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Although not primarily about non-religiosity that is how it has been reported. This was not, as its author Stephen Bullivant suggested at the report’s launch in Parliament which I chaired this morning, really newsworthy. It has, after all, been reported quite a few times already, although the depth and detail of this report does add clarity and colour to the general plotline.
The idea that there are many more non-Christians than there are Christians today strikes many people as, well, striking, but it shouldn’t. The nation conducted its very first Census of Religious Worship over 160 years ago (in 1851 to be precise) and was shocked to discover that half the country didn’t attend church. We’ve continued to be surprised by how little the nation is Christian ever since.
This report is not about church attendance, of course, or indeed belief (the categories are so often confused in debates). It is about what people call, and how they think of, themselves. In that regard, the fact that so many no longer naturally reach for the Christian label may, ironically, be something of a relief, as it means that ‘Christian’ will henceforth have a clearer and more concentrated meaning, rather than being something culturally diffuse.
Either way, there are far bigger issues for the future of British Christianity that this research raises. Two come to mind. First is that retention rates for mainstream denominations is weak (c. 50% for Catholics and Anglicans, under 35% for Baptists and Methodists – though this is complicated by the fact that this is measuring retention rates of affiliated Christians, rather than of practicing Christians which would naturally be higher).
The second is that for those denominations that do boast larger numbers of converts – about 20% of today’s Methodists are not cradle Methodists, and over 30% of Baptists and not cradle Baptists – the majority of converts actually come from people who had some kind of Christian upbringing, or were already practicing Christians within another denomination. In other words, the conversion tends to be among those who have some Christian foundations, rather than none at all.
In one regard this is not too surprising: until quite recently the majority of people in England and Wales (the focus of this study) did have some Christian identity. But what it does mean is that as that pool of cultural Christians shrinks, churches are going to find themselves ever more challenged to speak to an audience that simply has no familiarity with, framework for and even sympathy with what they are saying. This is a new world, one that will demand much innovation and possibly some bravery.
Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales does not set out to depress. On the contrary, the Catholic Research Forum, of which this is the first offering, intends “to put research and strategic thinking that is both academically rigorous and pastorally useful at the service of the Catholic Church.”
That it has done, and the message is clear, and sobering. It is not, as Stephen Bullivant would be the first to acknowledge, the whole story. Theos’ own ten year anniversary report , due out this autumn, picks up on a number of other key relevant, contextual trends such as the rise of spiritualty, the emergence of Christian Social Action, the country’s on-going fascination with religion. The fact the association between religion and wellbeing, as examined in Theos’ next publication is so strong is also relevant, as are the still-wider contextual trends of life in the UK today.
However, this report does clarify the key choice before the church in Britain today which, as its bluntest, is blunt indeed. It is mission or extinction.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick