Is the Church in the UK a sinking ship?

(Photo: Unsplash/Daniel Roe)

The Humanist official could hardly contain his glee – "Some genuine Good News today", he declared on Facebook before linking to a headline - "Christianity Gives Way to Atheism in Britain Today, Survey Suggests". A headline and press release that was repeated verbatim in most of the UK media this week.

The findings from the British Social Attitudes survey certainly make grim reading for the UK church. There has been a "dramatic decline" in Britain's Christian identity over the last 35 years – with a "substantial increase" in atheism, a state-of-the-nation survey has suggested.

Thirty-eight per cent of those polled self–identify as Christian (down from 50% in 2008). Muslims are up from 3% to 6%. Fifty-two per cent of people say that they do not identify with any religion (although the headline is misleading in implying that they are therefore atheists). Only 11% of those who say they are Christian attend church at least once a week.

The report states: "Britain is becoming more secular, not because adults are losing their religion but because older people with an attachment to the Church of England and other Christian denominations are gradually being replaced in the population by unaffiliated younger people."

How do we respond to this?

The Secularists and Humanists were quick to use the figures to justify their campaign for even more secularisation and exclusion of religion (all of course done in the name of 'inclusivity).

The churches respond by clutching at straws and grabbing any crumb of comfort they can.

"There are many who believe but don't come to church; our cathedrals are booming; we have started new churches; there are signs of a bottoming out."

It's not that church spokespeople don't tell the truth, it's just that they don't tell the whole truth. They have become spin-doctors. Just as the militant secularists are determined to justify our non-existence, so the church leaders are determined to justify our existence. But is there a reality that we are not facing up to? Do we really face the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

The liberals say that the church is declining because we are not keeping up with the times – forgetting that Chesterton's saying "those who marry the spirit of this age, will end up a widow in the next" is now being fulfilled. Legalism may have slain its thousands, but liberalism has slain its tens of thousands.

Conservative evangelicals of various types tend to argue that if only we were a bit purer, the church would be fine – but again they conveniently ignore the large number of conservative evangelical churches that are not growing. It's easy, but foolish, for a conservative evangelical to blame either the liberals or the world for the lack of growth in their own church.

Charismatics give us the latest 'word from the Lord' telling us that revival is just around the corner – and from Orkney to Brighton, flames of the Holy Spirit are about to fall. For those of us who have heard this same 'prophecy' for 40 years, it is beginning to wear a bit thin.

I suppose we could all despair and cry, Private Frasier-like, "doomed, doomed, I telt ye – we are all doomed".

For me the story and the reality is a wee bit different and somewhat more complex. The secularists and atheists should beware that that they do not get what they wish for. As Peter Hitchens pointed out, the worst place to be an atheist is in an atheist country. Countries run on the philosophies of atheism have hardly been models of what we term Western liberal (Christian?) values.

Those of us in the church need to realise that the problem is not 'out there', but 'in here'. A church without the Spirit, a church without the Good news, a church that has rewritten the Bible into non-existence, a church without love – is a church that is doomed to die. And it deserves to die. That has always happened in church history. But the Lord has always raised up fresh shoots.

This week I also read a fascinating article by Greg Sheridan, The Australian's foreign editor and author of "God is Good for You", asking whether Christianity was making a comeback in the UK. He visited Holy Trinity Brompton and the Brompton Oratory where he noted the diversity, the number of young people and the sense of a thriving church life in London and elsewhere.

Sheridan recognises the decline and the problems. He notes for example that 7% of 18 to 29-year-old Brits identify as Anglicans, 6% as Muslims. That 4.1 million people in London self-identify as Christians, 2.1 million as Muslims. And yet he sees a stirring – something different. He sees life. But then he asks this great question.

"The question is whether the two Bromptons and all the other signs of life in contemporary British Christianity are really signs of hope, maybe of a turn at last, or are they really more like crowded lifeboats bobbing around in the wake of a sinking ocean liner?"

As we reflect upon this, may it drive those of us who are Christians to our knees in prayer. Revival, renewal, reformation and repentance are our greatest needs. And these can only come from the Lord. O Lord, preserve and refresh your inheritance. O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years! Can these bones live? Lord, have mercy.

David Robertson is Director of Third Space at the City Bible Forum in Sydney, Australia