Yesterday the initial wave of UK census findings were released with mainstream news outlets tending to focus on 1) the increasing ethnic diversity of the country 2) the increase in people stating no religious affiliation 3) the decrease in numbers and percentage of people identifying as Christians, and 4) the increase in people identifying as Muslims.
There is a great deal more information and nuances to be uncovered yet but these were the headlines of TV news, and followed more or less by the British press today.
Looking around the internet at various comments on blogs, social networks and message boards, there was two noticeable currents I came across. Firstly, in terms of ethnicity and the apparent dramatic rise in Muslim residents, there was a general pessimism and concern from commenters that migration was changing Britain too fast and to the detriment of native peoples and cultures, however they might be defined.
Secondly, I noticed what could be described as a 'crowing of victory' from the self-proclaimed Disciples of Atheism (or at least, the Science-is-God ideologues) and 'sigh of resignation' from self-proclaimed Disciples of Christ (or at least, the servants / beneficiaries of the long dominant churches).
Here's my take on both...
The 'World in One Country' Scenario
I can understand the fear over the change in ethnic and cultural make-up of Britain to a point.
In some towns and cities, such as those in Yorkshire and Lancashire, the cosmopolitan, upbeat nature of central London is not felt. In particular there are many smaller northern towns, such as Dewsbury and Oldham, where there seems to be stark segregation between Muslim and non-Muslim residents. They live side-by-side, more or less cordially, but do not really engage with one another other than on an economic basis - working together, using some of the same shops etc. There might not be anything particularly 'wrong' with this, but as I've discussed previously on this blog in my observations of Bosnia, this can lead to a strong sense of the 'other' and related misunderstandings, which in turn can eventually lead to outright conflict.
There are also those who view migration through a purely economic lens in terms of equating more people with less public services, houses and employment.
I don't think either concerns, when expressed reasonably, should be dismissed as 'bigotry' or any other pejorative term.
However, I also believe - and hope - that what we are witnessing in Britain and much of Western society is the natural birth of a globalised society, and that the rest of the world will follow. I didn't read The Sun today but thought it's headline was fitting:
Consider the world today.
- States based on a narrow definition of ethnicity or ideology (usually religion, but including communism) have proved time and time to fail - they cannot contain their diversity, and any attempt to 'de-diversify' ends in disaster.
- Improvements in transport have brought diverse peoples physically closer to one another - for example, journeys that could take weeks such as those between Europe and Asia, now take hours.
- The dawn of the Information Age, triggered by telecommunications and invigorated (or put more accurately, turbo charged) by the internet, has brought diverse peoples intellectually closer.
- A prolonged wealth gap between societies has inevitably resulted in largescale migration, borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
- A continued gap between societies of the 'freer world' - in which there is a reliable level of liberty, justice and peace - and the rest has again inevitably resulted in largescale migration, again borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
Just as settlements became tribes and tribes became nations and nations became superstates (and are still doing so), so it is that I think we are now very slowly- but noticeably so - moving to a position where humanity is the common denominator, and within that we will find overlapping networks of identities. Identities not necessarily just defined by ethnicity or religious affiliation. It is as I say above, a 'natural birth', that will not be without moments of pain for those most impacted by the process.
That said, this perspective is interesting and potentially exciting as a Christian. I have been reading William Barclay's 'Insights' commentary on Christmas just recently and he talks about Nazareth being a nondescript town within a very significant area through which various trade routes between the cultural division of Eastern and Western civilisation, and the geographical division Northern and Southern hemispheres all passed. He contends that this would have surely played a formative role in the emerging worldview of Jesus and the vanguard movement he was to found.
There are many takes on what Christianity was and wasn't in its early phase or since then - and I am happy to admit this usually depends on your current position, and I am no different.
My understanding is that Christianity started off as a spontaneous Spirit-fuelled grassroots movement, triggered by the Jesus event, that increasingly stretched across ethnicities and cultures, taking elements of their various insights, practices - and perplexities - along the way. And it was precisely this creative tension, this spark in the melting pot, that has resulted in it gathering more and more momentum, and from there marching on and on and on over the centuries contributing much to progression of the human species (though not always). Conversely, when 'Christianity' has found itself neatly fixed as a banner above a society, it has in turn become stifled and subject to an inevitable decline.
The 'Post-Christendom' Scenario
This leads to my second point about the decline of Christianity in Britain.
However, before we go further, let us consider Richard Dawkins's comments on the census and his glee at the apparent eventual vanquishing of Christianity from Britain's shores. In an article for The Telegraph today he contends that the 59% who ticked 'Christian' contain a huge swathe who are in fact not really Christian because they in turn do not tick the various boxes he defines as what it takes to be a Christian (and admittedly, perhaps what the more dogmatic Christians might also define). Aside from the issue of defining a Christian, what he misses is that if the 59% do not have enough shared belief to represent a bloc, it is highly unlikely the 25% who identified as 'no religion' have a shared viewpoint. Put simply, the 25% do not necessarily buy into his science-based belief system either - intellectually speaking or book sales speaking.
When placed under the microscope, I think we can reasonably say even the most seemingly united group of people retain a fundamental level of complexity and diversity - such is humanity.
Having said that, I do think Dawkins is touching upon a fair point about the discrepancy between 'nominally Christian' and 'actively Christian' which is not reflected in a simple statistic of 59%, but is highlighted when comparing the number of people who answered Christian on the census compared to average weekly church attendances.
In addition, yesterday's news of the political establishment's decision to press ahead with gay marriage - supported by leading figures across the political parties but opposed by the majority of Christian churches - highlights the decline in Christianity as the state-sponsored religion and preferred ideological community. Britain, as with much of Western Europe, has well and truly entered a 'Post-Christendom' era - a transitional phrase from a Christian-centred state and public culture to something else. It is as yet unknown what the something else will be.
However, again I think many contemporary, active Christians can be heartened rather than dismayed by this. If we go back to the context in which Christianity thrived, it was as a grassroots movement led by the convinced few. It was a committed movement not concerned with earthly power but the bringing about of a more fulfilling individual and communal way of living, and sharing it with others, through connection to that sacred something we call 'God', 'Christ' and 'Spirit'.
For me, I would much rather be part of a community energised and convinced by the Spirit rather than what we often see now in church buildings - stale communities moved only by procedure (the 'right and proper order of things' mentality') and a sense of position (the 'local worthy' mentality). And there is evidence of radical, positive-minded communities emerging - you just have to go looking for it.
In short, the census provides opportunity for Christianity to both get back to basics and to renew itself. I don't imagine it going back to the exact mindset and practice of 2000 years ago - times have changed, it has grown and progressed along the way by the millions of people who lived in a deep relationship with it. But now is an opportunity to rediscover that original small 's' and capital 'S' spirit that shaped the early communities and spurred their descendants on to achieve many good things for the whole of humanity over the past two millenia, and to be renewed by it.