Newly released data from last year's census has been making headlines over the last week. It reveals that fewer than half the population now count themselves to be 'Christian', whilst more than a third of people have ticked the 'no religion' box.
Thousands of words have been written in response, ranging from humanist calls to abolish faith schools and disestablish the Church of England, to opinion pieces (some of them by me!) pointing out that reports of the church's demise are always exaggerated.
Let's be reassured from this outpouring of interest, that people are still fascinated by the role of faith in people's lives and in society more broadly, even where they don't share or understand it.
Sunday's papers offered a fascinating window into some of these views.
Some commentators suggested that a decline in faith is inevitable. As nations become richer and more rational, they move away from a primitive need to invent powerful deities to provide protection and meaning. Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times cited research claiming that "once a nation has become prosperous, and established a strong sense of national identity, religion can melt away without ill effect". Morality has been brought "within the purview of reason rather than received truth... (and) we can unite ...around ideas grounded in shared values and reality rather than fairy tales."
The Observer focused on the solace that people find in faith. It cited research that has been "decades in the making and now encompasses thousands of studies", suggesting faith contributes to better wellbeing as it provides ways to cope with life's stresses. The article then offers a variety of activities that people can take up to achieve similar benefits without the inconvenience of having to believe in a deity. These include practising mindfulness, keeping gratitude diaries, the cultivation of awe through nature, and signing up to voluntary activities in the community that help you feel better about yourself.
Fascinating as these articles are, they totally miss the point. Faith is not simply a private hobby that we choose to indulge to make us feel safe or good. And as the Archbishop of York explained in the Sunday Telegraph, "the story that defines our identity has never been one of overwhelming numerical growth nor fear of extinction." Quite. I am not a Christian because I find it a worthwhile or popular pastime, I am a Christian because I find it to be true.
At the centre of the Christian faith is the person of Jesus Christ himself. He offers each of us the opportunity for a relationship with him, and to join with him in his great work of establishing God's kingdom on earth. From this flows the wellbeing and peace that society longs for. But the sticking point for many is that this is not simply a personal self-fulfilment plan. It is a plan, but it's His plan and we must accept it entirely on His terms.
This, essentially, is why we instinctively reject Christianity. It's simply too radical and countercultural. Faith in Jesus means accepting that we are not in control of our lives. We belong to him and no longer live for ourselves. It is liberating to understand that we cannot save ourselves through our own efforts – indeed for me personally at least, it is the ultimate cure for anxiety. But it also means that we are called to love those who hate us, and to pray for those who wish ill towards us, to forgive people that we simply cannot stand. Like I say, this is radical stuff. And when we don't model it well, it can come across as restrictive, judgemental and unattractive.
I believe the explosion of interest around the census data is a real encouragement as it shows that people are still searching for purpose and meaning in their lives. As we enter a difficult winter, we have a great opportunity to point our neighbours to Jesus, through loving them in practical ways and living in such a way that people will be drawn to him.
Christianity is rational, it is real and it is relevant – whether people feel those things to be so or not. So our job is to be ready with an answer to those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have. But they won't ask us if our lives don't stand out as different.
In Matthew 16, Jesus calls his followers to "let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." We want people to understand that the One who called the universe into existence wants to reach into their lives and offer them his unconditional love: a love "so amazing, so divine" that it "demands my soul, my life, my all".