The challenge of secularism

Britain is fast becoming a secular society, presenting the faith communities with a serious challenge.

The statistics tell people of faith we are now a dwindling minority. As of Sunday 14th April the UK population numbered 66,875,761. Of that number only 6.02 million are regular church attenders. 53% of the adult population say they have no faith and amongst the 18-24 age group 75% identify themselves in that category. It is true that church attendance is higher at Christmas, but that suggests church is seen as part of the seasonal festivities rather than a faith commitment. The Queen’s Christmas message includes a genuine expression of personal faith but it is one shared by a shrinking number of her subjects.

These statistics have a massive political significance because they are reflected in public policy and the law. Since the 1939-45 war the social order previously shaped by Christian values and beliefs has been gradually dismantled. Laws have been passed to decriminalise homosexuality, to legalise abortion and the marriage of same-sex couples. As John Stevens, the National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, has observed, “Society now celebrates behaviour that was legally condemned a mere 50 years ago and Christians feel increasingly pressured not just to tolerate the behaviour of others but to express approval of it along with the rest of the culture.”(Knowing our Times p.20)

The Asher’s bakery case was an example of this. Ashers refused to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage and were sued by a customer for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs. The bakery insisted its objection was to the message not the customer but lost their case and a subsequent appeal until the Supreme Court found for them. The whole tussle lasted more than four years and cost them half a million pounds in legal fees. 

Christians opposed to abortion have also faced legal challenges when they held silent prayer vigils outside a number of abortion clinics and been banned from doing so close to the clinics. They believe abortion is morally wrong, but it is now legal. In 2017 there were nearly 200,000 abortions in England and Wales, 98% of which were NHS funded.

Same sex marriage is another bone of contention for some Christians. Legalised in 2014, 4,850 same sex couples married in the first year, 56% involving two women and 44% two men, mostly in civil ceremonies. In the same year 247,372 opposite sex couples were married.

So how should the Christian community respond to these social changes when they consider them morally and spiritually wrong? Should we quietly recognise that we are now a shrinking minority and accept them for the time being until our prayers for the nation and evangelistic campaigns reverse the drift to secularisation? Or should we campaign ruggedly to make the case for repealing the laws that we find offensive? There are a significant minority of Christian MPs and Peers. Can we back them vigorously when they oppose legislation that conflicts with Christian values?

Is there more our churches can do to shape public opinion? Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, observes that “millions encounter the church in their daily lives, through its commitment to the most vulnerable from food bank provision to night shelters, lunch clubs and community cafes.” A recent Church of England report said churches were running or supporting more than 33,000 social action projects across the country. Welcome those these caring initiatives are, they do not seem drawing recipients to understand and support the beliefs and values that cause the churches to provide them? 

If that is so, there are Christian organisations actively seeking to influence public policy which we can support. Care Trust, Arocha, Tear Fund, the Evangelical Alliance, the Marriage Foundation, the Christian Institute, Christians in Politics, Christian Concern, Christian Solidarity Worldwide are examples.  Find the one that focuses on the issues that you feel God is calling you to do something about and prayerfully support their campaigns.

When Christ returns, how will he find Britain - a secular society or one that is ready for him?

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