The latest British Social Attitudes Survey is interesting, though perhaps not quite as informative as its compilers believe.
Religious faith, they claim, has declined sharply in Britain over the last two decades. Now only 50 percent of people describe themselves as Christian, as opposed to 66 percent 20 years ago. Most of the decline is due to a drift away from the Church of England, it is claimed, with only 23 percent claiming allegiance, down from 40 percent.
But before anyone takes this at face value as another example of how the Christian faith is evaporating in Britain, and the country is going to the dogs, here’s another perspective.
To ask people what they believe is to get into very deep waters indeed. “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.” But pollsters are not known for their delicate footwork. And the increasing polarization between religious and nonreligious, enforced partly by the decline of the tolerant liberal wing of the church and the corresponding rise of the evangelical one, and partly by modern-day atheists’ discovery of faith – in atheism, that is – has meant that people are far more aware than they were about what is implied by saying to which religion they belong.
Once upon a time, if you asked a random individual what their religion was, the answer would be “C of E, I suppose,” and the hatch, match and dispatch services offered by that church would have been regarded as entirely adequate. Now people think much harder.
And how is that a bad thing? Like it or not, real and heart-felt religion, personal devotion to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has always been a minority pursuit. There have been times in the life of our nation when the currents of faith have run deeper than they do at present and when the climate has been more hospitable. But even then, the Christian faith has touched lives lightly, if at all, and it has been compromised by its association with power and its use as a social control.
These are exciting times to be a Christian in the United Kingdom. Part of the excitement is working out exactly what that means. It is pointless to regret a lost Christendom. We live in a different world, in which faith and culture intersect rather than merging. It is a time for New Testament Christianity, and we should be thankful.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.