Is Britain really a land of God? Furious debate after David Cameron claims we are a Christian country

David Cameron’s assertion that we are a Christian country has ignited a furious debate about the place of the Church in our national life and cultural identity

For 50 years a council-run  crematorium in Bath displayed a 4ft cross etched into one of its panoramic windows. Recently it was replaced with a “removable cross” to be displayed or concealed according to the departed’s wishes.

The new cross, printed on an acrylic sheet, was not part of the original plans for the £140,000 refurbishment of Haycombe Chapel (which despite its name is not a consecrated space). Instead it was a compromise after a petition objecting to the removal of the cross gathered 4,000 signatures.

The battle of Haycombe Chapel’s cross encapsulates Britain’s increasingly fractious relationship with its Christian heritage and the tension between those who seek a proudly areligious society and those, including the Prime Minister, who believe we should be more outspoken about our foundation faith.

On Monday, David Cameron found himself under attack from a coalition of 55 leading liberal voices, including  author Philip Pullman and philosopher AC Grayling, for fostering “alienation” across the UK by insisting that Britons should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country”.

Behind the row lie wider questions about just how Christian Britain is in 2014.

The statistics are both for and against Mr Cameron and his detractors. When the 2011 census was taken, 59 per cent of those in England and Wales described themselves as Christian. But the 2001 census found 72 per cent were nominally Christian.

The net loss of 4.1 million Christians would have been significantly worse had it not been for an influx of 1.2 million foreign-born believers – many from more strongly religious countries such as Poland and Nigeria – coming to Britain.

Research by the House of Commons Library in 2012 found that the number of non-believers – the nation’s atheists and agnostics are growing by nearly 750,000 a year – will overtake Christians by 2030.

The result, according to those who believe religion should be expunged from politics, is a disproportionate influence for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which critics say are out of step with those to whom they preach.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “If you put forward the idea that this is a Christian country with the implicit idea that Christians are somehow superior to other citizens then its leads down a dangerous path of prioritising one group’s belief ahead of others.

“Church of England attendance now stands at around 800,000 on a typical Sunday. It becomes increasingly difficult, therefore, to justify its privileged position, particularly when it espouses views on subjects such as gay marriage, which the rest of society has long since left behind.”

One senior cleric rejected the criticism, accusing Mr Cameron’s critics of propagating an “intolerant secularism” that ignores a country imbued with Christian culture, history and values.

The Right Reverend Mark Davies, the Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury, who has said that Christians might soon become “strangers in our own land”, told The Independent: “Christianity is the single most important element in England’s history. From our legal system to our constitution, it is at the very foundations of national identity.

“There is a danger of airbrushing this from our memory and the intolerant secularism that we are seeing expressed does not allow for acknowledgement of that contribution and its importance to our present life.”

Perhaps optimistically, some church leaders have insisted that while the “soft faith” of values and upbringing that once meant many Britons would declare themselves “Christian” without ever crossing the threshold of a church has fallen away, those who now volunteer their faith represent a core of wholehearted belief.

As the Roman Catholic Bishop’ Conference of England and Wales put it: “Christianity is no longer a religion of culture but a religion of decision and commitment.”

Rather like Haycombe Chapel and its movable cross, the reality of Christian Britain is probably more complex, with Britons increasingly adopting a “pick and mix” approach to faith.

Meanwhile, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and  the Pope have recently made conciliatory statements on homosexuality.

Nevertheless, the ability of religion to enflame debate is undimmed. As Billy Connolly once put it: “It seems to me that Islam and Christianity and Judaism all have the same God, and he’s telling them all different things.”