A British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for 2018 gave an increase in respondents saying they had no religion up 21% from 1983 to 52% (a BREXIT-thin majority). We seem, if only as far as box-ticking, to be a secular society so religion is unlikely to feature in an end of year round-up. Least of all after Britain’s intensely absorbing political upheavals.
Religious correspondents are the first to go when newspaper journalists are cut - which seems odd when events described as “Islamic terrorism” make the headlines. The last detail of Manchester City’s defensive tactics is required knowledge for an informed public. But the strategy and organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood compared with that of Da’esh?
Sexual abuse by ‘people of faith’ reaches the front page. Or controversial statements by religious leaders like Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ outspoken attack on Jeremy Corbyn. But unlike America where Right-Wing evangelicals helped bring Trump to power, thanks to the solid values of the UK Evangelical Alliance, we are spared stories of Christian support for the political Right. The significance of faiths’ social action is missed.
Indifference to, or ignorance of, the work of people of faith to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Britain, and in the developing world, may have bottomed out. There is the work of the Muslim development agencies in war zones, Zakat, Muslim philanthropy during Ramadan, the work of street pastors combatting knife crime, Christian groups and individuals of all denominations helping refugees and economic migrants, care for the homeless and destitute, (33,000 projects run by the C of E and some 8,000 parishes supporting or running food banks). This sometimes provides a sentimental story, around religious festivals. As do the Salvation Army who not only sing carols but quietly co-ordinate , for example, the work on sexual trafficking in this country. The impact is huge if hidden.
The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, died in May. His work with - their words - people with intellectual disabilities, is little known outside religious circles. And one of Vanier’s sayings is more than pertinent for Britain 2019: ““Many people are good at talking about what they are doing, but in fact do little. Others do a lot but don't talk about it; they are the ones who make a community live.”
The contribution of religious ideas to the common good should not be underestimated. Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si, (On Care for Our Common Home), published in June 2015, has percolated down throughout the Church and beyond, generating climate change action networks. In April Francis met with Greta Thunberg encouraging her to “go ahead”. In June he held a conference in Rome on climate change for government ministers and scientists. In October a controversial Synod on the pan-Amazon region showed he wanted Laudato Si implemented whatever the backlash from the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. If 2019 was notable for other than an acceleration of Britain’s descent into a “vortex of decline” (Will Hutton), it is for the gap between government action on climate change and the growing public anxiety about its widening into a scandalous gulf.
2019 was also the year when antisemitism and the two ill-named phobias, Islamophobia and ‘Christianophobia’ – like spiders? - broke into the public domain with a vengeance, and became politically significant. This was not just a phenomenon damaging the Labour Party. The European Right has made a comparable mark on Germany. The causes of hostility were different for each religion. For Christianity, beginning and end of life issues, together with gender and sexuality, remained the war-cry for illiberal liberals and the Left. The message from the Bishops of England and Wales on the General Election, a clear statement of Catholic Social Teaching which many would endorse, made abortion its first bullet point alienating its secular readership. Increasing anti-Muslim sentiment, dividing society was an important goal of ‘Islamic terrorism’– partially achieved. Half of those referred to the mentoring programme of PREVENT show signs of neo-Nazi influence.
Hate-speech directed at religious faiths has led to a worldwide rise in persecution and violence. The magnitude and extent of persecution of Christians, 245 million suffering to some degree worldwide, was highlighted by a report by the Anglican bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen in November. While the persecution of Muslims, predominantly by other Muslims, has been intensified by war in the Middle East, this focus on the plight of Christians was a first. That Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign Secretary, commissioned this report on religious freedom is a step forward.
Pope Francis has continued flagging up his priorities, the poor and interfaith reconciliation, in his visits, speeches and actions. He continued to improve relations with the Muslim world while visiting the UAE and Morocco. He was shunned by the Orthodox in Bulgaria. He cemented his relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who visited Ebola-stricken areas of the Congo in November. In another brave démarche they have both indicated their intention to visit war-torn South Sudan. This initiative follows a moving religious retreat to build peace, held by them both for Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s Catholic President, and his rebel former Vice-President, Riek Machar, a Presbyterian, in the Casa Santa Marta hostel where Francis lives in the Vatican. The Pope’s kissing the feet of the two Congolese leaders, acting out his vision of leadership, was worth many words.
Archbishop Welby, a task-oriented purposeful man, shares the Pope’s commitment to reconciliation and has the same gift for the spirituality of symbolism. His prostration in Amritsar made as an apology for the 1919 massacre during a visit to India in October, was another reminder of the special nature of Christian leadership. “The souls of those who were killed or wounded, of the bereaved, cry out to us from these stones and warn us about power and the misuse of power”, he said.
So the profile of religion in 2019 has been, to say the least, complex. Decline in belief and practice may have levelled out at an all-time low. The British Social Attitudes survey for 2018 found only 1% of young people, 18-24, identified themselves as C of E. Figures for youth in the Roman Catholic Church, more of an identity because of Catholic schools, will be higher. As Pope Francis writes in a March exhortation to young people: “A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum”.
A new interest may have been sparked, thanks in some measure to Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis. But we will have to wait until the New Year to tell. With apologies to Nietzsche, God is not dead. Though religious journalism may be on its last legs.
See also "God is not Dead" The Article.Com 25/12/2019