Until our spiritual leaders grasp some realities about modern life, religion will continue its decline

The Pope’s defeat at the hands of his bishops shows exactly where the problem lies

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The Independent Online

I get grief every time I write about religion. But – short of personal abuse – I believe if I enjoy the privilege of this space in which to deliver an opinion, anyone reading it should have a  right of reply. It was a founding principles of this newspaper.

That said, it’s impossible to write about the weekend’s two big religious stories without incurring kneejerk criticism. Of course, the obvious point to make upfront is that firstly, the decision of the Catholic church’s synod to reject a more open approach to homosexuals and divorcees and secondly, the news of a precipitous decline in the number of us describing ourselves as “religious” would once have made far bigger headlines.

Here’s the start of journalist Ruth Gledhill’s report on Christian Today: “In five decades, the number of people with no religion in Britain has grown from just three per cent of the population to nearly half... Among adults aged under 25, nearly two-thirds define themselves as 'nones', or people with no religious affiliation.”

According to Gledhill’s report: when the British Election Survey of 20,000 adults (from which these results were taken) was first published in 1963, Anglicans made up 64.5 per cent of those questioned, compared to 31.1 per cent this year. Worse, only 14.2 per cent of 18-24s today identify themselves as Anglicans.

“Other” Christian denominations also declined from 23.1 per cent to 7.6 per cent, while other faiths grew from 0.6 per cent to 7.5 per cent. Notably, just 1.6% claim to be Muslims, and the percentage of Catholics grew from 8.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent.

“Nones” or “no religion” now constitute 44.7% of us. If such steep rates of decline were to continue, then religions like Methodism would face extinction in a few decades and Anglicanism within a century. However, most experts believe the decline will bottom out.

The growth in Catholicism is entirely down to the influx of immigrants like Poles and southern Europeans, particularly in London. It masks a big fall-off in the British congregation.


Why such a dramatic decline? It is difficult to look past a rejection of the patriarchal nature of established religion and its antediluvian negativity towards issues like homosexuality, gay marriage, divorcees taking the sacraments and women bishops. That’s not to mention contraception. Religion risks becoming anachronistic for an entire generation.

So, what to do? While, like so many I grew up with, I turned against my Catholicism, I at least knew what it stood against! If I’ve spent a lifetime failing to comprehend why my gay friends would wish to join a Church so set against them, then I’ve spent that same lifetime puzzling over just what the Anglican faith stands for. As it ties itself up over such an arcane debate as women bishops, surely the Anglican church must look upon this survey with horror.

Whatever you think of the current Pope – at least he recognized that many in his modern-day congregation struggle with Catholicism’s centuries-old prejudices, and was trying,  unsuccessfully, to do something positive about it. That his bishops slapped him down helps explain that startling decline in the “religious” in one action. Unless Britain’s religious leaders listen to what remains of their flocks, they will continue to talk to each other in ever decreasing circles.