Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
In a recent poll of Church of England clergy conducted by The Times newspaper, one in four answered ‘yes’ to whether the UK is a Christian country, sparking much debate about the role of religion in the life of the nation. We asked a range of experts and thinkers how they would answer the question: Is the UK a Christian country?
The response varies according to which dimension of the UK and more specifically England you are looking at. At the institutional level, the Anglican Church maintains its status of religion of the state and the King is still Head of the Church: hence by law, England is still a Christian country, which entails some specific privileges for the Church of England that are not extended to other religions. If we turn to the role of religion in society, the claim that the UK is still Christian is harder to make. The unprecedented religious diversification of the country as revealed by the results of the most recent census, is certainly a factor. But the most important element is the loss of interest of all new generations (not only the Christians ones) to organised and institutionalised forms of religiosity. In other words, the new generations may not be less religious but they do not wish their spirituality to be limited by the boundaries of denominations. In this sense, yes the UK is less Christian but maybe not less religious?
Professor Jocelyne Cesari, scholar of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham and Georgetown University
The UK is a country with a significant Christian heritage, and that heritage matters. It enriches the lives of Christians and non–Christians alike, and has the capacity to undergird privileges for Christianity that are hard to justify in the pluralist democracy we strive for – especially if we do not acknowledge it. But to describe the UK as ‘a Christian country’ is an anachronism, as the clergy’s experience speaks to. The UK has more people who say they belong to no religion than to a religion – to all religions combined. And it is now more atheist than theist: more people say that they don’t believe in God than do. The best summary for the worldview landscape is diverse, shaped by its demographically large existential traditions – humanism, Catholicism, Anglicanism and Islam – and in significant ways by its smaller traditions, too. Indeed, most of our lives are shaped by several of these traditions, not one alone. The UK is an existentially plural country, in practice as well as principle. This survey suggests frontline clergy realise that to say otherwise is to – in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”
Dr Lois Lee is Senior Lecturer in Secular Studies, University of Kent
No. Aside from the fact that it’s difficult to define exactly what a ‘Christian’ country is, the UK is probably best described as ‘post–Christian’ in terms of its general attitude towards faith. Few people know the basics of the Christian story and even fewer actually set foot in church. Yet… I still see the values we have inherited from the Christian story bubbling away subconsciously in our moral instincts for compassion, equality and freedom. I still see people searching for justice, beauty and meaning in their lives, often in quasi–religious ways. The Christian story has not been buried so deep that it cannot surface again in our country. I see hopeful signs that it will.
Justin Brierley is a speaker, broadcaster and author of “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why new atheism grew old and secular thinkers are considering Christianity again”.
Surveys, studies, and polls in the last few years have been resoundingly clear. Most people in the UK do not have Christian beliefs (or belief in any god in fact), do not attend any sort of church, and do not describe themselves as Christians – even culturally. We are a diverse society with people of a broad range of perspectives and a largely non–religious society. Of course, Christians have had a significant effect on the culture of the UK for better and worse but even then, at a social level and in our institutions and habits, the UK been formed and shaped always by many pre–Christian, non–Christian, and post–Christian forces. Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established church (which should be corrected as soon as possible), we are not a Christian country.
Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of Humanists International. He is the author of “Secularism: a very short introduction” (Oxford University Press) and, with Alice Roberts, of the Sunday Times Bestseller “The Little Book of Humanism”.
It’s a simple fact: we’re not a majority–Christian country any more, for the first time in well over a thousand years. But does that mean we’re not a Christian country? Can a country really be Christian anyway, as if religion was something in the soil? Were we ever? What we are is absolutely steeped in Christian traditions, norms and ethics: the cultural markers of Christianity are everywhere, and the fact that we often don’t notice them shows they’re just the water we swim in. I’d call us a crypto–Christian country: Christianity is the religion we have an ancient, deep, tangled, love–hate relationship with. Like it or not, that relationship has made us who we are, and we can’t and won’t leave it behind just because the majority of us don’t choose that identity any more.
Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, and author of “Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World”, and “Unbelievers: A History of Doubt”.
