Arts & Books

Book review: Where Christianity still burns bright in Britain

Lichfield Cathedral: cathedrals still show signs of remarkable vitality (PA)

Religion in Britain
by Grace Davie
Wiley, £21.99

The sociology of religion is alien territory to most of us, but in that rarified discipline Grace Davie is well known on account of her 1994 study of religion in Britain, Believing Without Belonging. Apparently, the phrase took off among other sociologists even though, on the face of it, you could just as easily have applied it in reverse to the Church of England and called it Belonging Without Believing, which would cover the phenomenon of agnostic churchgoers and cultural Anglicans nicely.

Professor Davie has now produced an updated volume which deals with the largely secular Britain shown in the 2011 census. The subtitle, “A persistent paradox” reflects the author’s surprise that, in a country in which religious observance is so low, religion and the activities of Christian religious leaders still register on the national radar.

Of course, this is true, up to a point. Recently prominent Tories got terrifically worked up about the Church of England’s pre-election advice to voters, and the Sun joyfully pointed out that, while the Cof E had instructed other employers that they should pay the living wage, there were cathedrals where workers were paid less than that. (I do hope the Catholic bishops have that one covered as they advise us how to go about voting.) The point is, you don’t go to the trouble of duffing up people and institutions you really don’t care about. Few papers could care less how much the Muslim Council of Britain pays its workers.

Some of this is mere habit: the bishops, Anglicans or Catholics, may not mean anything qua bishops to most modern Brits, but they are a familiar part of the landscape as stock figures. And I don’t think we quite appreciate how useful clergy are in a visual age by dint of the fact that they are recognisable. They stand out from the dismal homogeneity of the rest of the culture in their dress, demeanour and the conduct which they are meant to uphold. The useful figure of the priest as comic but sympathetic buffoon in Mrs Brown’s Boys is exactly
what I mean.

And, as Professor Davie points out, there’s the phenomenon of vicarious religion, whereby national disputes about moral issues are carried out via debate with and within the churches. There were the arguments about three-parent babies, for instance, in which the only opponents of the technique the pundits could find to argue with were the churches, though when it came to it, the Anglican bishop who was meant to articulate disquiet about it ended by saying lamely that the problem was to do with safety, not principle.

Further back, the national arguments about same-sex marriage were largely conducted via the churches. Although the question of women bishops in the C of E is now resolved, Professor Davie observed that the national outrage when the motion was last defeated suggested that even secularists feel a kind of ownership of the state church.

The facts and figures about belief and religious observance on which the book’s analysis is based are so dismal, it’s probably best if I first identify the areas where Professor Davie is upbeat. They are, in brief: the army, the cathedrals and, in a small way, London. Religious belief among soldiers on active service is remarkably high given that they are largely young men, a demographic which is mostly irreligious in every other walk of life. And that’s to do with the fact that soldiers face the possibility of imminent death. Correspondingly, Army chaplains do good and useful service.

Cathedrals show signs of remarkable vitality, certainly the beautiful ones that attract lots of tourists. Some of that is to do with the fact that attendance at a cathedral is anonymous – there’s no recognition, and no obligation.

As for London, it’s less irreligious than most of Britain, some of which is attributable to its enormous ethnic minority population. But even so, about eight per cent of indigenous Brits in London go to church, which isn’t bad.

For the rest of the country, the picture is about as gloomy as it’s possible to get, unless you exclude church schools. Christianity is heading for extinction in Wales and the rest of Britain isn’t far behind, though the situation here is less dire than in Scandinavia. Our trajectory, in terms of belief and belonging, is one of inexorable decline. As older Christians die, their grandchildren are simply not replacing them. For instance, the British Social Attitudes survey showed the relationship between religious affiliation and year of birth; in the oldest group polled, one in two people identified themselves as Anglican; among those born in the 1980s, one in 20 did so.

We have to look at these realities squarely and this study will help. It’s not a cheering read, but a salutary one.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/4/15).

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