At one level, Christianity in the UK is stronger than many people might think. At another level, it is weak and in need of rehabilitation.
How many Christians?
First, its relative strength. In the 2001 Census, 71.8% described themselves as Christians. Muslims were 2.8%, Hindus 1%, Sikhs 0.6%, Jews 0.5%, Buddhists 0.3% and others 0.3%. Those of “no religion” were 15.1%, and “religion not stated” was 7.8%. That equated to a Christian population in Britain of over 41 million people, compared to three million of other religions. By the time of the 2011 Census, this had shifted considerably. Now, 59.3% say they are Christians (33.2 million people), while Muslims comprise 4.8% of the population, Hindus 1.5%, Sikhs 0.8%, Jews 0.5%, Buddhists 0.4% and Other 0.4%, while No Religion stands at 25.1%. In other words, the number of Christians has fallen by over 12%, while those who say No Religion has increased by over 10% and Asian-based religions have also gained considerable strength - all within a decade.
However, it remains the case that a considerable majority describe themselves as Christians, while three quarters of the population adhere to a religion. Britain, on the face of things, is still a religious country.
Meanwhile, a large YouGov survey of 64,303 people, to coincide with the Census (with fieldwork done from 13 April to 20 May 2011), found that 55% called themselves Christians. However (of the whole sample):
- 6% described themselves as 'very religious'
- another 29% as 'fairly religious'
- 20% believed in a god who hears our prayers and intervenes in the world
- another 14% believed in a god who does not intervene
- another 10% believed in some higher spiritual power
- another 24% were not sure what they believed
- 6% were agnostic
- 19% did not believe in a god or a higher spiritual power.
Meanwhile, an analysis of the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey by the National centre for Social Research reported that 26% of people in Britain identify with a particular religion, believe in God and attend religious services; while 62% identify with a religion, believe in God or attend services, but not all three – the latter group described as the “fuzzy faithful”. Meanwhile, 37% are atheists or agnostics. Interestingly, a March 2013 survey of 2,000 people by ICM for the Church of England found that most people believe in prayer and only 17% said that they would 'never pray' (and only 9% of 18-24 year olds said the same thing - not what you'd expect!)
Going to church
Church attendance figures are difficult accurately to establish, not lease because of a trend away from weekly attendance and towards attendance two or three times a month (which makes a massive difference to weekly statistics). It would seem that about 9% are in church on any one Sunday and, including mid-week meetings and less frequent attendees, the church-going population is about 17%. In a world in which all forms of active participation (in clubs, politics, sport etc) is on the decline, this is still arguably remarkably high – especially in view of the way it is downplayed (or portrayed negatively) in the media.
The YouGov survey (cited above) found that, excluding events for friends and family such as christenings, weddings and funerals, 11% went to a religious service once a month or more, with another 27% going less than once a month. Thus, 38% said they sometimes go.
Finally, in a recent ComRes poll of 1,045 people (February 2009), 63% said “Our laws should respect and be influenced by UK religious values” and 62% agreed that “Religion has an important part to play in public life”. Significantly, the proposition that our laws should respect “UK religious values” was supported by 79% of Muslims and 76% of Hindus and Sikhs. Even amongst those of no religion, the proposition was supported by 51%. And in a September 2007 ComRes poll, 62% said that religion had an important role to play in the moral guidance of the nation, but - surprisingly - amongst 16-24 year-olds, that rose to 68%.
Thus, the support for Christianity is much stronger in the UK than is normally credited. The key weakness is that any public support for Christianity has come to be seen as ‘politically incorrect’. Belief is almost presented as a matter for apology. Faith has been pushed into a corner. Nevertheless, it must be a fairly large corner, with some 70% or so of the population in it! This is one of those instances where who we actually are has been systematically quashed by the prevailing orthodoxy – and yet somehow that identity lives on. As Hilaire Belloc wrote:
“There is a complex knot of forces underlying any nation once Christian; a smoldering of old fires…”
The way we were
It certainly used, not so long ago, to be quite different. For example, it is well known that King George V, at the outbreak of war, read the following poem by M. Louise Haskins and inspired the nations in so doing:
“I said to the man
Who stood a the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely
into the unknown’.
And he replied,
‘Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you
Better than light
And safer than a known way!’
So I went forth
And finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night.”
A ‘national day of prayer’ was called by the King at several critical points during the war, (for example, there was a national day of prayer on 26 May 1940, the first day of the Dunkirk evacuations; and again on 8 September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, when Churchill and the whole Cabinet attended a service of intercession for the nation at Westminster Abbey). Christianity was certainly far more at the forefront during wartime. The success against the odds of the evacuation of 338,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk was widely (even generally) regarded as a signal miracle.
Following the war, Sir Winston Churchill said the following at his speech to his party conference in 1946:
“What are we to say of our theme and our cause and of the faith that is in us?... Our main objectives are: To uphold the Christian Religion and resist all attacks upon it. To defend our Monarchical and Parliamentary Constitution. To provide adequate security against external aggression…”
It seems incredible today that this could be a normal political theme – and yet it was. The Queen’s coronation in 1952 was a deeply spiritual affair. She swore to do her utmost “to maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel” and was then presented with a Bible, described as:
“the most valuable thing that the world affords … Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God”.
Even into the 1960s, it was normal for there to be “ward prayers” on NHS wards last thing at night. Daily services were broadcast on TV and, of course, schools really did start the day with an act of collective Christian worship. People of the post-war generation know all the hymns – and these were sung daily, without irony and without apology.
How did this all change? Now the key thing to grasp here is that no decisions were made (let alone democratic ones, with public debate) that faith should no longer be a part of national life. There has never been any such decision, nor any such debate.
While the argument came to be used that “we are a multi-religious, multi-cultural society”, it is clear from the above ComRes poll and others that Britain’s religious minorities are not, and never have been, in favour of secularization. Indeed, many of the immigrants that came to Britain in the post-war era were and are Christian.
What has happened is that there has been a rising tide of other forces – commercialization, materialism, game shows, comedies with canned laughter, high octane action thrillers, advertising speak, glossy shopping centres, glossy dramas – all forces that eschew thought and emphasize the trivial. Against these ‘in your face’ trends, spirituality has been marginalized, made to look grey, irrelevant to the mainstream, un-modern. And so it has quietly been slipping away, at the national level, in the media and, eventually, in the lives of many people who lack for reinforcement of their beliefs.
And yet, in the face of all this, is it not remarkable how, judging by the above figures, faith in Britain remains so strong?
Next: Sins of the church
 Yes – he of the children’s rhymes! The Servile State (1912), New York, 1946, p 185.
 5th October, 1946. Reproduced in The Sinews of Peace, ed Randolph S. Churchill, London 1948,