The strange death of Protestant Britain
There is an article under the title above in "The Tablet", an international Catholic publication. It is very graphic in documenting the decline of church attendance in Britain. A small excerpt below. What the author, Ian Bradley, writes is no great surprise of course. The churches themselves have long been agonizing over their steadily shrinking congregations.
What is interesting however is the report that the peak year for both Catholic and Anglican churchgoing was 1955. That's pretty recent. What can have happened around that time to have caused such a decline?
To answer that, however, we have to look much more widely than Protestant Britain, because the truth is that Western Europe as a whole has lost faith. It is only in the former Communist countries where faith survives, mostly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith.
Bradley, a Presbyterian minister, asserts that Catholic congregations have held up better in England than Anglican ones but is rather glib about that. Is he unaware of the boost to Catholicism in Britain from Poland? Many Catholic congregations in Britain are now largely Polish. And there are also immigrant contributions from Asia (the Philippines and Vietnam) and Africa. So purely British Catholicism is also in sharp decline. That is most clearly seen in the dearth of vocations these days. Australia is much like Britain and in Australia, as the old Irish priests die off, your priest these days is likely to be Asian or black.
So what is it about Western Europe and its derivative societies that has killed faith? The answer is rather clear, even as to timing: It is the Welfare State. The Welfare State in Britain was the work of Clement Attlee, who was a politician for the Labour Party who served as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. The welfare State was widely adopted to varying degrees elsewhere in postwar Western Europe and took away most of the great anxieties in life. You no longer risked hunger or unattended ill health and your children had good opportunities for advancing themselves through education. The State became God. It did what God merely promised.
There were of course some other influences pushing in the same direction. WWII spurred a great upsurge in scientific knowlege and technical innovation (think penicillin) that gave us more control over nature. Instead of nature being "red in tooth and claw", it became "endangered". It was no longer a source of fear. Instead of misfortunes being caused by "hobgoblins and foul fiends", they are now caused by well-understood meteorological events and viruses, for instance.
That the welfare state was central, however, is powerfully shown by the example of Eastern Europe, including Russia. Under Communist tyranny, everybody lived under a very comprehensive welfare state -- in theory. In practice, the state was a source of fear. If you kept your head down, you had a job but the food was mostly poor and only intermittently available. And health care was rudimentary for most.
So Eastern Europe experienced the welfare State as a nightmare, with only the afterlife promised by the church offering any prospect of relief. And, now that Communism has gone from those unfortunate lands, the promises of socialism are still regarded with great cynicism and the faith that it tried to suppress forcibly is remembered as the true hope.
So that accounts well for the decline of the mainstream churches but Bradley also acknowledges the flourishing of smaller, often Pentecostal churches. So what have those churches got that the old mainstream churches have not? It would be very easy to say that they have a revised form of Christianity. Perhaps their theory and practice is more "modern".
But that is not at all true. Sin still matters to them. Heaven and hell still matter to them. They are "old" not "modern". It is the mainstream churches who have gone "modern" in a desperate quest to hang on to their congregations.
Many would see the watershed for that transition in the book "Honest to God" by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published in 1963. Not to put too fine a point on it, that book marked the introduction of atheism into the Church of England. There was no longer a God. There was only a "ground of our being", whatever that means. So eventually you would even get Archbishops of Canterbury, such as Robert Runcie, claiming that in private they meditated rather than praying.
So it seems clear that the mainstream churches have moved in exactly the wrong direction to hold their congregations. This is most clearly seen in the case of the Anglican diocese of Sydney in Australia. Sydney is a big city but it has only about a sixth of the Australian population -- but it has a third of Australia's Anglicans. And it is very "old fashioned". Most of its clergy could probably assent sincerely to the declarations of the "39 articles of religion" found in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1662.
To put it in a nutshell, the Sydney diocese still preaches the old Protestant faith of 400 years ago -- and thrives doing so. Where the Sydney Catholic seminary has about 6 students, the Anglican church's Moore College has about 300. The old Protestantism was a deliberate and sustained attempt to get back to the religion of the New Testament -- and in doing so they tapped into a spiritual powerhouse.
The rise of Christianity out of Israel into all the European world in its first few centuries was meteoric and transformative. From the words of an obscure Judean prophet it became the religion of all Europe, sweeping all the old religions of Europe aside. So tapping into that faith was to tap into great religious power. The old churches have become weak but Christianity has not. It still has its old power to transform lives if it preaches redemption instead of homosexuality
So Eastern Europe and the Sydney diocese are strong counterpoints to the decline of traditional Christian Europe.
I have not so far mentioned the USA but my analysis applies well there also. America is MUCH more religious than Europe. Why?
1). America still has a rather patchy welfare state with quite a lot of people falling into severe poverty at times. And access to healthcare is also very patchy, made worse by Obamacare.
2) America was founded by religious fanatics and there have long been religious "revivals" in America which keep the old Bible faith before people's minds. And that works all the old transformative Christian magic.
IN ST ANDREWS, my home town, the Presbyterian church built to commemorate the four Protestants burned to death here during the Reformation was recently turned into a university research library. Next door there was for many years a Salvation Army Citadel, a testament to the virtues of teetotalism and evangelical assurance championed by General William Booth. It is now a "Beer Kitchen".
A similar fate has befallen much of the rest of the Protestant landscape of Britain. In the South Wales Valleys Nonconformist chapels have all but disappeared, languishing, rotting and deserted where they have not been turned into second-hand furniture depositories.
In 1901 the city of Hull, long known as "pure and Protestant Hull", had one of the highest churchgoing populations in the country and 115 places of Christian worship, most of them Nonconformist chapels. Now just 11 remain in use and Hull has the lowest level of church-going of any British local authority. It is those denominations that have been the bedrock of British Protestant identity that have declined most spectacularly in the last 60 years. The two national denominations, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, have each lost 75 per cent of their membership over this period