Contextualising Christianity in the UK


Talk by Revd Dr Catriona Laing at The Edge: Faith, Fear & Friendship event

Catriona Laing










Two questions: 

1) 'In a godless age...a Church doggedly at variance with public opinion removes itself to the margins' (The Economist, 22 December 2012, 36). Is the Church of England failing to 'get with the programme'? Does it matter one way or the other?

2) Has religion been moved to the margins? Are there signs of 'religious growth' - Islamic or Christian - that you can identify in the places you live and work?

Broadly speaking there are two ideas related to contextualizing Christianity with which I want to leave you today. The first is a challenge to the Economist journalist who I quoted in the questions in your packs. I shall argue that the Church is not ‘doggedly at variance with public opinion’, but that the situation is more complex than that. The second is to challenge the claim, heard most recently following the publication of the 2011 census results, that Christianity is in decline in Britain. Again I shall propose that the reality is less black and white.

In the first part of this talk I want to offer some reflections on the notion that the Church of England is ‘failing to get with the programme’ as was suggested by the Prime Minister following recent debates on women’s ordination to the episcopate and the government’s proposed support of gay marriage in response to the Church’s unresolved position on the matter. In the second part I shall turn to the second of the two questions in your pack and consider with you where there might be signs of religious growth here in Britain. I shall propose that despite apparent evidence of creeping secularism, there are scenes of thriving Christian religious life in Britain today, albeit a different landscape to that of forty or fifty years ago.

Before I begin I want to qualify what I am arguing in this paper by saying that the cultural and linguistic background from which I am answering these questions is that of an Anglican clergy person. My concern as the Christian speaker on the panel is to look at the question of contextualizing religious life from a Christian perspective. However, I believe that much of what I am going to say will apply more and more to the Muslim context in Britain as well. I would be interested in pursuing this line of questioning in our small group discussions.

Let us turn first to the argument that if the church is at variance with public opinion it removes itself to the margins. The implication behind this statement is that the public speaks with one voice, that it is of one and the same opinion about how we live and that at the other end of the debate sits the church, which seems incapable of reflecting or keeping up with public consensus. Surely this is too simplified? If public opinion is so united why the debates in the first place? Could it in fact be that society is actually quite disunited and unsure of what it thinks about the social issues, which shape public life, and as such needs fora in which to grapple with such moral and ethical issues? Where do we have the opportunity really to develop our ideas and discuss ‘thorny’ social issues?  Questions such as women’s position in the workplace, human sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, the environment, the economy. I question whether society really is so certain, so of one mind and so comfortable with what it thinks about things as some of our liberal and conservative press would lead us to believe. Only this week we are seeing the Conservative party back-track on its previous decision to support gay marriage.

Could it be in fact that the church offers space for debating particular and often controversial topics that are difficult to address elsewhere in society?

With only 3% of the population showing up to an Anglican service once a month it is hard to believe that discussions about homosexuality or the consecration of women bishops are simply an internal Church of England debate about senior clergy appointments. Why such widespread interest across our news and society if this is just a problem of the church learning to keep up with an increasingly liberal and accepting society? I propose that the Church is in fact one way in which society as a whole comes to terms with profound shifts in the moral climate.

In a letter to The Times a couple of months ago, the New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright responded to David Cameron’s criticism of the church’s failure to get with the programme.1  Bishop Tom claimed that the church’s role is among other things to debate publicly issues that remain unresolved in the nation’s consciousness. Pointing to the early church, whose very foundation was counter-cultural, ‘foolishness to the Greeks and scandalous to the Jews’ according to St Paul, Wright argued that far from being in step with the conservative party’s social programme, the Church is called continually to question the programme, to offer space to debate the programme and, when it sees fit, to disagree with the programme. As Wright put it: if the early Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the programme was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years’.

The sociologist of religion Grace Davie has coined the phrase ‘vicarious religion’ to describe this view of the Christian religious landscape in Britain today. Davie contends that while the numbers of people attending church on Sunday are doubtless lower than they were fifty years ago, there remains an important religious undercurrent to the way society understands itself in this country. This is what she calls vicarious religion. It is the notion of religion performed by an active minority, but on behalf of a much larger number. Davie argues that a large proportion of the population, while not church goers themselves, have an implicit understanding (and often approval) of the idea of church, which includes allowing, or even expecting others to keep it going on their behalf. The notion that the church offers a context or a framework for debates about social progress is an example of vicarious religion. Thus, Davie suggests, Churches can offer space for the vicarious debate of unresolved issues in modern societies.2

To conclude this first part, in answer to my first question I suggest that public opinion is far from settled on the kinds of social issues that crop up repeatedly in public debate. It may well be that opinion seems even more unsettled in the church. However, this is not because the Church is at variance with public opinion, but rather because, like vicarious religion, the Church offers the opportunity for honest debate. It is a place where, ideally there is room for every kind of voice, conservative, traditional, orthodox as well as liberal and progressive. For this reason, far from being at the margins of society, the church is at the heart of it, giving the public the space to debate profound shifts in the moral climate.

