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Religion in Britain: A Retrospect

Religion in Britain: A Retrospect

This is the second in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

In 1994, I published Religion in Britain since 1945.  This was a widely read book, which is mostly remembered for its subtitle: believing without belonging.  In due course, the publishers requested a second edition which has now appeared under the title Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox.  

The paradox in question is easily stated: in terms of their statistical contours, the churches (and related organizations) have continued to decline – this is undeniable and well documented in the new edition. In terms of the public presence of religion, however, the debate has intensified and includes not only the role of the churches as such but a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith and faith communities in a liberal democracy. 

The urgency of this debate reflects the changing nature of modern Britain – a country with a deeply embedded Christian culture which at one and the same time is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly diverse with regard to its religious profile. The new book explores this paradox in light of six key factors which push and pull in different directions. These are:

a)      the role of the historic churches in forming British culture; 

b)      an awareness that the historic churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population, nor would they want to;

c)      an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of Britain which are increasingly operating on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty;

d)     the arrival into Britain of groups of people from many global regions and many different faiths, which has led to the increasing significance of religion in public as well as private life;

e)      the reactions of Europe’s secular elites to this shift; 

f)       lastly, and a little different, a growing awareness that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe, which includes Britain, should be considered an ‘exceptional case’ in global terms – they are not a global prototype. 

Given this framing, what was the outcome? In this piece I will limit myself to two sets of findings: those that I anticipated, and those that I did not. 

In terms of the former, I discovered the complex mix of continuity and change that I expected – the old model endures at the same time as new things emerge.  The spectrum of activity, moreover, is a wide one and ranges from the religiously committed (of different kinds) to a growing and equally varied group of ‘unattached’.   As before, the middle ground is the most interesting place to look, noting that this has become an increasingly contested space.  Is it religious (meaning Christian), spiritual or secular? The boundaries are distinctly fuzzy. 

Put differently the picture is one of overall decline offset by some notable success stories. In 1994, the relative prosperity of the evangelical sector was already clear; I also predicted – rightly – the emergence of cathedrals as major players in the religious field. That role has intensified. So too has the extent of diversity, driven by continuing and ever more varied immigration.

Less easy to foresee were the following.  First are the marked reversals in fortune between the different countries of the UK.  In 1994, Wales and to an even greater extent Scotland were more religiously active than England over a wide range of indicators.  That is no longer the case.  As Peter Brierley has shown us, the situation in England is currently beginning to stabilise; that in Wales and Scotland it is not – both are examples of late-onset secularization and demonstrate marked and continuing decline. 

Similar, and almost certainly related, is the turn-around between urban and rural: some twenty years ago the former (particularly the major conurbations) were considered stony ground as far as religion was concerned; the latter were relatively conservative and sustained church-going habits from earlier generations. The reverse is now the case. Rural churches struggle compared with striking examples of growth in urban areas, most of all in London where patterns of religious life are more like those in the global south. 

This is unsurprising in that the global south continues to arrive in the capital in considerable numbers, as do those from former communist Europe.  The 2004 and 2007 enlargements of the EU become key dates in this respect.  Equally important, though very different, is 1998 which marks the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland – that remained unimaginable in 1994 as did 9/11 and all that followed from this.

Taking the six factors, the expected and the less expected trends into account, this is how I conclude.  The centre of British society is gradually shifting away from Christianity, but remains deeply coloured by this.  New forms of accommodation are beginning to evolve, which are more likely to be secular than religious. The equalities legislation offers a good example. But if the new formulations cannot accommodate the seriously religious, they are unlikely to endure for long. 

Within these new arrangements, engaged Christians are likely to become one minority amongst others, but will have the weight of history on their side. In short, the cultural deposits can still be felt but in new ways: in what might be termed a hierarchy of minorities, one of which finds expression in an established church.

Grace Davie is Professor Emeritus in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Exeter UK and the author of Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox

Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.

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