Britain is both a Christian country and not

Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire. (Photo: Rii Schroer)
Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire. (Photo: Rii Schroer)

One of the more frustrating things to watch is two people who are having an argument and talking past each other. They’re using the same words, but not quite referring to the same thing.

I’ve been having that sense in the last few days, as everyone gets more and more upset and angry about whether or not Britain is a “Christian country”, and whether or not that’s a good thing. David Cameron says it is and it is; a group of academics and writers and so on say it isn’t, in a letter to this paper; Dominic Grieve and Iain Duncan Smith come riding to their leader’s defence. “Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country’,” say the letter-writers. Duncan Smith accuses them of ignoring “constitutional reality”, thus neatly showing that he hasn’t read the letter.

Instinctively I agree with the academics. The Britain I see isn’t very Christian. Only one of my friends outside work describes herself as Christian; three out of my four grandparents and both of my parents are or were atheists. Churches, generally speaking, are things I go into when I’m on a city break, in which I wander about for 10 minutes looking at the names of old parishioners killed in the First World War, then virtuously stick a fiver in the collection box and feel good about supporting Britain’s architectural heritage; not living things at the centre of any community I’m part of.

But that’s where Cameron, Grieve and Duncan Smith do have a point. Britain’s heritage is Christian. Even if it was only its architectural heritage, that is a significant thing; I was in Bradford-on-Avon recently, near Bath, and in this little tiny picturebook town, surprisingly unheralded, was an old Saxon church, a thousand years old. I wish I could say I felt the years pouring off it when I stood inside; I didn’t, exactly, but it felt very strange. My son was about two months old at the time and it was odd thinking that the building he was in was six thousand times older than him. Something that much older than me would have been about as old as anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

And it’s not just the architecture, obviously. Our language is studded with Christian allegories (“If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible,” a colleague said to me the other day; she was exaggerating for comic effect, since there are a few ancient Greek myths and Aesop’s Fables in there too, but she was essentially right). And, as the historian Tom Holland pointed out recently, even our secularism is, in a way, Christian: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; the separation of Church and state is an idea that first gained strength in Christianity, even if several centuries’ worth of popes weren’t too keen on rendering anything to anyone. The letter-writers are absolutely correct to say that “Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces”, but it’s silly to deny that Christian thinking has been the largest single religious/philosophical input over the last millennium and a half or so.

The argument that the letter-writers are making, though, is that Christianity as a way of life has declined; while a majority still call themselves Christian, only a minority actually go to church. And, they say, this is not such a great loss. Whatever your thoughts on the impact Christian teachings have had on our morality, most people no longer get their rules of right and wrong from the Bible – and it’s not being replaced with the Koran or the Torah. As this very sensible piece in The Washington Post points out, in the 2011 census less than eight per cent of Britons claimed a non-Christian faith; more than 30 per cent either refused to give a religion or claimed none at all. And:

Other surveys tell an even more dramatic story: The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) found that 48 percent said they did not belong to a religion, whereas 68 percent said they were religious when the poll started in 1983. A 2011 YouGov poll found that only 34 percent of those asked would say they believed in “a God or gods,” and 50 percent said they never went to place of worships outside of family events such as weddings and funerals.

There’s also this very interesting breakdown in the FT, which points out that “Of those who were born between 1986 and 1992, 65 per cent claim to have no religion; this makes them the least religious generation ever included in the survey.”

There’s an element of Easter-holiday news-vacuum-filling here, because it’s unlikely that many non-Christian Britons will have been terribly scared or offended by Cameron’s vague and wishy-washy proclamations. He calls for Christians to be “evangelical”, but you wonder if he fully understands what the word means; is he demanding that Christians go around preaching the Gospel in an attempt to convert unbelievers, or does he just think it’s a synonym for “loud”? Generally, he couched his clarion call in such woolly terms that you’d have to be looking quite hard for offence in order to find it.

But it’s revealed an interesting faultline in national thinking. Britain is indeed a Christian country, if you look (as Cameron, Grieve and Duncan Smith do) at our history, our constitution, and (just about) the number of people who called themselves “Christian” at the last census. But Britain is not a Christian country, if you look at the number of people who actually believe in God, or who go to church, or follow the teaching of the Bible.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you think the decline of Christianity – because surely we can all agree, wherever you draw the Christian-nation line, that Britain is less Christian than it was – is a positive thing. For what little my opinion is worth, I don’t think it makes all that much difference.


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