24 June 2015
A riposte to Damian Thompson’s crisis of faith
by Keith Lucas
It has been heartening to see how has ruffled a few ecclesiastical Damian Thompson's crisis of faith (The Spectator, 13 June 2015) feathers and caused some anxious clucking in some of the more complacent corners of the Church.
However eloquently his points were made, his analysis and the conclusions that flow from them were, I suggest, somewhat questionable. His opening premise, for example, that shrinking congregations represent "a disaster now facing Christianity in this country", is supported by the claim that "between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million". His evidence rests on census records for those ten years in which parents claim, on behalf of their child, to which religion the child belongs – if any. Yet the growing secularisation and social liberalisation seen during this period, cited repeatedly by Thompson, has seen such a rise in personal independence and freedom of expression that by 2011 it could be argued that only firmly committed Christian parents would claim their child as being unequivocally 'Christian'. To make this claim on behalf of a child today might feel overly prescriptive or controlling to many, whereas a decade earlier the child of even nominal, rarely-practicing Christian parents might have ticked the 'Christian' box by default. Let us also not forget, as well, that in recent years Christianity has been de-positioned and stigmatised by large parts of the popular British media – not least the liberal elite mentioned by Thompson. The Christian 'brand' has been made to appear somewhat 'uncool' and dogmatic – even archaic and outmoded. Admitting that you or your child is Christian is tantamount to confessing an adherence to nerdy traditionalism. If in doubt, who wouldn't play the agnostic card?
His predicted demise of the Church by 2067 was a rather crude extrapolation of two data points whereby he assumes a linear decay of 10,000 per week. This is about as robust as plotting rainfall by measuring the number of times you needed an umbrella in March and May, then concluding that because usage fell by 50 per cent over this period, the trend would be maintained and by August rainfall would cease for ever. Thompson is, at least, wise enough to offer the caveat: "Feel free to take any apocalyptic vision of religion in Britain in 2067 with a pinch of salt."
He then goes on to assert that "Christianity is dying out among the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain". This is, once again, based on a rudimentary interpretation of data from census returns and the British Election Survey, where those claiming to have no religion rose from 15 per cent to 25 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Leaving aside the cultural shift already discussed, what this fails to take into account is that people are much less likely in 2011 to hold any firm affiliations with any organised group than they would have in 2001. If we applied the same logic to politics, for example, we could conclude with some certainty that political parties will be defunct long before the Church has stopped twitching. Between 1998 and 2008, according to the European Journal of Political Research , the UK's political parties lost 1.16 million members between them – a fall of 68.2 per cent from 1.69 million to 534,664 members. Most other European countries show similar trends. In their study of this phenomenon it was noted that "traditional pillars of organised mass society – the Christian churches and the unions – are also losing membership and clout". Yet I don't hear any gloomy predictions of the end of politics. We expect it to evolve and meet changing consumer behaviour, so why would we suppose the church wouldn't do the same?
Another widely discussed phenomenon that belies the impending demise of Christianity is the notion of 'believing without belonging'. The underlying principle is that faith may change shape, but it does not fade away. As Professor Davie of Exeter University, who first coined the term, puts it: "More and more people within British society are, it appears, wanting to believe, but without putting this belief into practice". She goes on to say: "The sacred does not disappear - indeed in many ways it is becoming more rather than less prevalent in contemporary society" . This certainly poses some seminal questions for the Church, which one assumes will adapt to meet changing societal needs as it has done for centuries.
In our haste to explain falling church attendances, however, we might just be ignoring the most conspicuous of all contradictions of Thompson's hypothesis: the relentless growth seen in some of the Church of England's more vibrant quarters - notably in the capital, with Holy Trinity Brompton, St Helens Bishopsgate, etc, which have, incidentally, been well documented in the secular press (The Economist, 17 January, 2015 for example ). Their burgeoning congregations would seem to comprise a good many members of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic extraction whose numbers continue to multiply in the face of the supposed inexorable trend away from Church of England.
Humanity's response to God, within and beyond the context of the Church, may be evolving as some traditional modes of worship fade and new ones gain favour, but Thompson's nihilistic prophesy of the Church's premature demise is, I suggest, a false one. As GK Chesterton wryly noted: "On five occasions in history the Church has gone to the dogs, but on each occasion, it was the dogs that died."