Religion in Britain: A Retrospect

Grace Davie

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

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davieIn 1994 I published Religion in Britain since 1945.  This was a widely read book, which is mostly remembered for its subtitle: believing without belonging.  In due course, the publishers requested a second edition which will appear early in 2015, this time simply as Religion in Britain.  The fact that it has taken me so long to produce this does not reflect positively on my ability to respect deadlines; it does however permit a retrospect regarding the religious situation in this country.  What has and has not changed in the last two decades and how should we understand what has happened?

“debate [on the public presence of religion] has intensified and includes … a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith and faith communities in a liberal democracy”

The answer lies in a paradox that any serious observer of religion in this country is obliged to address.  In 1994 it was introduced as follows: ‘we need to ask why the churches – as supposedly declining institutions – should have achieved in the 1980s and 1990s such a persistently high public profile’.  To be honest, I find myself surprised that I considered this question so central some twenty years ago in that the mismatch has become noticeably sharper in the intervening period.  In terms of their statistical contours, the churches have continued to decline – this is undeniable and well documented in the newer book.  In terms of the public presence of religion, however, the debate has intensified and includes not only the role of the churches as such but a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith and faith communities in a liberal democracy.  The urgency of this debate reflects the changing nature of religion in modern Britain:  a country with a deeply embedded Christian culture which at one and the same time is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly diverse with regard to its religious profile.

In order to explore this paradox further, I have framed the new book rather differently from its predecessor.  The notion of ‘believing without belonging’ is still there but it becomes one factor among others which – taken together – contribute to a better understanding of the place of religion in modern Britain.  The crucial point to grasp is these factors push and pull in different directions.  The six factors are:

” the Christian tradition has had an irreversible effect on time and space”

1. The role of the historic churches in forming British culture.  This is easily illustrated in the sense that the Christian tradition has had an irreversible effect on time (calendars, seasons, festivals, holidays, weeks and weekends) and space (the parish system and the dominance of Christian buildings) in this part of the world.  Such patterns will undoubtedly endure, bearing in mind that increasing diversity in the religious life of Britain means that we can no longer take our time schedules for granted, and that the skyline in certain parts of the country is altering visibly.

“the historic churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour”

2. An awareness that the historic churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population, nor would they want to.  British people lead increasingly secular lives; that is abundantly clear.  But significant numbers of British people are likely to return to their churches at moments of celebration or grief, both individual and collective, and expect to be welcomed when they do this.  One way of understanding this situation is to see these churches as a form of public utility – i.e. there at the point of need for those who live in a designated location (an idea in which the notions of ‘believing without belonging’ and its successor ‘vicarious religion’ find their place).  A distinctive generational pattern is however emerging:  older people are noticeably more attached to these churches than their children or grandchildren.

“Actively religious individuals are increasingly operating on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty”

3. At the same time an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of Britain is clearly taking place.  Actively religious individuals are increasingly operating on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty.  As a result, membership of both the historic and other churches is changing in nature; it is chosen rather than inherited, though more so in some places than in others.  An important corollary follows from this.  Which forms of religion are thriving and which are not?  The answers to this question are doubly interesting in the sense that they not only indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the present situation, but reveal that the predictions of an earlier generation (both scholars and church people) were largely incorrect.  In short conservative and expressive forms of religion (including cathedrals) are more likely to thrive in twenty-first century Britain than their more liberal or cerebral counterparts – exactly the reverse of what was anticipated in the mid post-war decades.

“The arrival into Britain of groups of people from many global regions…is primarily an economic movement, but the implications for religious life are immense”

4. The arrival into Britain of groups of people from many global regions.  It is important to note that this is primarily an economic movement, but the implications for religious life are immense.  The growing numbers of Christians from the global South, alongside significant other faith communities, have altered the religious profile of Britain.  Some of these communities, moreover, are challenging some deeply held assumptions.  The notion that faith is a private matter and should, therefore, be proscribed from public life – notably from the state, from the education system, from the work place, and from welfare – is widespread in Britain as it is in most of Europe.  Conversely, many of those who are currently arriving in this part of the world have markedly different convictions, and offer – simply by their presence – a challenge to the status quo.  The implications of this statement involve almost every aspect of British society, not least the law.

“the [secular] requires our attention as much as the religious dimensions of society…not to mention the grey area that lies between them”

5. Related, but very different, are the sometimes vehement reactions of Europe’s secular elites to this shift:  i.e. to the increasing significance of religion in public as well as private life.  Such elites did not anticipate a change of this nature, but see it as their duty to question what is happening, sometimes aggressively, sometimes less so.  A second point follows from this: that is a renewed attention to the secular more generally.  It is increasingly evident that the latter requires our attention as much as the religious dimensions of society; indeed it is impossible to study one without the other, not to mention the grey area that lies between them.

