Thought for the Day - Lord Harries of Pentregarth - 14/12/2012
Good morning. The new census figures make fascinating reading, not least what they reveal about the state of religious belief. The number of people identifying as Christian is down 11% from 10 years ago, and the number of people who say they have no religion is up 6 % in that period. 14 million people now say they have no religion. This does not surprise me at all, nor does it depress me. But first I think it is important to put such figures in historical perspective. What has happened over the last 50 years is a decline in all traditional institutions of which the Church is one. In fact the fall in membership of Political parties and Trade Unions has been far more dramatic that the fall in religious adherence. I have also heard it said that local newspapers have been closing at a faster rate than church buildings.
Then, if we look at it on a longer scale we can see periods of religious intensity come and go. The religiously serious 19th century gave way to a pretty godless first half of the 20th century. Indeed Adrian Hastings in his history of Christianity in that period said that the political elite in the first decade of the century didn’t contain a single orthodox Christian. That mood in turn gave way in turn to a new seriousness brought about by World War II. In 1962 for example 628 people were ordained in the Church of England, the highest figure since World War I.
It helps, I think, to see matters on a longer time scale, but what these figures really reveal is greater honesty in the answering of questions about religious belief. Until now religion was often seen as a matter of cultural identity, part of being British and wanting to be a decent person. So it was in the old days in the army, if you did not make a point of saying you were a Roman Catholic it was simply assumed that you were a member of the Church of England. It is only healthy that this cultural cloak is being stripped away, for religious belief must in the end be a matter of personal conviction or it is nothing. For all the three great Abrahamic faiths, God is by definition a reality who makes a total difference to the way we understand life. To believe is to have ones whole perspective on existence radically changed. There are very good people who claim to be cultural Christians, and I understand what they mean. They like services like Anglican Evensong, they value our Christian cultural heritage and the moral values that the Christian faith has embedded in our society. None of this is to be decried. But in the end religious adherence, whether to Christianity or any other major faith, must be a matter of conscious choice-and the fact that we live in a society where we are free to make that choice, and there is greater honesty about the choices we make, is much to be welcomed.