The Decline of the Church in Britain

Whitby Abbey – “bare, ruined quires”

Damian Thompson (who is probably one of the world’s greatest journalists) write here about the decline of Christianity in Britain. The shrinking of those who identify as Christians is combined with a dramatic surge in the Muslim population. You can’t disagree with the statistics:

Since the last census in 2001, the number of Britons identifying themselves, however loosely, as Christians is down 13 percentage points to 59 per cent.

The number of respondents who say they have no religious faith is up 10 points to 25 per cent. Meanwhile, staggeringly, the Muslim population has grown from 1.55 million to 2.7 million, an increase of 1.15 million from 2001 to 2011.

However, I must disagree with Damian’s diagnosis of the problem. Damian points the finger at the dismal leadership of both Rowan Williams in the Church of England and the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. These men aren’t to blame for the lack of Christianity in Britain. The roots of the problem lie much deeper.

There are two essential reasons why Christianity is dying in the West. The first reason is philosophical and theological. Christianity has been undermined by modernism, the roots of which date back to destructive methods of Biblical critical scholarship and the humanistic rationalism and relativism that accompanies modernism. The roots of these trends within the church are found within nominalism– the philosophical foundations of  historical Protestantism. Therefore, the present problem can be clearly traced back 500 years when Christians started drifting from the supernatural and historic beliefs of the Christian faith. Read The Smoke of Satan for further analysis…

Put simply, Christianity is fading in Britain because British people don’t believe in it. They don’t believe in it because their whole culture and educational system contradicts Christian religious belief.

The second reason the British have stopped being Christian is because the British have stopped being Christian. What I mean is that, despite the theological and philosophical problems, Christian faith still flourishes when there are dynamic examples of Christians living out their faith in a radical way. When Christians live out their faith in simplicity and sacrifice, when their love and patience is exhibited in daily life, and when their spirituality empowers a genuine encounter with Christ and when they are truly transformed, they soon transform the world. What attracted converts the most in the early church was the radical and radiant love Christians lived out. In the midst of a dying culture of death and despair the Christians loved one another. They sang! They were filled with energy, hope, zeal and life.

Pope Benedict understands that the practice of Christianity will continue to shrink in the West. It will contract and seem to fade away, but that contraction will be a purification. We will have quality even if we do not have quantity. Then as the western world is swept away by the combined forces of atheism on the one hand and cruel and oppressive Islam on the other, the few radical Christians will once again shine like stars in the night. They will once again exhibit true forgiveness (which is absent in atheism and Islam) true faith (which  is absent in atheism and Islam) and true love (which is absent in atheism and Islam)

The leadership may be weak, but most leaders are simply reflections of those whom they lead. Christianity in Britain is not weak because of weak leadership. The leadership is weak because Christians in Britain are weak.

And lest my American readers are feeling smug and self righteous, the same rot is present in American Christianity, but with far more insidious and decadent manifestations.

Read More: The Real Divisions in the Church of England; Sentimentalism and Violence

Understanding the Crisis in the Church of England
Bob Jones’ Apology? This From a Bob Jones Grad
Anglicans Wonder Why No One Comes to Church on Sunday
Chust for Nice – Annunciation
  • Amy Giglio

    “And lest my American readers are feeling smug and self righteous, the same rot is present in American Christianity, but with far more insidious and decadent manifestations.”

    Father, would love to read more. Hope there is a part 2.

  • Matt V.

    Fr., have you read Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society”? You touch on some of the topics that this 500+ page book expounds upon. If you haven’t read it, I would definitely recommend it. Any who are curious about the foundations of the current state of modern man should pick it up.

  • Larry Jordan

    Maybe the church is dying from natural causes, including the “cancer” of clerical abuse, the “hardening of the arteries” of clerical autocracy, and the “heart disease” of moralism focused on pelvic issues, rather than social issues. Maybe absolutism is just as dangerous as relativism, and maybe radical and radiant love is seen in how we live more than in what we believe.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    It is impossible to live rightly without believing rightly.

  • Greg

    But fear not! According to Hans Urs Von Balthasar despite Christianity contracting at an unbelievable pace and rise of the most mortally sinful culture in history….we can still hope no one is in HELL!!!!!!

  • yan

    I don’t think the ‘smaller but purer’ prophecy is anything to either be proud of or look forward to occurring if it were to occur. Less say in the daily goings on of life by Christians in response to their decrease in numbers will make living the faith more difficult, so the idea that we will be ‘purer’ is I think quite debatable.

    The trajectory of the Faith at its outset was the opposite direction and it always has gone that way. That is the direction that we must always hope that the Church takes. All this ‘hunkering down in bunkers’ mentality is very Protestant and does not help us to engage the world or to convert it.

