Britain Christianity

Is the Church in the UK a sinking ship? Christian Today

St Paul's Cathedral
(Photo: Unsplash/Daniel Roe)

The Humanist official could hardly contain his glee – “Some genuine Good News today”, he declared on Facebook before linking to a headline – “Christianity Gives Way to Atheism in Britain Today, Survey Suggests”. A headline and press release that was repeated verbatim in most of the UK media this week.

The findings from the British Social Attitudes survey certainly make grim reading for the UK church. There has been a “dramatic decline” in Britain’s Christian identity over the last 35 years – with a “substantial increase” in atheism, a state-of-the-nation survey has suggested.

Thirty-eight per cent of those polled self–identify as Christian (down from 50% in 2008). Muslims are up from 3% to 6%. Fifty-two per cent of people say that they do not identify with any religion (although the headline is misleading in implying that they are therefore atheists). Only 11% of those who say they are Christian attend church at least once a week.

The report states: “Britain is becoming more secular, not because adults are losing their religion but because older people with an attachment to the Church of England and other Christian denominations are gradually being replaced in the population by unaffiliated younger people.”

How do we respond to this?

The Secularists and Humanists were quick to use the figures to justify their campaign for even more secularisation and exclusion of religion (all of course done in the name of ‘inclusivity).

The churches respond by clutching at straws and grabbing any crumb of comfort they can.

“There are many who believe but don’t come to church; our cathedrals are booming; we have started new churches; there are signs of a bottoming out.”

It’s not that church spokespeople don’t tell the truth, it’s just that they don’t tell the whole truth. They have become spin-doctors. Just as the militant secularists are determined to justify our non-existence, so the church leaders are determined to justify our existence. But is there a reality that we are not facing up to? Do we really face the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

The liberals say that the church is declining because we are not keeping up with the times – forgetting that Chesterton’s saying “those who marry the spirit of this age, will end up a widow in the next” is now being fulfilled. Legalism may have slain its thousands, but liberalism has slain its tens of thousands.

Conservative evangelicals of various types tend to argue that if only we were a bit purer, the church would be fine – but again they conveniently ignore the large number of conservative evangelical churches that are not growing. It’s easy, but foolish, for a conservative evangelical to blame either the liberals or the world for the lack of growth in their own church.

Charismatics give us the latest ‘word from the Lord’ telling us that revival is just around the corner – and from Orkney to Brighton, flames of the Holy Spirit are about to fall. For those of us who have heard this same ‘prophecy’ for 40 years, it is beginning to wear a bit thin.

I suppose we could all despair and cry, Private Frasier-like, “doomed, doomed, I telt ye – we are all doomed”.

For me the story and the reality is a wee bit different and somewhat more complex. The secularists and atheists should beware that that they do not get what they wish for. As Peter Hitchens pointed out, the worst place to be an atheist is in an atheist country. Countries run on the philosophies of atheism have hardly been models of what we term Western liberal (Christian?) values.

Those of us in the church need to realise that the problem is not ‘out there’, but ‘in here’. A church without the Spirit, a church without the Good news, a church that has rewritten the Bible into non-existence, a church without love – is a church that is doomed to die. And it deserves to die. That has always happened in church history. But the Lord has always raised up fresh shoots.

This week I also read a fascinating article by Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor and author of “God is Good for You”, asking whether Christianity was making a comeback in the UK. He visited Holy Trinity Brompton and the Brompton Oratory where he noted the diversity, the number of young people and the sense of a thriving church life in London and elsewhere.

Sheridan recognises the decline and the problems. He notes for example that 7% of 18 to 29-year-old Brits identify as Anglicans, 6% as Muslims. That 4.1 million people in London self-identify as Christians, 2.1 million as Muslims. And yet he sees a stirring – something different. He sees life. But then he asks this great question.

“The question is whether the two Bromptons and all the other signs of life in contemporary British Christianity are really signs of hope, maybe of a turn at last, or are they really more like crowded lifeboats bobbing around in the wake of a sinking ocean liner?”

As we reflect upon this, may it drive those of us who are Christians to our knees in prayer. Revival, renewal, reformation and repentance are our greatest needs. And these can only come from the Lord. O Lord, preserve and refresh your inheritance. O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years! Can these bones live? Lord, have mercy.

