Census, gays and a very bad day for the Church of England

The historical goodwill of the British public towards Anglicanism is starting to run dry - and this anti same-sex marriage stance will only drain further support

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New census data revealed this morning showed that just shy of 1,100 people in England and Wales ditch their Christian identity every day.

Meanwhile the only organisation that has a duty to marry British citizens will, the government announced this afternoon, be legally allowed to discriminate once more against gay men and women. Not a good day for the Church of England. If I were a Lords Spiritual right now, I’d be rather nervous about keeping my job. The established church has never looked so out of touch with the rest of Britain.

It must come as no surprise that the same decade which has resulted in four million fewer people calling themselves Christian has also been a period in which Christianity has been paralysed by polemical debates about genitals – mainly what type of genitals you have and what you do with them.

True, secularism has been consistently on the rise since the Second World War. But at times over the last ten years it has felt like Christianity – and the Church of England in particular – has rarely talked about anything other than sex in the form of women bishops and gays.

It leaves the Church of England facing a genuine crisis. The historical goodwill traditionally shown by the British public and political classes towards Anglicanism is beginning to run dry. Why on earth, people are asking in greater number than perhaps ever before, do we let such an organisation continue to represent Britain when it is becoming so unrepresentative of the British people?

Glass ceilings

When the Church’s legislative body failed to pass women bishops legislation last month, politicians from all sides of the political divide openly lamented the Church’s apparent inability to jump over an equality hurdle that the rest of Britain leaped over decades ago (though I’m not suggesting for one minute gender inequality is solved in the rest of Britain). A huge chunk of the British public must have asked if they can’t even break the glass ceiling for women, what hope is there for gays?

While recognising they face a challenge, the Church of England put an almost desperately positive spin on today’s census figures. In a press release entitled “England remains a faithful nation” the Rev Arun Arora said: “The death of Christian England has been greatly exaggerated. Despite a decade of nay-saying and campaigning by atheist commentators and groups, six out of ten people in England self-identify as Christians, a figure which rises to more than two-thirds when including people identifying with faith as a whole."

It’s certainly the case that taken as a whole, two thirds of England and Wales identify themselves as having some sort of faith. But the second largest bloc after Christian is now “no faith” with 25.1 percent.

Meanwhile, as secular organisations have pointed out, the England and Wales census asks a somewhat loaded question when it comes to religion. Unlike the Scottish census, which asks a much more useful two questions – What was your religion at birth/What is your religion now? – the English census simply asks “What is your religion?” It automatically assumes the respondent has faith. Which means millions of people up and down the country who never go to church, never pray, know very little about basic Christian theology nonetheless tick the Christian box because that’s the identity they believe they ought to have.

How you ask a question is important. The British Humanist Association conducted a recent poll in which they asked respondents “What is your religion?” and 61 percent or respondents ticked a religious box. But when they asked “Are you religious?” only 25 percent of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65 percent said ‘No’.

Out of touch

The Church hierarchy’s official opposition to equal marriage legislation, meanwhile, is likely to erode support for Christianity even further over the next ten years – especially among younger generations who simply aren’t as bothered about what people do with their genitals in loving, committed consensual relationships to the same extent that perhaps their parents or grandparents are.

It’s important to note that much of the Church of England is not anti-gay marriage. There are wonderful, inclusive Anglican congregations that welcome gay couples and plenty of Anglicans who support equal marriage rights. But a chuck are opposed and the Church hierarchy has decided to go for a de facto oppositional stance until they can sort out what their ecclesiastical approach to same sex relationships is (which given how long it’s taken to sort out the issue of women could take some time).

The government’s announcement today that the Church of England will be legally banned from having gay marriages – as opposed to other religious groups who will be allowed to opt out – should halt concerns that the definition of marriage is somehow being threatened in canon law. The Church now has a “quadruple” legal lock that Europe and our courts simply would not be able to interfere with. For much of the anti-gay religious right, though, I fear even that won’t be enough.

However they try to portray this as a “religious freedom” argument, they are ultimately anti-gay marriage and determined to sink it however they can. The fact that no religious group would ever be forced to conduct gay marriages – or that plenty of religious groups believe their right to religious expression is currently being impinged because they can’t conduct gay weddings – falls on deaf ears.

The additional legal protections for the Church of England, of course, now means that the chances of Britain’s established church embracing gay men and women in marriage is now further off than ever.  So an already out of touch church will become further disconnected while most of the people it is supposed to minister to march on. If the established church isn’t careful, the distance will become simply too wide to bridge.

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