  • D.A. Howard

    It is arrogance to think that it is solely our behavior that changes people. The Holy Spirit is ALWAYS working. People just refuse to respond to Him. What examples did the Hebrew people have in their prophets? They had excellent examples of prophets who went to their deaths to defend their faith. Did the people of Israel turnabout? No. They continued their unrighteousness despite righteous prophet after righteous prophet.

    Sometimes, people will not change no matter what you do. It is up to the individual to change, you cannot force him. He decides what he does, and he pays the price for his evil as well.

    I convert about seven people a year for the last 10 years. I am no Francis Xavier, but I have more than done my part. Time for the rest of you to get working. I am doing all I can.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I agree with Father’s arguments. But I would also put more emphasis on showing our belief in God’s actual presence in the Church and through the sacraments and prayer. To do this we must show our belief and experience of His Living Presence through devout unashamed prayer in public (like openly counting our rosary beads as Moslems openly do with beads to count the “Names” of Allah) and through liturgy which is prayed and read with emphasis, conviction, and enthusiasm and not as an exercise in droning.
    And even many lay people in other religions unashamedly wear garments that show they are believers. We Catholics can’t even get some of our clergy and religious to wear any obvious sign of their religious commitment. In my opinion, we need to double down on all the things Father said, but also do things that make VERY clear that it is a vibrant belief in God that is behind all our actions. We need to get away from the image many have of the Church as nothing but a giant social work agency.

  • Geo

    Father, you are spot on in identifying nominalism as the root of the root problem of modernism. It should never be underestimated.

  • flyingvic

    I think that the West is simply too comfortable in modern times: from the early church until the middle of the last century there was a sense of urgency, engendered not least by our insecure hold on life at that time. Nowadays only the elderly can remember a World War, and death below the age of 75 is something of a surprise. Twice in the last few months our infant grandson has been admitted to one of our wonderful National Health Service hospitals and discharged cured within a couple of days, after infections that would have caused his death not many years ago. When death is remote, people question the need for religion. When death is an ever-present possibility there is far more incentive to think about what might happen afterwards . . .

  • Kris


    There is nothing “natural” about the causes you mention. There is nothing natural about the fact that poor priestly formation and screening led to allowing men become priests who shouldn’t have, nor is there anything natural about the misconduct of those who did not do what was necessary to remove these priests from ministry. But these issues have been and are being corrected.

    In addition, you imply a false dichotomy between “pelvic” and “social” issues. The Church doesn’t trade off on them; indeed, all that it teaches in terms of social justice and human sexuality is about affirming the dignity of the human person. In both, it’s about realizing that humans don’t exist as means to another’s ends, whether we speak in terms economic policies or using humans as means to sexual gratification in a manner outside of God’s design for sex.

    “Absolutism” should also not be confused with understanding that there are, in fact, objective moral truths to which we must conform ourselves. Seeking these truths out and living according to them is the truly “radical and radiant” way for us to both live and believe as Catholic Christians.

  • Y. R.

    In this regard, Mr. Hilaire Belloc is one of the most insightful of teachers whose defense of the Faith was never adulterated, always intimidating, always provocative. His book “Europe and the Faith” provides a very acceptable response to the question posed by this article. In short, the rise of Protestantism first in Germany, but especially in the ancient Roman province of Britain, became the terrible sickness of all Christian civilization. To paraphrase Belloc, it was the moral severance of Britain from a United Christendom; its fruit has been the decline of morals throughout all Europe and the substitution of plutocracy, that is, the servile state, for authentic freedom. And whether the mass of moderate and luke-warm Christians know it or not, the truth is astonishingly simple and profound, having been amply expressed in Belloc’s evocative assertion, “Europe is the Faith. The Faith is Europe.”

  • DoctorD

    Quoting Hitchens:
    “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody…had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion… and one would like to think… that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”

    Mankind no longer has a need for the supernatural. Science is answering with facts and reason the questions that religion addressed with superstition, fear, and tradition.

  • Joe

    Careful with that strawman, Eugene. Quoting “scripture” as though it makes a difference in an argument with people who do not believe in your “prophets” is a bit hypocritical, no?

    The grand poobahs of atheism (and all the other -isms that follow in their wake or clamber for their pop-culture success from red herring arguments) make plenty of hollow claims. They are right to say that science is awesome if you study it. Science doesn’t claim, and really cannot claim to solve the problem of man’s inhumanity to man or answer “why are we here?” or “why is there something rather than nothing?”.
    I find it funny that real scientists immediately distance themselves from “Science-ism” that claims to be all things to all people.