Let us turn to the second question of the decline of Christianity in Britain.

Another popular trope that is trailed across our public conversations is that religion; Christianity in particular, is in decline. The 2011 census showed a drop in the number of people who called them Christians by 13 points since the last census.3  The statistics are quite clear that overall the numbers of bums on seats in the pews on Sundays is fewer than two generations ago. So yes, on one level one could argue that Christianity in the UK is increasingly insignificant. However, reducing the measurement of the presence or growth of a religion to a numbers’ game is once again missing the point.

The first thing to note is the change in religious culture in the last fifty years. People who show up in Church today are there because they have actually chosen to be there. People are no longer ‘obliged’ to go to Church, nor do they attend for the kind of reasons that compelled them in the past – to get a job, to get a house, for social standing or for political influence. There is no obligation from the sense of it being the right and proper thing to do. Thus Churchgoers reasons for attending church today derive less from habit or custom and more from individual choice.

In the parish in which I serve in Dulwich we notice this with the people coming forward for baptism. Infant baptism used to be de rigueur within months of the baby’s birth. The reason for this was closely related to high levels of infant mortality. Getting one’s baby baptised  before they died was just one of the things one did within the first six months of a child’s life. Now people tend to wait until their child is a bit older. Most of the children brought to baptism at St Barnabas are two years old or above. It would seem that as with church going in general, baptism has become something that, after careful consideration, people choose to do or not. So the numbers of baptisms may well have gone down quantitatively, but if you look at the situation qualitatively, I’m not sure it is so clear-cut.

Let me pursue the idea of the move from obligation to consumption a little further with you – that is the notion that while fewer people may be found attending a Church service on Sunday, the people who are there have made a conscious decision to go. It is no longer simply ‘the done thing’. This is particularly apparent in Cathedral worship.

An interesting, and much discussed and researched, area of Christian life in Britain is the noticeable increase in numbers attending Cathedral services. In the last ten years attendance levels at regular weekly services in Church of England cathedrals have steadily increased by 30%, a growth of approximately 3% on average each year.4 Cathedrals offer traditional liturgy, excellence in preaching, wonderful music in beautiful settings and are appealing to a larger and more diverse group of people. Two explanations for this come to mind. The first is that this is symptomatic of the privatisation or individualisation of society. People go to cathedrals because they can enjoy a sense of anonymity. No one is going to accost them at the end of the service to ‘welcome’ them, encourage them to come along to a coffee morning or join the flower arranging rota. Cathedrals allow for a more private spirituality perhaps. It conforms to the ‘me, myself and I’ culture that pervades modern European societies.

Grace Davie offers another explanation. Referring to the Durkheimian insight that religion and the sacred awaken in us something beyond the realities of everyday life without which we remain dissatisfied, Davie claims that people today are after ‘the feel-good factor’ of religious experience. For some people, that is found in the traditional worship of cathedrals. Once again, people are not simply turning up to church because they have to. As Davie puts it: ‘late modern Europeans are more likely to go to a church ‘in which an experience of the sacred is central to the occasion’.5 So perhaps our numbers are down, but the people who are there really want to be there. It would be interesting to consider how this situation compares with the Muslim context.

So far the assumption that fewer people in church equals the end of Christendom has been challenged by the facts that first, the religious attendance and commitment that we see today is a result of choice, rather than obligation and second, some areas of Christian worship, like cathedrals are growing. I would like to challenge the idea further by taking a closer look at religious life in the UK in our public institutions.

