The British-based weekly The Economist has achieved must-read status for its foreign affairs and financial reportage, and includes a solid if somewhat spotty U.S. package for stateside readers.
On religion, it doesn’t do all that much, but when it does the pieces are usually well worth reading. For one example, there’s a recent examination of the Church of England’s long-running decline and fall. It’s a particularly good example for news scribes of how to enrich a somewhat familiar theme with ample fact-gathering combined with analysis and compressed into one page with the usual newsmagazine wizardry.
Though generally aware of the situation, GetReligion folks who keep up with church events will learn new stuff about this established royal institution, nominally headed by England’s monarch and led by an archbishop picked by the prime minister’s advisors. (The Church of England is separate from the other Anglican branches in Britain, the Church of Ireland, Church in Wales and Scottish Episcopal Church.) And for readers who don’t follow church affairs, this article will be a revelation.
First, some of those facts. In January, average attendance slipped below 1 million for the first time. Another milestone, in 2009, showed Britons without religion slightly outnumbered those saying they’re Christians (now increased to 49 percent vs. 43 percent). And since 2004 baptisms are down 12%, church marriages down 19%, and funerals down 29%. Nowadays a quarter of Sunday services are attended by 16 or fewer worshipers.
A Gallup survey last year found only six of 65 countries are less religious than the United Kingdom. And so forth and so on. World without end. Amen.
Meanwhile, upkeep on those lovely but aging church buildings is busting budgets, and there’s a sharp increase in defunct congregations offering to sell off their vacant buildings for secular use. As befitting an economics magazine, the dire budgetary realities on this are duly reported.
Now, religionists will see here a spiritual tragedy for time and eternity, with accompanying loss of the inspiration, comfort and fellowship of the sort only a faith community can provide. To The Guy himself, it’s hard to surpass worship with sturdy English hymnody alongside the elegance of the martyred Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The Economist expresses little fondness toward the substance of Christianity and, as with other “mainstream” outlets, tends to leave out the religion in treating religious situations.
Nonetheless, even from a secular standpoint its analysis recognizes a huge cultural shift and loss reminiscent of the “bare ruined choirs” of Shakespeare’s deathbed sonnet. After all, “Christianity has been woven into British life” for well over 1,000 years, yet “the parish church, that icon of Britain’s national character, is becoming a memory.” Those emptying cathedrals have been “cornerstones of the nation’s heritage.”
Also, The Economist laments, churches offer important charity and are usually the ideal place in a region for concerts, art shows, lectures, dance classes, band rehearsals, social services, counseling and whatever. Meanwhile, England’s other venerable gathering place, the local pub, often also struggles to stay in business.
There are still strong, vibrant religious congregations in Queen Elizabeth’s realm, but they tend to involve Christian immigrants and, especially, Muslims.
The bottom line" What will be the “philosophical and moral authorities” that will try to create a national consciousness to replace hollowed-out Christianity? And can they possibly succeed?
The Economist sees “post-religious” Britain as a forerunner, with Pew Research projecting that e.g. France, The Netherlands and Australia will likewise lose their Christian majorities by 2050.
U.S. readers thinking about all this may ask themselves whether this will be the eventual plight of predominantly white “mainline” Protestant denominations, now in gradual decline, that stemmed from the British Isles and long ruled America’s religious and moral culture.