Again and again, across the Anglosphere and western Europe, the tide of secularism is winning. It may be tempting for liberals within the Church to see a progressive redirection as the natural solution, yet the evidence of those parts of the world where Christianity is alive and kicking (central and eastern Europe, much of sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and Latin America) suggests it is where the overall culture remains fundamentally aligned to traditional values that religion holds firm. In the likes of Poland, it is the very traditionalism of the Church which has held Catholicism’s appeal.
Writing in UnHerd, Anglican rector Giles Fraser recently argued that: “As churchgoing collapses in the UK, and in the West more generally, in other places it is rapidly expanding. In 1970, there were 7.7 million Anglicans in Africa. By 2015, that figure had risen to 57 million and continues to grow. In numerical terms, Anglicanism is thriving — it is currently the third largest group of Christians in the world. Never before have there been so many people in the pews. Mostly, they are in their thirties, female, black, and conservative.”
In this context, the priest wrote, “the Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed that the worldwide Anglican Communion ought to have a greater say in choosing his successor.” It has now been agreed that the worldwide Communion supply five of the 17-member group which recommends the next leader of the Church of England, up from one. The consequence could be that the next leader of the Church of England is markedly more conservative in matters of sexual ethics, for example. Likewise, a successor to Pope Francis coming from a country like Hungary – led by the nationalist Viktor Orbán – could send shockwaves through the Catholic world.
Even in the United States, the Dobbs ruling is unlikely to reverse the overall direction of travel. Indeed, the Supreme Court did not make abortion illegal, or introduce nationwide restrictions, but merely handed power back to individual states. The cultural divisions in the US mean a nationwide ruling would have probably been impossible anyway. While the Dobbs ruling may be a cause for celebration among conservatives, it should be noted that a majority of Americans – including in states introducing restrictions on abortion – were opposed to the decision. Most Catholics also appear not to back the decision. In essence, it seems that when the overall culture turns against Christianity – often associating the faith with patriarchy and the evils of the past – no amount of legal and political pushback can reverse decline. As seen in Hungary and Poland, it takes a cultural reawakening to do that.
Can the Vatican – or, indeed, Lambeth Palace – then avoid turning away from the West (or, at least, Australasia, north America and western Europe) in the name of survival? Is it inevitable now that the faith looks more towards the eastern half of Europe, Nigeria, the Philippines and South America – parts of the world which increasingly supply priests for dioceses in Western countries? The impact of such a turn is likely to be a doubling down on conservative values, perhaps further alienating those already turned off the established churches in the West, but entrenching the faith where it is growing and perhaps one day resurrecting it in countries where it is currently in decline.
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