The Telegraph, a United Kingdom center-right broadsheet, recently ran this headline: "Britain is no longer a Christian country and should stop acting as if it is, says judge."
It topped a story about the findings of a two-year study on the place of religion in official British life in today's multicultural milieu. The judge referred to is an ex-judge, who's also a baroness, who chaired the study conducted by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, a non-government body.
Good piece of work, I thought the first time I read the head (an abbreviation cherished by newspaper copy editors in a universe fading, alas, into the far, far past). Then I read the story. And I concluded that, as with so many headlines that try to compress a complicated story line into a few words, it actually mislead.
Journalism truism: Headline writing is much more difficult than it looks.
OK, enough with the Journalism 101 stuff. Let's get to the meat of the story.
Yes, British churches have witnessed a steep decline in attendance. Nearly 60 percent of the British population still calls itself Christian, but only 25 percent say they are religious, according to a 2011 national census report.
Church of England attendance decline has been particularly steep. Sunday attendance was reported in 2012 to be about half of what it was 45 years earlier.
But where the aforementioned headline failed is in its conflating traditional Christian belief and practice with the more nebulous, and harder to measure -- but still critically important -- touchstone of cultural Christianity. Cultural Christianity may fall short in the minds of church officials and traditional believers, but it's still the ground of self-identity for the majority of Brits.
Let me repeat: It is not a trivial difference. Even an atheist and certainly an agnostic can recognize that their self-identity is grounded in Christian mores. They can even relish their cultural Christianity and get upset if their offspring becomes, say, a Buddhist monk.
If you haven't as yet, click on and read The Telegraph story. Or you can read this story on the study distributed by Religion News Service. It carried a less snappy and wordier, but more accurate, headline: "Dial back Christianity in British official life, make room for secularism, says new report."
(GetReligion honcho Terry Mattingly briefly mentioned this report and British Christianity from another angle -- Star Wars and the Church of England -- last week in previewing GR's weekly podcast. Access it here. Just don't forget to return to this post.)
For those not into link hopping, the report, in short, argued that the changing nature and demographics of British religious life make it time to lessen the Church of England's official primacy (the Anglican body's actual sway officially only applies to England, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar), as well as that of Christianity in general.
Here's a sample of The Telegraph story. The report:
... says that the decline of churchgoing and the rise of Islam and other faiths mean a "new settlement" is needed for religion in the UK, giving more official influence to non-religious voices and those of non-Christian faiths.
The report provoked a furious row as it was condemned by Cabinet ministers as "seriously misguided" and the Church of England said it appeared to have been "hijacked" by humanists.
The report ...claims that faith schools are "socially divisive" [state-supported parochial schools] and says that the selection of children on the basis of their beliefs should be phased out.
It also accuses those who devise some RE [religion] syllabuses of "sanitising" negative aspects of religion in lessons and suggests that the compulsory daily act of worship in school assemblies should be abolished and replaced with a "time for reflection".
The report backs moves to cut the number of Church of England bishops in the [House of] Lords and give places to imams, rabbis and other non-Christian clerics, as well as evangelical pastors.
The Telegraph also noted that the report even called for an overhaul of the next royal coronation so that it reflects “the pluralist character" of contemporary society.
The report is advisory only. But whether you find yourself angered or uplifted by it, from an American perspective it merely suggests a separation of church and state, which from my perspective as a non-Christian, ain't so bad when you're part of a religious, or even non-religious, minority.
So wither Britannia? Is the report just a snapshot of UK religiosity today? Or is it also a portending?
UK Christianity began in the Roman era, and an identity marker that old and ingrained will not, I think, simply be given up with a shrug. This New York Times opinion column notes the resurgent actions taken by religious adherents worldwide who feel threatened by the prospect of losing so critical an element of their identity. It can get ugly, but people get defensive when they realize the core of who they think they are is at risk.
Not to mention the possibility that at least some British Muslims, as they or their descendants assimilate over the generations, will drop Islam for Christianity or secularism. What impact might that have?
We won't know for some time to come, of course, and somewhere around a gazillion stories will be written about every turn of the screw as this unfolds.
You can also count on almost that many grabber heads that will overplay story content.
IMAGE: Photo of Tivetshall St. Mary Church ruins from Wikipedia.