British Christianity is sleeping, not dying

British Christianity is in pretty poor shape. A UK Social Attitudes survey has revealed that, for the first time in history, more people now regard themselves as having “no religion” than being a Christian.

A cultural shift is to blame: people raised in the faith but who don’t practice it have ceased to identify with it. In other words, they’re just being honest.

Church attendance has been plummeting since the 1960s; hardly anyone baptises their kids anymore. Britain is slouching towards Gomorrah.

But is Christianity in terminal decline? No. Those who say it is always compare its present state to around 1850-1960, when church attendance could almost be called a “normal” or “average” activity.

But the history of British Christianity is actually one of peaks and troughs – and understanding how and why it has yo-yoed up and down helps us understand a bit better what we’re witnessing today.

Compare the state of today’s Christian churches to 1900 and things look bad. Compare them to the 18th century and things look pretty average.

Easter Day in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1800: can you guess how many people took communion? Six. Six people took communion. In the late 18th century the Church of England was in a dire crisis. Churches stood empty, clerical numbers were dwindling, people complained that priests were out of touch with their congregations.

Worse: scepticism was on the rise – even atheism – and Jacobinism, which was violently anti-clerical, was on the march in Europe. Every complaint made about contemporary Christianity was made in 1800. Including the sad decline of Christmas, although the problem back then was one of uninterest. Most public workers just got one day off work. Scrooge was the rule, not the exception.

Why were things so bad? Again, the problems are instantly recognisable. The relationship between faith and the state was unhealthy. The state had co-opted one branch of Christianity, Anglicanism, and fiercely opposed dissenters like Catholics.

England had witnessed a Reformation, a Civil War and a Glorious Revolution – all of which exposed the vanity, hypocrisy and cowardice of much of the religious establishment. With the rise of empiricism and new technology, it looked as if science might hold better answers than the Bible. Continue reading

  • Tim Stanley is a historian, and columnist and leader writer for The Telegraph.


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