This Sceptic Isle

Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so.

The country is littered with evidence of the change. Everywhere deconsecrated churches are reopening as bars and restaurants. Five hundred churches were turned into luxury homes over five years in London alone. Shrinking congregations and growing repair bills are typically the fatal combination: about a quarter of Sunday services are attended by fewer than 16 parishioners. The Church of England is doing its best to manage this trend. Christmas-only parishes, catering to the once-a-year crowd, are one avenue. A new app enables cashless millennials to chip in to a virtual collection plate.

 

Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so. That calls for a national debate

The final parish meeting of the Holy Trinity Church, in the centre of Bath, took place on a rainy day in February 2011. Anglo-Catholic congregations had worshipped here, under the hammer-beam roof and monuments to heroes of Napoleonic wars, for nigh on two centuries. Now a £40,000 ($52,000) bill for electrical repairs had succeeded where a German bomb had failed: the church was to close and it was time to wind up its affairs. Formalities concluded, parishioners filed in for a final mass. “Forgive us as we confess our negative feelings and fears for the future,” ran a closing message on the website. Today the building is listed for sale on the Church of England website, offers invited.

Last year the church reported a “sharp upturn” in such disposals. That hints at a milestone that Britain reached in January, when figures for weekly church attendance fell below 1m for the first time, as well as one passed in 2009, when the proportion of Britons saying they had no religion (49% in the latest data, for 2015) overtook that saying they were Christian (43% in 2015) in Nat Cen’s British Social Attitudes survey. Other figures also point to this spiritual sorpasso: since 2004 church baptisms are down by 12%, church marriages are down by 19% and church funerals by 29%. A 65-country study by WIN/Gallup last year found a lower proportion of people are religious in Britain than in all but six other countries.

Each generation is about as observant as it has always been: a fairly consistent 80% of the pre-war cohort has generally described itself as religious; about 40% of Britons born after 1980 tend to do so. And there are exceptions, of course. Some inner-city churches, particularly in areas of high immigration, are dynamic and thriving; clergymen hope that these successes can be spun off (or “planted”) to other parts of the country. Meanwhile other religions, like Islam, are growing—albeit not nearly fast enough to slow the growth of non-religious Britain.

The country is littered with evidence of the change. Everywhere deconsecrated churches are reopening as bars and restaurants. Five hundred churches were turned into luxury homes over five years in London alone. Shrinking congregations and growing repair bills are typically the fatal combination: about a quarter of Sunday services are attended by fewer than 16 parishioners. The Church of England is doing its best to manage this trend. Christmas-only parishes, catering to the once-a-year crowd, are one avenue. A new app enables cashless millennials to chip in to a virtual collection plate.

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