Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The twilight of British Christianity?

In the dimness of the secular gloom, the Christmas message shines brightly

Artillery Row

“For the first time fewer than half of people in England and Wales describe themselves as Christian.” So said the BBC on 29 November, the day the 2021 Census results were published. As the BBC’s Religion Editor noted, it was hardly a surprise: “for years social surveys have shown a rapid rise in those who define themselves as having no religion”. Needless to say, however, fundamentalist secularists were triumphant, greeting the new dawn of tolerance, mutual respect and celebration of diversity that they faithfully believe — despite the overwhelmingly grim historical evidence to the contrary — must always accompany secularism.

For Christians, the news came only a few days into the season of Advent. It is a season which often opens with congregations hearing the words of Jesus concerning the convulsions taken to be signs of the end: “see that ye be not troubled”. Convulsions — political, social, economic, cultural — are not to shake the Christian hope, for it is fixed in an order not subject to the tides which flow around and over mortals. A hint of this could have been detected at the very start of Advent.

Large cathedrals are filled to capacity. Church services have to be ticketed

The weekend prior to the release of the census results, cathedrals and churches observed Advent Sunday. Salisbury Cathedral had Advent Processions (candlelit carols and readings for the season) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, with more than 4,000 people attending. Queue numbers were issued to ensure orderly and fair access. York Minster had to announce that all the free tickets for its Advent Procession had been fully booked, advising those without a ticket to follow the service on YouTube. Durham Cathedral advised those attending its Advent Procession, “Entry to the cathedral will be first come, first served, and we suggest you dress warmly for queuing outside”.

Here was a rather different picture of contemporary Britain than that promoted by the fundamentalist secularists: a contemporary Britain in which people queue for a church service in the cold of early winter. Large cathedrals are filled to capacity. Church services have to be ticketed in order to safely limit the numbers attending. This is not, of course, to deny that ours is a secular culture, but it is a strange secularism not at all like the doctrinaire demand from crusading secularists that religion — irretrievably unenlightened and bigoted — be driven entirely from the public square.

Amongst these queuing for the Advent Processions, there will have been some who responded to the census question by answering “No religion”. Again this points to how an ideological secularism — as with all ideologies — fails to recognise complexities and nuances, blinded by its commitment to a monolithic order. As Burke said of a different (but not unrelated) ideology, its pursuit of purity blinded it to complex realities which exist “in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned”. 

Burke’s words come to mind when considering the view of Professor Linda Woodhead, a leading figure in analysing religious trends: “we cannot accurately describe Britain as ‘post Christian’ or straightforwardly non-religious … It exists somewhere in-between — between Christian, multi-faith and ‘none’”. 

This is confirmed by a recent report by the think-tank Theos, “The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? Those who are “No religion” (i.e. “Nones”) can be divided into three roughly equal groups: Spiritual Nones, who are spiritually open and much less atheistic; Tolerant Nones, who, whilst atheists, are more accepting of religion and believe it can make helpful contributions to ethical reflection; and Campaigning Nones, who are extremely hostile to religion (and are, by the way, overwhelmingly male). Despite the noisy, fervent devotion of the Campaigning Nones, “No religion” actually equates in most cases to “a sort of middle” — a complex and nuanced relationship, neither membership nor hostility, with religious belief in general and Christianity in particular.

For the Church, a British society that is “somewhere in-between” should encourage a generous, confident Christian presence and engagement. This is not alien territory for churches. After all, Christianity is about living “in-between”: in-between earthly and heavenly realities, in-between that which is transitory and that which is eternal, in-between life in this world and the life of the world to come. Such themes are particularly to the fore in Christian reflection during this season of Advent, suggesting that the observance of Advent offers some signs as to how the Church might respond to a society that is “somewhere in-between”.

This brings us back to those queues outside cathedrals for the Advent Procession, the full congregations, and the “Spiritual Nones” and “Tolerant Nones” who attended such services, alongside “cultural Christians” who attend church on high days and festivals and those whose Christian faith is expressed in regular worship. The Advent Procession services highlight how historic church buildings, the choral tradition and traditional liturgy can combine to provide an attractive, meaningful and inclusive experience of Christian worship. 

Similar lessons were also evident in the funeral of the late Queen and seen in the renewed popularity of Choral Evensong. Running contrary to many of the assumptions that seem to govern contemporary Anglicanism (place and buildings do not matter, traditional liturgy is an obstacle, gatherings of the committed are the way forward), the attraction and resonance of the Advent Procession points to the form a confident and generous Christian can take in our society.

This is no soft-focus, seeker-friendly presentation of Christian faith

It is also worth noting that the queues and packed cathedrals occur during Advent, a season replete with the imagery of darkness, of final judgement, of Christ’s exhortation to “keep awake”. In other words, this is no soft-focus, seeker-friendly presentation of Christian faith. Instead, it speaks into the dark time of year, what Donne called “the year’s midnight”, when we may be more aware of our frailty and mortality. The gathering darkness of the days speaks of the winters of this world: of the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of households struggling to pay bills, of a culture confused and bitterly divided on nearly every issue we confront. 

Advent’s proclamation of divine judgement cutting through our pretensions and deceits, its call to “cast away the works of darkness” (as Cranmer put it in his majestic collect for the season), its stirring hymns which place us alongside ancient Israel, waiting over long centuries and during bitter exile for the peaceable kingdom, suggest that the richness of the Christian tradition should be confidently shared, rather than exchanged for a mess of pottage.

Now, as Advent ends and as the festive season truly begins, the queues outside cathedrals return. Carol services will be ticketed and packed. Spiritual Nones, Tolerant Nones and Cultural Christians will sing of the birth of the Christ Child. The proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation will ring out in a society that is “somewhere in-between”. The same combination of historic church buildings, the choral tradition and traditional liturgy will come together. Another theologically rich vision will be proclaimed and encountered. A traditional Christian observance will again resonate in a land “somewhere in-between”. 

There is no need for the churches or Christians to be “sore afraid” in such a land. The depth and riches of the Christian tradition, confidently proclaimed and generously shared, bring us to heed the angelic message heralding the birth of Christ: “Fear not.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover