A report in last week’s Telegraph suggests that British Christianity is declining more rapidly than previously understood. Initial reports about the 2011 census showed the number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christians had fallen by 10 percent since 2001. But it turns out those figures included Christian immigrants, such as Polish Catholics and African Pentecostals. When one looks only at the native born, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians has fallen by an even greater amount–by 15% in the space of one decade. The decline is particularly pronounced among the young. At this rate, the Telegraph predicts, Christianity could become a minority religion in Britain within the next decade.
These numbers have worrisome implications for the future of the Established Church. In a country where only a minority is willing to describe itself as Christian, what would be the basis for maintaining state Christianity? A spokesman for the Church of England admits the census numbers present a challenge, but notes that recent attendance figures have been stable, and that the committed core “of the faithful remains firm.” Maybe so, but state churches, almost by definition, need to draw support from society as a whole, not only the people who attend every Sunday. Perhaps those respondents who said they weren’t Christians nonetheless think the established church serves a useful social function and want it to endure. But maybe not.
You thought there couldn’t be a law and religion angle to today’s news–fascinating for us history nerds–that archaeologists have discovered the mortal remains of Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester? Think again. Plans are underway to re-inter the bones in the city’s Anglican Cathedral. Not so fast, say some: the hunchback king wasn’t a Protestant, but a Catholic, and he requires a Catholic burial. In fact, as Shakespeare fans know, Richard died at Bosworth Field (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”), defending his throne from Henry Tudor. Henry went on to reign as Henry VII; his son, Henry VIII, broke with Rome. As The Tablet’s blog argued this morning, “Had Richard prevailed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there would have been no Henry VII, therefore no Henry VIII and no Reformation. England today might still be a Catholic country.” Think of it: no Reformation, no Established Church, no Archbishop Laud, no Puritans, no Great Migration — no Massachusetts! — and no Establishment Clause. Surely there’s a law review article in there somewhere.
Leicester Cathedral seems to know it’s facing a sensitive situation. A Catholic priest is keeping watch over Richard’s remains (as is an Anglican, I believe), and the cathedral is planning a “multifaith” burial ceremony. Personally, I’m not sure why English Catholics are so keen to claim Richard, anyway. They must be forgetting the nephews in the Tower.
The Oxford Journal of Church and State has posted The Pragmatic Pulpit: Politics and Changes in Preaching Styles in the Church of England, 1660–1760 by R. Barry Levis (Rollins College). An extract of the piece follows.
Victorian evangelicals and Tractarians shared a negative assessment of the eighteenth-century church. E. B. Pusey, for instance, saw the deficiencies of his contemporary church stretching back to the previous century. Pusey, as well as the other Tractarians, maintained that the eighteenth-century church had “suffered deeply, both in lukewarmness of life and degeneracy of faith, until the horrors of the French Revolution awoke us as out of a death-sleep.” In another context, he noted with disdain that “the eighteenth century was comparatively a stagnant period of the Church,—in England, owing to the violent revolution, whereby so many of her best members, the Non-juring Clergy, were ejected, and that, at one time, the State set itself to corrupt and degrade her, and her writers looked for strength in foreign alliances;—abroad, through the development of the principles of the ultra-reformation, and the influence of degraded England and corrupted France.” Instead, Pusey looked with particular nostalgia toward the seventeenth-century divines.
Many in the eighteenth century would have concurred with this judgment that the Church of England suffered from decay in both discipline and doctrine. Fiction writers portrayed its clergy as incompetent buffoons. Henry Fielding famously depicted Parson Trulliber in Joseph Andrews as more at home in the pig sty, “but two steps from his parlour-window,” than the pulpit. Trulliber had a special gift to arouse female members of his congregation with his preaching. One overly stimulated congregant who “to say the truth, the parson had exercised her ways than one; … , resolved to receive the bad things of this world together with the good.” Jane Austen painted an obsequious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Likewise, William Hogarth produced several satirical etchings skewering the clergy.