In a supposedly secular Europe, Britain’s religious institutions remain decidedly influential. England has an established state church, Anglican divines are entitled to a seat in the House of Lords and the Queen herself carries the title ‘Defender of the Faith’. Despite British Christianity having been in decline since the second of two world wars, the Church of England retains a firm grip on our society- managing to portray every indifferent Christian as a devout believer.
If and when the Church want to influence policy, they point to the statistics. Not too long ago, the 2011 census revealed that 59.3% of the country were self-defined Christians. Many politicians, having been shown this data, would conclude that Britain remains a predominantly religious society. However, despite the majority of the public identifying as Christian, only 3% could also claim to be regular churchgoers. For many Britons, ‘Christianity’ is a culture; a lifestyle choice rather than a genuine belief.
Consider the following- the week after the census, the Richard Dawkins Foundation conducted a poll asking over 1,100 Anglican Christians for the main reason as to why they identified with the religion. Only 18% responded that they actually believed in its doctrine, whereas 46% answered “my family is Christian” or “I was raised as a Christian”. The truth is that many of the Christians from the census data are Christian only in culture: having their babies baptised and singing carols at Christmas, yet refuting the teachings of the religion itself. The idea that one must actually believe to be called a Christian seems to be, for all intents and purposes, dead.
For too many years the Church of England has been playing around with these religious definitions, hoping to nudge ministers in a certain direction when voting on policy. Members of the Anglican hierarchy have constantly quoted census data (which, as mentioned above, exaggerates the number of committed Christians in the UK) in order to influence our representatives in Parliament. The worst part? It works. “Mr Speaker, this data shows that Britain remains a predominantly Christian country, so with this in mind I believe we should pass a law on…” is a quote that should sound worryingly familiar. It’s how the Church still manages to pull the strings in major decisions, and given the government’s policies on socially divisive faith schools, bishops in the House of Lords and collective worship in school assemblies, it’s clear to see that their efforts have been fruitful.
In the winter of 2015, ministers proposed a much-needed crackdown on illegal faith schools- those proven to be ‘promoting intolerance’ towards members of other faiths. It should have been a welcome change, blocking unregistered religious schools from spreading fundamentalist or extremist views to young, impressionable children. But predictably, the Church chimed in. The thought of any Christian faith school being shut down provoked months of intense pressure and lobbying by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and as expected, the proposal was quietly abandoned.
What we see happening here is an ancient, aristocratic institution having a huge impact on our politics, whilst the people themselves have entered an age of religious indifference- it’s no surprise that a poll back in 2006 revealed that ‘religious leaders’ topped a list of groups that the public felt had too much power over ministers. Large demographics (particularly the youth) have become disillusioned with Anglicanism. To them, religion is boring. Churches are places you go for weddings and funerals, aside from the mandatory visit on Christmas day. The exciting, sexed-up “Jesus wants you to drive a Ferrari!” type televangelism of America may be conflicting with traditional Christian thinking, but it has certainly done a better job of retaining the country’s religious roots.
An irreligious nation like Britain ought to be governed by an irreligious law, and, as such, there should be an end to the Church’s leverage on our politics. It’s evident that our society was built on the foundation of Christian faith, and no efforts can be made to deny or rewrite history in that regard. But acknowledging that Christianity advised our legal system originally is not mutually exclusive with recognising that the Church should have no such involvement today, and ultimately, both must reconcile as we secularise.