A new and major British survey in which 1,200 priests were asked a set of questions about faith and the church has concluded that the country could no longer be described as Christian. This should come as no surprise to anybody and has surely been obvious for some time. It’s also likely the case in Canada, with most explorations of religion in both countries revealing a striking similarity in terms of the decline of Christian belief and worship. As a priest, my response is that this is not necessarily a bad thing.
That may disappoint or even shock you, and I certainly don’t intend shallow provocation, but the point is that people, and not countries, are Christian. In fact, it’s extremely dangerous for a nation or state to be dominated by one single religion, as history has repeatedly and tragically demonstrated. Far better is a level playing field of belief and devotion, doubt and disbelief, where we can all have a respectful dialogue about what we hold to be sacred.
Nor is it any surprise that people have left the church, any church, in that organized religion has often let them down terribly. If the various Christian denominations had remained true to the teachings of their founder, and genuinely preached and lived justice, love, peace, forgiveness, equality, and grace, I’m sure all of these surveys would reveal a dramatically different picture.
So, we clergy shouldn’t blame others for our own failings. I see Christianity in action every day as people work with the poor, hungry, unhoused, and rejected, and preach orthodox but enlightened theology and biblical understanding. But I also see hideous distortion of the Gospels in Canada, as well as the USA, and Britain. There’s a concerted campaign to hijack Christianity, just as there is to hijack the national flag. Yet to be fair, I also see forms of the faith so diluted, so apologetic and compromised by the culture, that I can hardly see Jesus as all.
What people often get so wrong, and what has caused so much damage, is the assumption that Christianity is a rulebased religion, with some sort of theological scoreboard or a set of ethical boxes that have to be ticked. In fact, the very opposite is the case, with the central teaching being shockingly brief but wonderfully sublime. Love God, and love others as yourself. I’d argue that the two are invincibly linked, and that every act of kindness and goodness towards others is also act of love for God.
But let’s go a little further. Church attendance numbers may be down, and may reduce still further, but Canada is a far more accepting, communityminded, and empathetic country than it was. What is socialised medicine, public welfare, state education, tax-based redistribution of wealth, and opposition to racism and discrimination if not a government manifestation of the biblical call?
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
That’s not some secular political manifesto but the words of Jesus. So perhaps the Christian message isn’t doing so badly after all, even if we’re not always aware of it.
Of course, I’d like to see the pews full but we all know that Sunday worship is hardly a satisfactory indicator of authentic Christian conviction. If Britain and Canada are no longer considered Christian countries, perhaps it allows those of us who are followers of Christ to present the case anew, to evangelize with sensitivity and humility, telling people about a relationship with God rather than an adherence to a particular church.
There was a time not so long ago when the respectable position was weekly church attendance, and those who didn’t spend their Sunday mornings at a Christian ceremony were considered eccentric or worse. That is very much a creature of the past. I’d say that we’re better off for it, and so is the Christian faith. The mission field is open wide, so let’s journey into it with love, truth, courage, and conviction.