – about the dodginess of the data.
Pointer One: Dodgy Data
Before anything can be said about Christianity in Britain, there is one key caveat; many of the sources of data are seriously dodgy. A good example is the national data of the Church of England. Recent research commissioned by the Church of England on its ‘greater churches’ had to discount two-thirds of the statistical data due to its poor quality. Overall, Anglican data contain flaws that are serious, widespread, systemic and long-standing. A different example is wider data-sets such as large-scale opinion polls. These have a habit of producing contradictory results – such as the national survey which purported to show a dramatic rise in the number of those espousing ‘no religion’, which also showed that many who now espouse ‘no religion’ also like to pray from time to time. All is not lost. We can say some things. But we need to be keenly alert to the limits of what can be said. Any picture of religion in Britain which treats uncritically such surveys or the national data of major denominations, will be substantially incorrect. Multiple measures and data taken from local studies as well as national datasets are essential to obtain a meaningful picture.
Pointer Two: Ethnic Diversity
The ethnic diversification of Britain is one of the key shifts in recent British Christianity. It is often assumed that as Britain gets more ethnically diverse, it gets less ‘Christian’. But the reverse is the case. Around 500,000 people are members of black majority churches. Roman Catholicism is being significantly boosted due to migration. The Christian communities in key centres, such as London, are now predominantly outside the ‘white British’ sector of the population. Ethnic diversity has provided a marked boost for British Christianity. By contrast, that segment of the population who, in census terminology, are most secular, the ‘white British’, are also a decreasing proportion of the population. This shift is likely to become more marked in coming years.
Pointer Three: the New Nonconformity
As many historic denominations shrink, especially elements of old nonconformity such as Methodism and Presbyterianism, a range of new denominations are growing. At least five thousand new congregations have started in Britain since the 1980s, mostly from churches outside the historic denominations. There are significant areas of the country where this new non-conformity overshadows the historic denominations. In key sectors – notably student Christianity – this new nonconformity has been a major force for some time.
Pointer Four: Southerly Drift
Christianity in and around London has grown significantly in the last 25 years. Christianity in the north and west of Britain has, overall, been shrinking – especially in Scotland and Wales.  Of course, not every church in London and the South East is growing, nor is every church in the north and west shrinking. But there is a shift in the centre of gravity of British religion southwards and this is likely to continue in the future as the proportion of the population living in and around London rises.
Pointer Five: A Reconfigured Establishment
Establishment faces critique, but may adapt rather than disappear. It can be argued that the establishment is reconfiguring itself by centring on larger churches such as cathedrals and ‘greater churches’, (rather than the parish system), by connecting with the ‘soft’ power of the arts, academia and the media whilst remaining deeply connected to public schools and Oxbridge via the choral tradition. This ‘establishment-lite’ is smaller than the earlier establishment but has substantial potential for life, as the relatively robust attendance figures at English cathedrals suggest. Its weakness is that it is thereby tied to a particular demographic base. A recent survey of cathedral worshippers showed them to be overwhelmingly white, middle class and aged fifty or over. Such establishment can be seen as religion sacralising society, but also, sometimes, as society secularising religion.
Pointer Six: Roman Catholic Vitality
Notwithstanding various travails, there is continuing Roman Catholic vitality in Britain. Whilst mass attendance has dropped in many areas, it is growing in London. The Roman Catholic population remains steady at around four million and is growing markedly in the south and east, mainly due to significant transfusions of new worshippers via migration patterns – which seem set to continue.
Pointer Seven: an Orthodox Wildcard
One of the ongoing conundrums of contemporary Europe is the trajectory of Orthodoxy, which fits and does not fit the patterns of secularisation in northern and western Europe. In Britain, around 300 Orthodox congregations have been founded since the 1960s. Orthodox worshippers now outnumber Methodists in Greater London and the number of Britons who self-describe as ‘Orthodox’ is approaching half a million people. Migration is a key cause, but not the only cause. In the future, Orthodoxy could primarily serve discrete ethnic communities, but it could have significantly wider impacts.
The secularisation embodied in the ‘atheist church’ and the fertile religiosity of the Old Kent Road both need to be taken into account to understand the future of Christianity in Britain. Whilst academia, the media and politics look increasingly secular, on the streets, many churches are being founded and are growing, especially amongst marginal groups such as ethnic minorities. The future, arguably, will be a persistent paradox of secularisation from above and resacralisation from below. Christianity is a faith centred on the paradox of death and resurrection. Looking forward, evidence suggests that, alongside considerable potential for death, Christianity in Britain also has considerable potential for resurrection in the coming decades.
David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, St Johns College, Durham. He edited the volume Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present and is editing a volume entitled Towards a Theology of Church Growth, to be published by Ashgate in 2015.
Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.
 A. Rogers, Being Built Together: a Survey of New Black Majority Churches in the London Borough of Southwark, (2013)
 For an illustration of such failings, see: J. Holmes and B. Kautzer, Cathedrals and Greater Churches, pp. 65-67. For a more detailed discussion of the problems, see the report of Strand 3c of the Church Growth Research Programme, pp. 8-39. Both are available online via: http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/progress_findings_reports
 P. Brierley, Capital Growth: What the 2012 London Church Census Reveals, (ADBC Tonbridge 2014), pp. 25-34.
 P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics, vol 2, 2005-15, (ADBC Tonbridge 2014), 1.1; Such shifts are moving beyond the major cities. A new study of the North East of England suggests that even in this economically less dynamic area, many new congregations are being formed: see the initial results of the ‘New Churches in the North East’ project, based at the Centre for Church Growth Research, Cranmer Hall, St Johns College, Durham – via: http://community.dur.ac.uk/churchgrowth.research/research/new-churches-in-the-north-east - accessed 19 January 2015.
 Brierley, Capital Growth; Brierley, UK Church Statistics, vol 2,, 1.1.
 An example of this move is the creation of ‘minsters’ in towns such as Sunderland, Halifax and Rotherham where parish life is struggling.
 Holmes and Kautzer, Cathedrals and Greater Churches, Strand 3a of the Church Growth Research Programme, available online via: http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/progress_findings_reports
 Holmes and Kautzer, Cathedrals and Greater Churches, pp. 34-6.
 See, for example, the work of Alana Harris: ‘Devout Eastenders:’ in D. Goodhew, (ed.), Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the Present (Farnham: Ashgate 2012); Brierley, UK Church Statistics, vol 2, 2005-15, 4.3.3 and 4.4.
 K. Ware, The Orthodox Church in the British Isles, C. Chaillot, (ed.), A Short History of the Orhtodox Church in Western Europe in the Twentieth Century, (Inter-Orthodox Dialogue: Paris, 2006), pp. 42-62; Brierley, Capital Growth, 57; Brierley, UK Church Statistics, vol 2, 2005-15, 8.2.
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