“patterns of religious life in modern Europe… should be considered an ‘exceptional case’ … not a global prototype”

6. The final factor is a little different but is none the less important.  It derives from a gradual, but growing realization that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe, which includes Britain, should be considered an ‘exceptional case’ – they are not a global prototype.  In short, British people are beginning to appreciate that Europe is secular (relatively speaking) not because it is modern, but because it is European.  It is equally true that some of us welcome this insight; others are disconcerted by it.

These factors exist alongside one another and must be considered in the round in order to establish an accurate picture of what is happening.  The future is uncertain.  On the one hand, religion has re-entered the public square and demands a response.  On the other, a largely unchurched population has difficulty dealing with these issues in the sense that an increasingly secular population is rapidly losing the concepts, knowledge and vocabulary that are necessary to talk well about religion.  In my view this is one reason for the lamentable standard of public debate in this field.  I see Public Spirit is one forum among others that permits a rather more constructive discussion and is all the more welcome because of it.

In the second part of this short article, I would like to raise two more specific questions.  The first looks at the changing fortunes of the different parts of the United Kingdom in terms of their religiousness.  The second is concerned with shifting perceptions as well as shifting realities.

“Cities… were seen as beacons of a secular future ..[yet] London… has become…an area of growth both in the Christian churches and in other faiths… Rural churches, conversely, are struggling”

In 1994, the data still pointed to an ‘expected’ difference:  that is the relative persistence of traditional patterns of religion in rural rather than urban areas alongside what might be termed success in suburbia.  Cities, in contrast, were seen as beacons of a secular future.  Indeed much of the discussion about secularization had focussed on the damage done to the historic churches by the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization.  The former was a consequence of the latter as European populations moved in large numbers to work in newly-established, urban-based factories, dislocating patterns of residence that had existed for centuries in which the historic churches were central.  This was true, but it was not the whole truth.  Nor was it the end of the story – a fact that became increasingly apparent as the effects of post-war immigration made themselves felt and as post-industrial innovation eroded the legacies of industrialization.  London offers an excellent example of both tendencies and has become – unexpectedly – an area of growth both in the Christian churches and in other faiths.  In this respect London reveals itself as a truly global city.  Rural churches, conversely, are struggling.

As a footnote to this paragraph, it is also worth noting the changing fortunes of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The relative religiousness of Scotland and Wales compared with England was still evident across a wide range of indicators in 1994.  This is no longer so, a shift in which the late, but sharp, onset of secularization in Wales is particularly noticeable.  Northern Ireland remains distinctive in terms of religious activity, but crucially important in this case is the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  This broke a seemingly unending cycle of violence.

Realities change, but so do perceptions.  Among the latter is an important shift in the framing of minorities in this country, which implies in turn a shift in focus regarding religious controversy as such.  In the 1980s public discussion surrounding the role of the churches was heated.  Epitomized by Faith in the City (1985), the debate centred on socio-economic issues notably the negative consequences of monetarist policies.  The ‘attack’ was directed at the New Right, some of whom reacted sharply to what was considered an unwarranted intrusion by churches and church people in political affairs.  Those on the political left, though largely side-lined from political activity were unlikely to object.  A generation or so later, things are different.  Religious controversies continue but for a different reason.  In the main they concern the competing rights of secular and religious constituencies, recognizing that the latter are not only much more varied, but (as we have seen) are more ready to press their claims in public as well as private life.  The ruffled feathers are found this time amongst increasingly self-conscious secularists, often but not only on the political left.  An important reason for this shift can be found in an evident change in perception.  Those whose political predilections led them to defend minority groups disadvantaged by racial or ethnic factors, including those identified in Faith in the City, are far less likely to defend the religious aspirations of the self-same people.

after “the Rushdie controversy [it] was no longer possible to take for granted a degree of consensus regarding the ‘handling’ of religion in British society”

The adjustment took place in the early 1990s, triggered by the Rushdie controversy – an event which marked a watershed in the religious life of this country.  By this stage it was no longer possible to take for granted a degree of consensus regarding the ‘handling’ of religion in British society.  New questions had to be asked and new formulae found to deal with the new situation.  To what extent has this process been successful?  The evidence is mixed.  On the one hand, discrimination undoubtedly persists, multiculturalism (a possible solution) has been challenged, and secularism can at times be as intolerant as certain forms of religion.  On the other, equalities legislation has not only been introduced but pays attention to religion; that is good.  There is moreover constructive as well as destructive thinking about diversity which relates in turn to more accommodative forms of secularism.   Religion in Britain addresses this complex and continuing agenda; its primary goal is to encourage a better conversation about faith in modern Britain.

About the author

Professor Grace Davie is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/sociology/staff/davie/

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