BBC head of religion warns of 'chronic lack of religious literacy' in the UK

Aaqil Ahmed talks of a 'changing of the guard' in the Church and says there is a 'battle for Christianity' in the UK

The BBC’s head of religion has warned that Britain needs to address its “chronic lack of religious literacy” if it is to accommodate the rise through new immigration of “more assertive” forms of Christianity with “conflicting views” on same-sex marriage and other human rights issues.

Aaqil Ahmed, writing for The Independent, identifies a “more muscular Pentecostalism” emerging among African immigrants and an “upsurge in Catholic numbers” from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. “Christianity may have been pronounced to be at death’s door in the last century but now it’s firmly back in the public space and how we deal with that is the real battle for Christianity here in the UK.” 

Mr Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, talks of a “changing of the guard” in the Church and says: “Christianity is not in terminal decline as many would have us believe, it is just different now and it’s growing.” He asks: “If among this growth is a more assertive Christianity with conflicting views with society on homosexuality, for example, then how do we deal with this?”

His comments come ahead of the broadcast on Tuesday of a BBC1 documentary, The Battle for Christianity, examining significant changes in the Christian Church in Britain.

Mr Ahmed was appointed as the BBC’s head of religion in 2009, prompting a wave of complaints because of his Muslim background. He has since been the subject of controversy, such as when he compared modern migrants to the family of Jesus during a row about a Songs of Praise programme filmed in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. 

He has also been responsible for groundbreaking documentary projects including The Qur’an and Inside The Mind Of A Suicide Bomber. But his role is reportedly being diminished by a BBC restructuring and the broadcaster has been accused of marginalising religion.

In the documentary, the Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, claims the Church’s resistance to same-sex marriage is unacceptable to most young Anglican worshippers. “Seventy-two per cent of Anglicans under 35 are in favour of gay marriage,” he says. “In a culture like that, how long do we think we can keep this up? I think that will become increasingly unsustainable.”

But other elements of Christianity are more conservative. The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert, who represented the Northern Ireland bakery couple who were found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake with a message of support for gay marriage, suggested that ruling could lead to a Muslim printer being “told that he has to print cartoons of Mohamed”.

Linda Woodhead, a professor in politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University, claimed there was a “struggle now for the heart and soul of Christianity”. She said: “For lots of young people, Christianity is now morally objectionable. They don’t want anything to do with churches that don’t believe in human rights and the equality of all human beings.”

But the BBC also highlights the rise of new churches aimed at young people, such as the Australian-founded Hillsong Pentecostal Church, which attracts 8,000 youthful worshippers to its four services each Sunday at the Dominion Theatre in London. Presenter Robert Beckford, a theology professor at Canterbury Christ Church University, described the Hillsong services as feeling “like God’s nightclub”.

Professor Beckford also visited the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which arrived in Britain from Nigeria in the 1980s and now has 50,000 members. The church’s Pastor Agu Irukwu, said that while his Church does not believe in gay marriage, stated “we don’t judge, we don’t condemn”.

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