England is having its troubles these days. Economy in recession, a plague of strikes, living standards falling, highest inflation in 40 years, National Health Service on life support, millions can’t afford to heat their homes, government in disarray, and so it goes.
One thing the English won’t be doing so much to ease the pain is going to church. Most don’t do that anymore. According to the 2021 census, only 46 percent said they were Christian, down from 72 percent in 2001. By contrast the “no religion” cohort increased from 15 percent to 37 percent. At this rate, the no religions will overtake the Christians in the near future.
The religious side of things was assisted somewhat by the growth in those identifying as Muslims, the third largest group after no religion at about six percent.
It’s a watershed moment for British religion when less than half of this nominally Christian nation identify as such. And this the birthplace of one of Christendom’s major faiths.
Of course claiming no religion doesn’t mean no spiritual belief. It includes everyone from outright atheists to those whose spirituality doesn’t fit in with an established religion. Under the “any other religion” option, the largest group identified as Pagan. Those identifying as “Shaman” increased tenfold from 2011.
Needless to say, the reaction to the census differed sharply between the religious and the not religious.
The Most Rev Stephen Cottrell insisted that people still need spiritual guidance, suggesting optimistically “We will be there for them, in many cases providing food and warmth.”
Chief executive of Humanists UK Andrew Copson had a somewhat different take, saying the figures should be a “wake-up call which prompts fresh reconsiderations of the role of religion in society. No state in Europe has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population.”
It may indeed be time to question England’s relationship with religion. In light of the census figures one can reasonably believe that most Brits support separation of church and state. If so, it’s past time to separate the Church of England (Anglican Church) from the British state.
Twenty-six of its bishops still sit in the House of Lords and its measures (laws) require parliamentary oversight. The Prime Minister plays a role in ecclesiastical appointments, essentially making recommendations to the Sovereign who holds the title “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” The church’s clergy are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the sovereign.
Time, perhaps, for the increasingly pluralistic UK to re-think some of this stuff. Its devotion to one religion never seemed quite appropriate for a democratic nation.