Due in part to the fact that we have an established church in this country, the religions (no longer only Christianity) breathe life into our public institutions. Once again, far from being at the margins, I would argue that Christianity is right at the heart of civil society: in our schools, prisons, hospitals and care homes. Even the BBC Media City in Manchester has its own chaplain. It may well be that for many people their first encounter with a priest is at school or in hospital, because the church is there in the middle of public life. Every person admitted to prison will be seen by a chaplain within twenty-four hours of his or her arrival. The chaplaincy team at Guy’s Hospital has a total of 60 chaplains. Chaplaincy work plays an enormously important role and is a tangible sign of the religious presence that continues to make itself felt. Moreover, with continued cuts in funding these institutions rely more and more on volunteer work and a large number of their volunteer base come from local religious groups. I recently heard a talk given by the lead chaplain at St Christopher’s Hospice in south London. One of his main themes was to plug the training in pastoral care that they offer church groups as a way of encouraging more volunteers.

Aside… I think the growing number of mixed religious chaplaincy teams is one of the most fruitful examples of inter-religious cooperation.

Church of England schools are another striking example of how the church touches people’s lives even when they don’t go to Church on a regular basis. In Dulwich we have two or three very good church schools and we see people moving into the area, sometimes before their child is even born, in order to try and secure a place at the local CofE school.  I would be interested to know what the figures are for faith schools, but for Church of England schools they speak for themselves. At our infants’ school we have 400 applicants for 90 places each year.

A further sign of continued religious presence is the way in which our churches remain at the centre of daily life as their buildings and halls are used for other activities. It may not be for religious worship, but churches and church halls are increasingly used by outsider groups. The church in which a friend of mine is serving his curacy in East London has a gym for people with physical disabilities in its basement and runs a café where English language conversation classes take place during the week. Last week I did a little scan of the various activities that go on during the week in the churches in my deanery in south-east London. There is the lively minds club, the over-50s darts group, community drama, cookery classes for adults with learning disabilities, the Southwark day centre for asylum seekers, brownies, cubs, guides and scouts, narcotics anonymous, dyslexia classes, yoga for people with ME, pilates, children’s drama…the list is endless. Many of these activities offer contact and a community to people who would otherwise be stuck at home alone. They may not be the Sunday service, but they are examples of Christian love and charity, of ways in which we seek to be the caring hands and feet of Christ on earth and another sign that religious life continues to have much to offer secular life.

I want to conclude with an analogy used by the priest and philosophical theologian Sarah Coakley to describe the Church of England’s place in 21st century Britain. Coakley offers the main drainage system as a metaphor for the Church. She writes: ‘like the main drainage system, the Church of England and its priesthood can still be taken for granted in secular Britain. Like the main drainage system, its efficacy is as deep as it is also invisible. Like the main drainage system, it continues to attend to what often cannot be mentioned. And like the main drainage system, when it goes wrong there is a horrible smell that affects everyone’.6

Coakley’s description reinforces the sense that the Christianity in the UK is alive and well. It continues to do its thing. It may look different to the way it looked fifty years ago, but like the central heating system it is by no means at the margins of our society. In fact, it keeps society ticking over. Nor is it at variance with public opinion. Far from being ‘out of touch’ or behind with the programme, the Church is one of the places where society is able to debate the programme. For this reason alone I think it is misguided to suggest Christianity today is at the margins of society.

In my second part I pursued the centrality of religious life in Britain by looking at consumption over obligation where attendance at church services is concerned. I referred to the notion that people who go to church are there because they want to be there. Furthermore, often their reasons will be more explicitly ‘religious’ than they may have been two generations ago. This is a qualitative, rather than quantitative (and I would say more enlightening), measure for exploring the question of decline. The second qualitative measure I proposed was both the presence of the religious in our public institutions, most visibly through chaplaincy services, and the presence of the public in our religious spaces as community groups and services make use of church facilities for activities during the week.

I have suggested this afternoon that Christian religious life is as present as it has ever been, albeit in a different way. As a newly ordained clergy person I look forward to what lies around the corner with excitement and trepidation. I think religious life in this country has an enormously significant and complicated role to play, perhaps more complicated than it has been before. As we find ourselves at events like today, where we ask these questions together as members of different religious traditions, all of us seeking to understand how our faith can continue to breathe life into civil society, I think the picture only gets more interesting and more exciting.


1- Tom Wright, ‘It’s about the Bible, not fake ideas of progress’ The Times, 23 November 2012.

2- Grace Davie, ‘Debate’ in, Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, ed Samuel Wells & Sarah Coakley (London: Continuum, 2008), 155. 



5- Davie, 146.

6- Sarah Coakley ‘Introduction’ in Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, ed Samuel Wells & Sarah Coakley (London: Continuum, 2008), 5.


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