Its king is the “defender of the faith” and the supreme governor of the Church of England. More than half of the church’s archbishops of the Church of England sit by right in the House of Lords. The national anthem is “God Save the King.”
The sun may never have set on the old British Empire, but the light of Christianity is dimming in modern Britain — and much of the rest of the Western world that was the Christian faith’s heartland for more than a millennium.
An analysis of the official 2021 census found that less than half the population of England and Wales identify as “Christian” for the first time in centuries. The news this week shocked the country and fueled a larger debate about the future of Europe’s bedrock faith.
In 2011, 33.3 million people in England and Wales told census takers that they were Christians. A decade later, the number dropped to 27.5 million — a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% to 46.2% of the population. Those saying they had “no religion” rose from 14.1 million, 25.2% of the population, to 22.2 million, 37.2% of the population. The share of Muslims grew from 4.9% in 2011 to 6.5% last year, and self-described Hindus rose slightly from 1.5% to 1.7% of the population.
The results have some secular voices saying it’s past time for the monarchy and the government to drop the trappings of their Christian identity.
“It’s been difficult to defend having an established church since the beginning of the 20th century, but it is now becoming a figment of the imagination,” Scot Peterson, a scholar of religion and the state at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, told The Guardian newspaper. “The king being the head of the Church of England made sense in 1650, but not in 2022.”
Megan Manson, head of campaigns at the London-based National Secular Society, said, “It’s official: Britain can no longer be called a ‘Christian country.’”
The numbers for England and Wales track increasing levels of secularism across Western Europe, Canada, the U.S. and Australia, among other nations. Surveys show a decline in religious participation with the rise of the “nones,” people who identify with no specific faith.
Self-identifying Christians are a declining majority in countries across Western Europe: 66% in Germany and 58% in France, according to 2020 population estimates. In the Netherlands, the share of people who say they do not identify with any religious denomination passed 50% in 2015 and has grown since.
A 1904 Christian revival in Wales spread globally and stoked the U.S. Pentecostal movement, but Wales is now the least religious part of the United Kingdom. Britain, noted for producing religious leaders such as Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Methodist founder John Wesley, is now embracing a different worldview, one scholar said.
“I think Britain has moved to a new ethic already,” Linda Woodhead, a professor and head of theology and religious studies at King’s College London, told The Washington Times. “The ethic that dominated the 20th century with a Christian ethic … that’s gone.”
Ms. Woodhead said, “Pride is what is celebrated now. We have pride days, we have pride marches. The ethic has already shifted.”
Peter Hitchens, a columnist for The Mail on Sunday newspaper, lamented the change.
“It’s a disaster, but a slow-motion disaster which won’t be attributed to its cause,” said Mr. Hitchens, whose 1999 book, “The Abolition of Britain,” traced the decline of traditional Christian faith and moral values in the island nation.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Hitchens expressed a “total lack of surprise” at the findings of the 2021 census, which the Office for National Statistics released Tuesday.
Christianity in Britain “has been dying for a long time,” he said. “There was some time, until recently, there was a sort of social and cultural pressure to at the very least to pretend a Christian affiliation, and that’s completely gone. People largely stopped going to church decades ago.”
Chick Yuill, formerly with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, said it is estimated that “between 6% and 7% of people in Britain [would] be in the pews in church on any given Sunday.”
That doesn’t mean Britain has totally lost its Christian heritage, said Mr. Yuill, who also hosts a talk show on Premier Christian Radio. Historians such as Tom Holland, he said, would “insist that we are still in many ways a Christian country. Because our whole belief system, although people may largely have forgotten, is based on Christian values and Christian truth.”
Marcus Jones, news director for Premier Christian News, a website associated with the radio network, said there are reasons for optimism in the latest census figures.
“The slightly more positive way to look at things is that there are people now who describe themselves as ‘nonreligious,’ but they aren’t describing themselves as atheists or agnostics,” Mr. Jones said. This “provides a great opportunity, I think, for the church to say that these people are still up for grabs, as it were. They are there to be won over,” he said.
The Right Rev. Philip North, Anglican Bishop of Burnley in the northwest of England, said over half of the “nonreligious” believe in God and a third of them pray, indicating a potential openness to belief.
He said there remains “quite a significant spiritual questioning in the U.K.” and churches that serve the community “will still usually grow.”
Bishop North said, “I’m seeing in this diocese in northwest England. I’ve seen growth of churches and highly unlikely places, hugely deprived communities, outer estates, very challenged towns, there’s growing churches.”
The Rev. Canon J. John, one of the Church of England’s most prominent evangelists, said the latest figures reveal an oft-neglected reality.
“Many of us have long had the feeling that decisions at the highest level of many Christian denominations have been governed by an unspoken principle of what might be called ‘quietly managed retreat,’” he said via email, “a defeatist attitude that accepts decline and by doing so, manages to achieve it.”
Mr. John said intensified preaching would draw in converts.
“No one goes to church to hear exactly what they get from the media and from their friends and colleagues,” he said. “What will bring them in and see them committed to the church is the full-blooded, confident preaching of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paradoxically the way to change the census figures is to ignore them and instead focus on producing changed lives through Jesus Christ.”
Should spiritual revival not come around, Mr. Hitchens said, even those of other faiths will feel the decline and fall of Christian belief in Britain, whether or not they know exactly what happened.
“It’ll be quite a long time before the moral force of Christianity dissipates,” Mr. Hitchens said. “When it does, people will be sorry, but they won’t necessarily connect it with the disappearance of the church or the church going out of general belief among the population.”