Ten days before Christmas Eve, Nick Spencer wrote an alarmist column in the Guardian about the diminished number of self-identifying Anglicans. I mean alarmist in the most neutral sense possible: quite simply, he is alarmed by statistics in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey and has put pen to paper to alert us to his unease. The question is whether such alarm is warranted, and whether the statistics can suffice as hard evidence that Anglicanism is having its life sucked away by vampire atheist intellectuals.
In Spencer’s article lurks the fallacy of conflating commitment to the Church of England with the religious commitment to other denominations or religions. One example is his conclusion that British society is suffering from “the none-too-subtle incredulity and contempt in which our culture holds serious religious commitment”, yet, in his analysis, it seems to be only Anglicanism that is losing out (he himself points out that Catholicism and other religions are holding a high retention rate of adherents). I must have been languishing in a sheltered hole, because aside from reading incendiary books by Dawkins or the late Hitchens, I find the UK, – London specifically – a remarkably pleasant place to be religious. I read religion and theology at SOAS and Heythrop, although admittedly you’ll probably find more Muslims and Catholics at these colleges than Anglicans. Where Spencer sees upstart punks sniffing their noses at organized religion, I’m surrounded by devout Catholics and priests involved in charities, activism and youth groups. Where he sees a “morally relative” society thrown to the dogs, I see plenty of people appealing to common values and reason.
…the best way to adore God, serve Christ and nurture and nourish…
To some extent I sympathize with Spencer’s suspicion of the BSA’s “Anglican” category, which can often be simply nominal and not mean anything in the adherent’s daily life. I know too well what it’s like to have so many in China and Hong Kong being or born “Buddhist,” only for them to admit that they have no Certificate of Refuge, or to find that they don’t hold a formal Dharma name transmitted via a legitimate master. The number of formal Buddhists who fulfil these criteria are quite small, because to officially belong to Chinese Buddhism is to be involved in strict ritualism, ethics and discipline that most have little commitment for. So it might be for the similarly ritual, discipline and ethics-centred Anglicans, which should make our PM’s self-identification as a “vaguely practising Christian” Spencer’s ultimate denominational nightmare.
But it’s my sincere opinion that as long as we still see numbers and statistics as a reflection of society’s Anglican/religious piety, proper theology won’t actually mean much. To accuse society of moral relativism smacks of a lazy way of expressing one’s dislike of an ever-diversifying society. After all, no one can deny that a homogeneous group appears much more comforting and familiar. The Anglicans that are doing the truly important things, particularly building communities of faith and action, have no time to be concerned about the BSA’s numbers aside from perhaps a disappointed frown. They’re more occupied with what really matters: the best way to adore God, serve Christ and nurture and nourish their church communities.
I’d rather see believers and nonbelievers doing good things together rather than believers sending mixed messages…
Even as a member of an expressly missionary religion, I prefer orthopraxy (shared action) to orthodoxy (shared belief). I’d rather see believers and nonbelievers doing good things together rather than believers sending mixed messages by doing good and bad all over the place. Maybe in the multicultural UK, it’s time to admit that multiplicity is simply how we live now, and that no statistic – even a hypothetical 90% Anglican retention for Spencer – lasts forever.