Study: ‘Nones’ Outnumber Believers in Britain

NEWS ANALYSIS: Amid cultural change, Catholicism and Christian heritage offer ray of hope in British Isles.


The news isn’t good. A new survey conducted in May by St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London, shows that 48% of people in Britain follow no religion at all. Some 44% report themselves as Christian, and about 8% follow other religions, including Islam. This means that, for the first time in our recorded history, there are more nonbelievers than Christians in our country.

The figures, of course, will come as no surprise to British-culture watchers, as the decline in Christian belief and practice has been evident for some years. Church attendance is low, and lifestyles reflect an apparent disregard for Christian moral teachings: A new law has established same-sex “marriages,” something like half of all children are now born out of wedlock, drunken shrieking and fighting in the streets among the youth is a standard feature of many towns on Saturday nights, contraceptives are routinely distributed to teenagers, including those below the legal age of consent, and abortion is widely accepted as a standard part of publicly funded health care.

The biggest decline in church attendance has been among members of the Church of England, and coinciding with the publication of the survey on beliefs came an Anglican announcement on the declining numbers of those offering themselves for training in ministry.

The Church of England started ordaining women in the 1990s, but this has not arrested the decline in clergy numbers and appears, in fact, to have accelerated it. Across the country, and particularly in rural areas, it is standard for churches to be grouped together, with one service being held in each on a rotating basis. Frequently, figures for attendance are only in single figures. Several training colleges for clergy have closed in recent years, and clergy are aging and not being replaced.

Catholics cannot afford to be smug. Although figures show that, on any given Sunday, there are more Catholics in church than members of other Christian groups, the figures still do not represent more than a small proportion of those who should be there. Officially, there are something like 4.5 million Catholics in England and Wales, in a population of some 58 million. But less than 1 million are at Mass on Sundays, despite the fact that many Poles have settled in Britain in recent years and have tended to boost congregation numbers in some cities.

This summer, a number of young men will be ordained to the priesthood in Britain. But not nearly enough. There are just 20 young men in training at the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, the only seminary for Scotland. Figures for England and Wales are rather better, and in addition to the Venerable English College in Rome, there are seminaries in London (Westminster), Surrey (Wonersh) and Birmingham (Oscott), in addition to a pre-seminary at Valladolid in Spain. But it is reported that there will be no new students arriving at the Westminster seminary this September, so even if numbers pick up again next year, there will be a gap that will be strongly felt in due course.

Increasing numbers of African priests now minister in Britain, sometimes combining their parish duties with post-graduate theological studies. There are also some priests from Asia and from the Indian sub-continent, as well as from Poland. But in the long run, it is unrealistic to assume that Britain should demand clergy from overseas to fill the gaps presented by failure to produce any at home.

Officially, Britain still has all sorts of Christian links: Formal celebrations for the 90th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen this year have included church services, and the most popular schools in the country are those sponsored by the Catholic and Anglican churches. They are invariably over-subscribed and tend to be at the top of rankings for academic and other successes. The great cathedrals resound to the footsteps of vast numbers of tourists and visitors each year, and their services are well-attended: an interesting fact note by surveys, as such attendance is in marked contrast to the general drop in Anglican churchgoing. Parliament begins each day with prayers, church services are broadcast on Sundays, and there are public prayers at war memorials each November.

But, increasingly, the traditions, prayers and ceremonies associated with the Christian faith seem unconnected with the everyday culture: Children are much more likely to be familiar with the “golden arches” of McDonald’s than with the gothic arches of a church, and the pounding of rock music or the piped noise of “muzak” in a supermarket is the standard background noise of life, with Christian hymns or phrases from the Bible completely marginalized.

Signs of hope? Among Catholics, the rising number of street processions for May and for Corpus Christi has been noted in recent years; some religious orders — notably, the Dominicans — are doing well; and there are large numbers for the pilgrimages at Walsingham each summer, with thousands taking part in New Dawn and Youth 2000 conferences and the pilgrimages organized for the Filipino, Tamil and West Indian communities. Young people from Britain will be attending World Youth Day in Krakow in July. The Faith Movement and Evangelium hold summer conferences attended by hundreds of young people in their 20s and 30s, and London’s “Spirit in the City” draws crowds, as does Nightfever, centered on Eucharistic adoration with street evangelization, in various cities.

The Church in Britain is by no means dead, and resurrection, hope and renewal are at the core of the Christian faith. Such renewal is not something easily achieved: The story of the Church in Britain is bound up with martyrdom, from Elphege, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was slaughtered by the Vikings at Greenwich on the banks of the Thames over 1,000 years ago, to Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, who were beheaded further along the river at the Tower of London some centuries later. And more recent saints have also known struggle and difficulty, even if of a different kind: Blessed John Henry Newman, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, endured disappointment, misunderstanding and bigotry.

For Catholics in these islands, the message is that the faith calls us to courage and to prayer — and to evangelism centered on a deep trust in God.

The story continues.


Joanna Bogle writes from London.