A strange twist to a familiar storyline comes to us from Britain, where church attendance has been steadily dropping since the 1960s. Despite (or perhaps, from the American point of view, because of) Anglicanism’s legal and social establishment in the UK, not even a quarter of Britons self-identify as members of the Church of England. Far fewer admit to regularly attending church services.
And yet, according to new numbers compiled by the British Social Attitudes Survey and the European Social Survey, and reported by the British daily the Telegraph, the Church of England has apparently found a way to at least stop the bleeding. Though numbers of self-identified Anglicans are still low, the decline seems to have “stabilized” since 2015; it now hovers rather consistently at around 17 per cent of the overall population (which in fact represents a modest increase since 2009).
Whence this reprieve for a beleaguered church, which saw a dramatic drop in church attendance after the publication in 2006 of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion? Prof. Stephen Ballivant of St Mary’s University Twickenham in London, cited in the Telegraph article linked above, points to a number of factors. After the initial furor over Dawkins’ polemic, the Church of Eengland is now left with smaller but more committed core of believers. In addition, the church increasingly markets itself as a source of community in an age of digital isolation—a place where people can find and make lasting connections with those in their area and who broadly share their values. And, perhaps most interestingly, Dr. Ballivant suggests the improved fortunes of Anglicanism may have something to do with the wave of populism which swept through England as recently as June of 2016, when voters rejected their place in the European Union: “People see Christianity as an expression of Englishness. There has been more rhetoric around Britain being a Christian nation,” Ballivant notes.
Another possible answer was suggested last October by Simon Jenkins in the Spectator. Cathedrals, Jenkins notes, remain hugely popular and culturally important places across much of modern day Britain. Of the forty-two Anglican cathedrals in England, many in recent years have managed to turn profit and attract record number of visitors. Jenkins summarizes:
“At the end of the [1900s], cathedrals were faring no better than churches, with attendances falling sometimes by 5 per cent a year. With the new century, everything changed. Worship in almost all 42 Anglican cathedrals began to rise, and it is now up by a third in a decade. This was in addition to visits by tourists, who number more than eight million. There are more visits to cathedrals than to English Heritage properties.”
For his part, Jenkins credits the “intangible mix of aesthetic and contemplative satisfaction” uniquely available at these houses of prayer, twenty-five of which date back to Medieval times.
For our purposes, the example from across the pond illustrates that churches remain—even against the headwinds of secularization, popular polemic, and general religious apathy—centerpieces of civil society. Major centers of worship and communal life can still play an active role in modern life, especially inasmuch as they see themselves as contributing to, rather than defending from, the exigencies of the broader culture. Though the simple relationship that may exist in some church-goers minds between ‘Britishness’ and ‘Anglicanism’ proves a deeply problematic proposition in contemporary Britain, and though a similar equation between ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ is at least as fraught and un-nuanced on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps even still—mutatis mutandis—American churches have something to learn here about their own often confusing role in civil society.