A Christian country?

The monks at St Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Langdale End
The monks at St Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Langdale End

by Dr Jack Binns

The publication last year of the 2011 census for England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed some of the most radical changes that have occurred since the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era.

One of the most eye-catching and, for some of us, the most unsettling, changes has been the number of British citizens who no longer regard themselves as Christian. It seems that to describe Britain as “a Christian country” is now more wishful than factual.

The percentage of self-styled Christians of all the many denominations has fallen in a decade from 72 to 59 and that of those of “no religion” has risen from 15 to 25, outnumbering all the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews put together.

In terms of religious affiliation, London is almost a separate, different country: in seven of its authorities, there are more Muslims than those without any religion. In Tower Hamlets, there are fewer Christians than Muslims.

Yet the trend is not simply from one religion to another or anti-Christian, but rather a shift away from all religious faith. At 176,000, Jedi Knights far exceed in number, self-declared atheists (30,000), agnostics (32,000) and humanists (15,000).

To some old-fashioned seniors, the picture of a Sikh Scots Guardsman parading outside Buckingham Palace wearing a turban not a bearskin says it all, vividly.

At the present rate of growth and decline, by 2035 there will be more British Muslims than British Christians and by 2050 at least as many Hindus.

Is it conceivable that, instead of Anglican bishops, the House of Lords, should it still exist, will have places for mullahs and fakirs? Will future generations of Scarborians be called to prayer by the muezzin from the top of St Mary’s bell-tower minaret?

In the not-too distant future, will England lose all its 47,000 parish churches, its magnificent medieval cathedrals and its multitude of Christian chapels?

On the other hand, with the benefit of extended historical hindsight, it is clear that such transformations are not unprecedented. Geographically, the British are an island people, but in every other way they are European, not insular. Christianity was once a foreign import: to Yorkshire it was carried by Irish monks via Scotland and Roman missionaries via Canterbury. At Whitby, in 664, the Roman version prevailed over the Celtic.

Two centuries later, Viking sea invaders destroyed St Hilda’s mixed monastery and restored their own form of paganism to this area. All our days of the week are still pagan in name. Finally, more alien immigrants and conquerors, this time Norman French, brought their Christian traditions. Yorkshire’s wildernesses were civilised by their monasteries and one of them was founded in the ruins of St Hilda’s minster on Whitby’s headland.

For the next 500 years there was only one Christian church in western Europe, the Roman Catholic, until once again the English felt the impact of continental change. A rebellious German monk called Martin Luther made a sensational and partially successful attack on the legitimacy of the Roman papacy and hierarchy and then a French exile in Geneva, John Calvin, proclaimed a new (or very old) revolutionary Christian theology.

Protestant Lutherism never took much hold in England, but protestant Calvinism infused the Reformation throughout the British isles, except in Ireland. Out of Calvinism grew many of our Nonconformist denominations. Outside Ireland, Catholics became a persecuted minority; inside Ireland they remained a persecuted majority.

Subsequently, during the next three centuries, the British empire made us part of a world-wide community. Once merely continental, we became truly global. Is there anywhere on the planet that the British have not been as explorers, missionaries, traders, conquerors, convicts or settlers?

What was once the largest empire of all time has now shrunk to a remnant of its former power, but we are still its beneficiaries and its victims. We exported our religion, our laws, our language and our customs and now we receive Africans and Asians who once lived under our rule and made us rich and strong. So the presence in our midst of people and cultures from other continents should neither surprise nor alarm us. Not so long ago, who would have believed that an African negro would be the Archbishop of York?

Also, the decline of Christian worship and belief was evident long before 2001. In Scarborough’s own but typical case, think of the churches and chapels that have vanished in less than a lifetime. The Anglicans have lost St Thomas’, All Saints, Holy Trinity and Christ Church; the Methodists have lost Claremont, Eastborough, the Jubilee and St Sepulchre; and the Baptists and Congregationalists struggle to survive with dwindling numbers in grand, expensive Victorian buildings.

Yet the news is far from all negative: the Christian places of worship that remain are some of our most cherished and most valued in our society. As we close swimming pools, theatres, cinemas, village halls, libraries, post offices, public houses and corner shops, the churches that have not been bulldozed or converted into supermarkets or cafes, offer many essential social and philanthropic services.

As caring services for the vulnerable come under growing pressure from a shrinking welfare state and cash-strapped local government, support for the elderly, sick, handicapped and disadvantaged has become increasingly a voluntary activity. Food banks for the hungry are multiplying. In the past, the Christian churches and religious houses alone dispensed alms; in the future, their charity will become indispensable. Christianity exists for the benefit of all, not just believers.

In these circumstances, it might seem particularly timely to look at Christianity’s place in the long, eventful and significant history of Scarborough.