Is there a crisis of confidence in British Christianity?

Catherine Pepinster

When Living with Difference– the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life – was first published a year ago, some of its fiercest critics came from the Christian Churches. The Commission, headed by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, created by the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, and backed by such patrons as former Archbishop of Canterbury (Lord) Rowan Williams, set out to examine religious belief and its place in contemporary Britain. It looked at all forms of religion, from Christianity to Judaism and Islam, as well as other minority faiths in this country and the various forms of non-belief. It pointed out Christianity’s decline in both nominal membership and active, regular church-going believers. While the report recognized that religion plays a significant role in society, it had some harsh words to say – words that often emerge from the lips of vocal secularists. For example, the Today programme’s Thought for the Day slot got the usual bashing (I should point out here that I have appeared on it for more than a decade) with the recommendation that it should be opened up to secular voices.

But the comments that really upset Christians more than anything else in the report were the criticism of faith schools. Living with Difference implied that the sponsorship and support of schools by the Church of England and the Catholic Church are harmful to the public interest. “In our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension.”

These are harsh words and appeared deeply unjust to those who know faith schools. Catholic schools, in particular, are a melting pot, an extraordinarily rich set of communities with people of very varied cultural, social, linguistic and racial differences.

So why were people so sensitive about the report’s criticisms? It may well be because they had high expectations of this Commission and felt it let the side down with its sweeping judgments, and seemed to want to expunge Christianity from the public square. It could also be that Christians in Britain are lacking in confidence. They’ve seen congregations fall and are constantly criticized by secularists with an agenda – including the aim to get rid of the schools that also got lambasted in Living with Difference.

Now the people involved with Living with Difference are turning again to Christians and listening to them in more detail. On Tuesday this week, a group of people in positions of influence including theologians, public intellectuals, clergy and what one might term social activists got around the table in Cambridge to discuss what the report exposed and what the report also hadn’t discovered. Chatham House rules mean that I can’t say who specifically said what and who exactly was involved, but I understand this was a high-powered group who were frank in their analysis.

It was admitted that Christianity is in a difficult place in this country and that it is evident that when people are looking for answers and a viable, moral perspective on the world we inhabit, they don’t automatically turn to Christianity. Large numbers of people today seem to think that they can sort out their own problems rather than depend on God. Their autonomy is what matters to them.

One of the most pertinent issues that emerged from this conversation was the extent to which the Churches are very different from what those outside perceive them to be – and the Churches are failing to communicate this. Christianity is not a monolith in a diverse society; it is diverse itself. It is rich in cultures, languages and races, and for many Christians the church pew – or indeed the church school – is their greatest opportunity to encounter people who are different from them, yet with whom they have faith in common. And in a very unequal society, the deeply attractive message of Christianity is that we are all equal under God, all equally loved.

The other, unsung, deeply attractive aspect to Christianity in Britain – and again, one that is not being communicated enough, is its service to society. The Cambridge gathering came back time and time again to this notion of service. If you want a sense of how much service Christians are contributing to society, especially to the vulnerable, the fragile and the unwanted, take a look at Theos’ recent report

I understand one participant asked: “If Christianity disappeared next Thursday, would anyone notice?” The answer, going by Theos’ evidence, is yes, they would certainly notice the difference.

Back in 2012, The Queen marked the start of her Diamond Jubilee with a speech at Lambeth Palace where she talked about the Church of England having a duty to protect the practice of all faiths and that it had created an environment for those of other faiths and none to live freely. It wasn’t what the Church of England was originally intended for, but this role was felt to be deeply attractive to the Cambridge group and they perceive it is what Christianity of all denominations should be doing in Britain.

Shouldn’t that mean Christian schools can play that role too? The trouble with the argument about education is that many Britons want schools to play a role encouraging commonality and homogeneity – in other words, preparing children for peaceful citizenship. But they perceive Christian schools to be about particularity, as if that rules out commonality and homogeneity. It doesn’t. It is entirely possible to have layers of identity and layers of values. The notion that you can be one thing and one thing only harks back to Britain’s antipathy to the papacy, and the belief that being a Catholic ruled out being loyal to the Crown. As the events marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformations begin, isn’t it time that we laid this antiquated idea to rest? Having religious beliefs is not a leisure activity; it’s a profound part of one’s life and character. But it doesn’t make you some sort of lesser citizen.

Catherine Pepinster’s book, The Keys and The Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T & T Clark.








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