David Robertson is Director of Third Space at the City Bible Forum in Sydney, Australia

This article was first published here on Christian Today 

Islamaphobia – Christian Today


  1. Don’t play the numbers game. We are told ‘to pray for more workers’ as the harvest is rich – so not enough workers means we are not praying enough. Luke 10 2, Mathew 9 38

  2. Perhaps at least part of the truth is that a similar proportion always were practical unbelievers, but while the social mores of the time required at least a nominal adherence, and the law in many places required outward conformity (for long periods Catholics and Nonconformists could not go to university and experienced other significant disabilities), they simply kept it to themselves.
    Now it is not only safe, but fashionable, to conform to a different set of standards they equally happily oblige – and if it so happened that Islam or North Korean Communism gained ascendancy, they would just as easily bend with that wind as well – while muttering to themselves over a pint, perhaps, but still with no real spirit of resistance.
    Those with actual beliefs (or unbeliefs) they care enough about to carry against the wind have always been fewer than we complacently (or fearfully) believe.

  3. Fascinating article, thank you!

    I think you’ll find this interesting, which I stumbled across only yesterday.

    Not from a Christian viewpoint obviously, but the analysis of the problem I think is helpful and chimes with your above reflections!?

    And as you rightly say: the only way backup is down, on our knees!

    Why there is no way back from religion in the West

  4. I believe that the ‘great falling away’ referred to in 2 Thess. 2/3 has already started. God has already removed His restraining influence from human society – of that I’m reasonably sure. The evidence, not least the accelerating breakdown in God’s established order in every area of human life, speaks for itself – as does the various churches’ attempts to comply with, and commend themselves to society’s ever declining standards.
    The sinking of the traditional/social ‘churches’ should not upset any true Christian – for the latter will know that the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s true (spiritual) Church. – Matthew 16/18
    Not all who call or believe themselves to be Christian (from Pope to parishioner, from Moderator to man in the pew, from Prime Minister to constituent and from Queen to commoner) are truly Christian. Matthew 7/21-23.
    As Paul said in Romans 9/6: They are not all Israel who are of Israel…
    True Christians should not despair at the sunken state of social/public/traditional Christianity – for the decay and decomposition of these churches is reassurance that God’s will is working out.

    1. You are right Jack. Yet most Christians fail to see that this is just what the Bible prophesies. One of the final signs of the end of the age is the falling away of the church, such that ‘if it were possible, even the very elect would be deceived’ Matt 24:24.

      But, rather than giving in to despondency true believers are encouraged to ‘look up, for your redemption is drawing nigh!’ This is ‘the blessed hope of the church’ Titus 2:11-13 ” For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

      15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you”.

      Jesus is surely coming soon! Maranatha!

    2. Fortunately, we are not saved by the purity of our Theology. If we were, we would all be condemned.
      I would also suggest you have a short view of history. When the Vikings raided England and destroyed churches and killed and enslaved Christians, perhaps they too would have thought the end was coming.
      Indeed, I long for Jesus to return, but we need to remember that not even the Son knows the time. It is futile in the extreme to try and second guess the Father. Concentrate on inviting as many as possible into the Kingdom. The rest is outside our control and our understanding.

  5. No – the church is not a sinking ship in the UK – the UK is the sinking ship and the church is an ever shrinking lifeboat moored at the port.

      1. Oh…Arkenaten…a compliment from you…I’m surprised! And sadly…a bit cynical…that it might be tongue-in-cheek. I should be hopeful however that you do have a pleasant side – after all we are instructed in 1 Cor 13:7 that love always hopes, trusts and perseveres….

  6. @ Martha.
    No cynicism required.
    It was a funny line. Let’s hope that if it does ”sink” that the old adage, ”Women and Children first” still holds true.

    1. @ Ark . With reference to sinking…. just to remind you I’m thinking of the UK and the West in general by the way – as the sinking ship and not the church. I’ve been around long enough to see that when those with power and responsibility mess up – it is the most vulnerable that suffer – children, the elderly, the sick and disabled, the unborn. If you include women in the more vulnerable list – then that holds true also. In my lifetime – I can honestly say that we have taken backward steps when it comes to cherishing the privileges and uniqueness of womanhood – and we may chopped one of the heads of the monster of misogyny – only to find it has grown several other just as ugly heads. So, conversely, perhaps women and children are among the first to go down with the sinking ship.
      If it wasn’t for the hope that the simple lifeboat holds – we might despair….

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