And does it matter if it isn’t? would be my follow up question to this. It has always felt to me that when we describe Britian as a Christian country, we are referring more to culture than religion, and a set of societal agreed behaviours and cultural norms including art, music, food and expressions. In Scotland we are expecting the results of the census to come out next week when we will no doubt be asking similar questions, but again does it matter? Having not long finished a leadership election where faith and the impact of your faith on your politics was top of the agenda then perhaps the answer is yes it does matter. But during that period it did feel like the media were finding differences between candidates that essentially agreed on policy, so it became a contest of character rather than ideas. Wasn’t it ever thus. I love the vibrant diversity that we have in the UK with the differing cultures and ideas, different approaches to community cohesion and new food, music and art to experience. I love my exciting and uplifting and full Church of Scotland on a Sunday morning with over 40 kids causing chaos and the impact that it has on my community and public square. The UK may not be a traditionally “Christian” country but that doesn’t mean the church is dead or irrelevant, it does mean that we have to think more, act more and find new ways to speak into this brilliantly diverse culture that we have. The challenge is there, how are we going to respond?
Shona Haslam is the Chief Executive Logos Scotland
Britain is a country with a Christian heritage and a more mixed, pluralist present with what is now a broadly secular culture in a society of many faiths and none. Every faith is a minority in Britain today, though so are those who do not identify with any faith tradition. But it is important to not treat the 2021 census results as if they were the Brexit referendum, so that whether nominal Christianity is at 52% or now 46% is an on–off switch as to the identity of the country. Rather, a confident common future depends on now finding the common ground for shared citizenship, and negotiating the rules of the road across all major faith, humanist and secular traditions for how we learn to cooperate, disagree and to live well together. Freedom both to believe and to exit are to be valued on the bedrock foundation of mutual democratic respect for the legitimacy of the beliefs and disbelief of others.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of “How to be a patriot” (Harper Collins)
The facts reveal a nation that is neither Christian nor secular: Christians are now a minority in the UK, but Christianity has also shaped our moral imagination and constitution more than any other religion, and this continues to be expressed in concrete ways, such as Anglican establishment and the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. But of course, when public conversation turns to the question of whether we are a “Christian country” or not, we aren’t usually talking about the facts so much as who we think we should be. The worst version of the conversation is a tired culture war in which Christian nationalism is presumed to speak for the Church. The best is an opportunity for deep listening across the many worldviews of a diversifying nation. The Church should leave identity politics at the door and embrace this better conversation with open arms – not least because, as old associations of power and institution fall away, it will be better placed to communicate a genuinely Christ–like message than it has been for over a millennium.
Madeleine Pennington is Head of Research at Theos.
Recent census data has presented a picture of a minority of people identifying as Christian in the UK. However, historically Christianity had completely taken root in these Islands by the later part of the 7th century AD. Our laws and politics owe a huge amount to the Christian faith. For example, someone once said that the Labour Party owes more to the Methodism in its founding values, than it does to Marxism! Globally, Christianity often flourishes from the margins. I say in the UK “out with nominalism, out with Christian nationalism”. They do us no favours. Now let the church get back to its mission of reaching people with the life transforming good news of Jesus Christ!
Bishop Mike Royal is the General Secretary of Churches Together in England.
So much depends on how one defines a Christian country. In my thinking it boils down to the extent that the commonly accepted values of a nation reflect principles found in the Bible. As God reveals his character we are presented with values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, equality, acceptance, compassion, care for the vulnerable and sacrifice. The UK has a strong heritage of these values expressed in our welfare state, in our education and justice systems. Are these values still alive and well? Ultimately living these out fully depends on a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Elaine Duncan is CEO of Scottish Bible Society
In affiliation, increasingly not. The ever growing group of religious nones are rejecting both religion in general, but Christianity in particular. In affections, aside from some religious decorations to Christmas, not really. In assumptions, I think John Gray, Tom Holland, and others are absolutely right to argue that Christian norms still dominate in Britain, though they usually aren’t recognised for what they are. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Christianity could be thought of as simultaneously alive and dead – central to our state and culture, and increasingly marginal. It’s all the questions which come after that should preoccupy us. Whether metaphysically justified or consistently practised, a culture which centres Christianity will cherish norms of compassion, servant leadership, and limits to power and wealth. Like George Orwell, I fear for the society which chooses a moral vacuum: “For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.”
Paul Bickley is Head of Political Engagement at Theos
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.