Although the UK still describes itself as a Christian country, it appears that a majority of its citizens these days simply aren’t.
According to a recent analysis of data collected over three decades via the British Social Attitudes survey, a huge 48.5% of people in England and Wales said they did not ascribe to any religion – nearly double the 25% who chose not to acknowledge any religious affiliation in the 2011 census.
On the other hand, people who identified themselves as Christian, which includes members of the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches, made up only 43.8% of the nation, the study entitled “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales” found.
Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed the data, attributed the shift to people who had been brought up in a religion no longer choosing to classify themselves in that way.
“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”
As a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t quite know how to describe herself if asked, I could certainly proffer an opinion on that, although I wouldn’t claim to be representing the Great British Public’s views in any general sense, of course.
Firstly, there’s the question of relevance in an increasingly secular society. At one time, priests and vicars automatically sat at the heart of the community as respected figures. But it seems to me that, as society has changed and drastically so since the 1950s – when incidentally established religion first started to go into decline – many of them failed to move with the times and think through what useful role they might play, simply expecting to retain their former status as a right.
Personally, I’m a big fan of liberation theology, which is much bigger in South America than it is here, but is all about enabling social justice, human rights and helping to alleviate poverty. In my humble opinion, getting out there and helping the vulnerable and needy has to be more of a worthwhile goal than surrounding yourself with often elderly acolytes and pontificating from a church pulpit once a week.
But the goals don’t even have to be that lofty really – just focusing on pastoral care and corporal and spiritual works of mercy for people across all faiths would be enough. At the very least, it would help, in many instances, to make spiritual leaders more visible to the (wider) communities they supposed to serve.
A second point relates to the fact that, as a society, we seem to have lost faith in the great institutions that ruled us in the past, preferring to go our own way and make up our own minds. As we’re all well aware, very few people trust politicians to do anything these days but create their own power bases and feather their own nests.
Trade union membership has also plummeted to just over six million from a peak of more than 13 million in 1979. And with lots of people you talk to, unless they happen to work in the public sector, it wouldn’t even occur to them to sign up. They just can’t see the point – or remember the seemingly endless industrial disputes of the 1970s with more than a little distaste.
So it’s of little surprise, particularly when so many disillusion-engendering child abuse cases in both the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to light, that people are turning their backs on yet another traditional institution of behavioural control. The question is that, if these idols with feet of clay prove themselves less than worthy and close ranks to protect their own when public exposure threatens, why would anyone buy into their moral authority?
But there’s also a third consideration, which is linked to the last one. And that is, perhaps the time for gurus is over. While lots of people may be losing interest in established religion per se, that’s not to say they don’t have spiritual yearnings that they fulfil in multifarious different ways. And I’m not just talking about pursuing increasingly popular alternative paths such as paganism.
Instead I’m referring to everything from doing voluntary work in order to help others through to throwing yourself passionately into a worthwhile cause or tapping into your own creativity and painting a beautiful picture, for example. Spirituality means different things to different people and there are myriad ways to express it.
But ultimately, it’s about moving beyond the mundane and working with something bigger than yourself in order to help give your life meaning. And you don’t necessarily need a church to mediate that for you.
Anyway, going back to Bullivant’s report for a minute to prove the point, it revealed that four out of 10 people raised as Anglican, the established or state church of England, have now abandoned their faith, with almost as many Catholics doing likewise. As a result, the segment of the population describing itself as Anglican has plummeted from 44.5% in 1983 to a mere 19% in 2014, with Catholics accounting for only 8.3%.
Although the study did not cover either Scotland or Northern Ireland, findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey published in April revealed similar trends, with 52% of the population failing to align themselves with any religious grouping. The figure compares with 40% when the study began in 1999.
So with all of this in mind, I must say it did strike me as a bit odd that the re-emergence in the UK of a bit of St Thomas Becket’s elbow from its former resting place in Hungary would get so much national press coverage.
OK, it was the first time that the relic had been home for 845 years after the man it was formerly attached to was murdered by four burly knights in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was archbishop. He’d fallen out with his former good mate King Henry II and ended up being hacked to death in front of the high altar as they’d thought that’s what the sovereign wanted. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” etc.
In the process though, they created a martyr whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe – a situation that in turn became the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of our first works of literature written in vernacular English rather than Norman French, at that time the language of the elites. So far, so good.
When Becket was reburied in 1220, however, bits from his remains in the shape of bone fragments, scraps of clothes and the like were nicked and disappeared across Europe, with his elbow shard somehow making its way to Esztergom in Hungary. And there the relic has remained ever since, reportedly becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance under communism.
But at the end of May, it came back home for a week and toured Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, Rochester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and other churches associated with the 12th century archbishop to great apparent excitement – despite the fact that venerating bits of saints bodies has never been a particularly British thing, as far as I’m aware, even among Catholics. Instead it seems a much more popular, if rather macabre, activity of Southern European countries such as Spain.
Still, each to their own – not least because even scientists, despite their secular logic, insist on keeping relics of their own gods too. A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair on display in the entrance hall of the Royal Society in London. Albert Einstein’s blackboard, with his E=MC2 formula chalked on it, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It all just depends on how you look at things really.