In a widely publicised article in the modest Church Times, David Cameron last week called for Britain to be ‘more confident about our status as a Christian country’ and ‘more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’ While this was seen by many observers as an unashamed attempt to appeal to the Tory faithful and counter the threat from UKIP in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, this is not the first time the Prime Minister has declared Britain to be ‘a Christian country’, and it does appear to represent a particular view of Britishness. There are, however, significant grounds for questioning the characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country’.
The Christian faith does have a long tradition in British political and public life. The Anglican faith still enjoys certain privileges which are not extended to other denominations or religions. The monarch remains the ‘Defender of the Faith’, although Prince Charles has suggested that, on his accession to the throne, this doctrine may be modified to become defender of faiths. The Christian faith is also the only religion to have permanent seats in the legislature with twenty-six seats reserved for Church of England bishops in the House of Lords.
However, the declining importance of the Christian faith, or indeed any faith, to a large proportion of the British public, coupled with the growth in observance of other religions might lead one to question the notion that Britain is any more ‘a Christian country’. According to the 2011 Census Christianity remains, by some way, the most widely held religious faith in the UK, with around 33 million people (59% of the population), declaring themselves to be Christian. However, this is a marked decline on the previous census in 2001 when more than 71% of respondents declared themselves to be Christian. There has been a marked increase in those declaring themselves to be of no religion, 25% in 2011, up from around 15% in 2001.
Other surveys suggest the decline in religion, and the Christian faith in particular, is even more marked. The annual British Social Attitudes survey which has run since 1983, has shown an increase in those expressing no religion from 31% in 1983 to 48% in the most recent survey. As the authors of the most recent survey observe, the increase in those expressing no faith is mirrored by a decline in those claiming membership of the Church of England, which has fallen from 40% to 20% since 1983, while the proportion of those claiming to belong to the Catholic Church and to other Christian denominations has remained fairly static in the same period. In a YouGov poll undertaken in 2012 following Cameron’s earlier characterisation of Britain as a Christian country, 50% of respondents declared that they did not consider themselves to belong to any particular religion, and a total of 76% said they were not particularly religious at all. Although 56% of respondents agreed that Britain ‘is a Christian country.’
While a number of surveys indicate a marked decline in the Christian faith in Britain, figures for religious observance suggest that the Christian faith may be having very little impact on people’s lives on a regular basis. Church of England attendance statistics indicate that those attending church on a regular basis represent only a tiny proportion of the British public. Around 1 million people attend church each week. To put this in some kind of context, this is considerably more than those attending a Premiership football match each week (around 730,000), but only around a quarter of the number watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night. At around 1 million worshippers a week the numbers attending an Anglican service are the equivalent of the weekly viewing figures for an episode of The Simpsons or the Sunday edition of the BBC antiques programme Flog It! Of course, attending a church service presumably has more significance to those taking part than watching an episode of Flog It!, but whether it has any more significance to the many millions who don’t attend is perhaps unlikely.
While the role of Christianity in the lives of many, if not most British citizens has been in decline for many years, the position of other religions in British life is becoming more significant. In contrast to the decline in Christianity, the 2011 census saw an increase in all the other main religions, with the numbers of Muslims increasing the most from 3% to almost 5% of the population. Firm figures for attendance at Mosques are difficult to come by but a number of reports suggest that weekly attendance will soon outstrip that for church services.
Cameron has said in the past that ‘the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.’ Aside from a lack of evidence that the Christian faith is any more tolerant of different religions than any other faith, Cameron’s reference to ‘our society’ and those who do not follow the Christian faith as the ‘other’ is perhaps the most problematic aspect of these statements. The characterisation of Britain as ‘a Christian country’ implies that those with other faiths, and indeed none, are somehow less British. It also suggests that those of ‘other’ religious faiths are recent arrivals to be welcomed and tolerated. In an earlier age Cameron’s statement may have seemed progressive but one wonders what this must feel like for third generation Jewish, Sikh, Hindu or Muslims born and raised in the UK. Cameron not only displays a lack of awareness of the nature and extent of religious faith in modern Britain, but also of the history of a religious faith within the UK. The first Mosque was built in Britain in 1889, the first Sikh temple in the 1930s, the Jew’s Court in Lincoln is the location of a synagogue dating back to the 12th century, pre-dating the Cathedral at the top of the hill above it. It is not the case that Britain welcomes other religious faiths they are as indigenous and integral a part of British life as the Christian faith. Moreover, all of these faiths originated outside of the UK.