  • Howard

    I really think that atheism is dying a lingering death after the fall of the Soviet Union. Atheism was the threat of my dad’s generation and of my childhood, but it’s a bit old-fashioned and silly to people now; it is no longer new, no longer smart, no longer “inevitable”, and (as always) it does not match the needs of the human heart. So what happens is that one generation is made of atheists, but their cold disbelief holds no appeal for their children, who adopt some New Age beliefs; the lack of rigor and intellectual cohesion of their beliefs, in turn, disenchant their children, who find a firm but simple system of beliefs in Islam. Meanwhile, Anglicanism has never been much more than the Established church, and Catholicism has a bad hangover from Aggiornamento.

  • Ryan Meeks

    If the Church is focused on “pelvic” issues, then what about the secular culture? What about people who are so spiritually impoverished that they would kill their children before they are born because they want sexual license whenever they wish? What about their “focus”?

  • Ryan Meeks

    It’s good to know that Hitchens used logic and reason to develop a time machine and travel back into history to see the advent of religion. I must have missed that news.

  • Mike

    An interesting book I have read opens with Chapter One: The Modern Distaste for Religion. It states: “The Church of England, judging from its baptismal register, still numbers some twenty-five million nominal members; but its Easter Communions are less than a tenth of this total. Even when we make allowance for children who are not yet of communicant age, it is difficult to suppose that the effective membership of the Anglican Church constitutes one-tenth of the English population. Neither the Church of England nor any nonconformist body registers any increase which keeps pace with the annual birth-rate; some of them have to register a net loss, not only of ministers, but of chapels and of Sunday scholars.” The author then suggests that in addition to such factors as wider education, more outlets for entertainment and a higher standard of living, the decline of dogma in Protestant churches has had a significant effect. The book (The Belief of Catholics) was written in 1929 and the author was Ronald Knox. Sadly, he was able to contrast the decline in membership of Protestant churches with an increase in membership of the Catholic Church, something which he would not be able to do today.

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    An old Soviet general said, at the time of the Cold War, “If we cannot destroy you militarily or economically we will destroy you morally.” How right he was. You will be lucky to find anyone in public service with any integrity. If you mention that Britan has walked into a dark tunnel with its eyes open then you are in trouble. Britain has nothing to offer. It has dumbed down. Dickens wrote it was a land famed for its love of dogs and beating of children. He too was right. We live in darker times where the old and the frail are under attack. The church is the only defence

  • FW Ken

    Larry Jordan echos the nostrums preached by mainline protestantism for the past 50 years. Good luck with that.

    DoctorD, your faith is touching. Millions

  • flyingvic

    Quoting scripture to non-believers may be a waste of time but it is most certainly not hypocritical. What were you thinking of?

  • FW Ken

    Wrong button:

    Millions find not fear, but joy in their Christian Faith. Superstition? Says you! And tradition? You should consider a good study of anthropology, or maybe even a bit of psychology. Human communities of all sorts are filled with traditions. Think of May Day in Red Square.

  • Glenn

    No need for Balthasar the theologian, or the rest of us, to speculate about hell. It appears that a great many people are living in a “hell” of human making here on earth. Look around.

  • savvy

    Matt V,

    Matt Gregory has figured out the roots of the currents crisis. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a sacramental system, that fulfills them. The Protestant reformation got rid of it and the void is being filled with secular politics. The rest followed suit, and cannot figure out why we simply are not jumping ship.

    In fact there are those in our church who are poorly taught and do not understand this.

  • Karen

    I would love to, but have no idea how to go about that without look like a religious nut-case.

  • Richard

    Part of the decline of Christianity in Britain and in Europe and in America is that these Christians are having less babies through artificial birth control and abortion while Muslims continue to foster large families and engage their faith in awe (fear) of God.

  • Maria

    And yet, and yet, and yet, God will prevail.
    So let us not be anxious about tomorrow and instead focus on the work of today.

  • Jacob S

    No one said we should give up. Smaller but purer isn’t a goal, it’s a forecast.

    Our goal of course should be larger and purer, but there will be good times and bad times, and it is not a bad thing to be happy about the opportunities that show up in less than ideal circumstances, and to try to take advantage of them.

    But you’re absolutely right – We should try to spread the faith as far as possible, but we must be sure that we are spreading the actual faith. If you have a wide spread but watered down faith, where few people understand or care what it means, then what you have is… a few years before where we are now. A fast track to “spiritual but not religious” sentimentalism decaying to no knowledge of nor even an interest in the truth.

  • Michael Petek

    “Then as the western world is swept away by the combined forces of atheism on the one hand and cruel and oppressive Islam on the other, the few radical Christians will once again shine like stars in the night.”

    They will shine all right, until Islam wipes them out completely.

  • Monk Chanan

    About four or five of you, following Fr Dwight’s lead, blame the Protestant Reformers for all the trouble. You’re wrong. The modernism that began the Great Apostasy has its routes much more in France and Germany. The French Revolution. The Philosophes, and then how Philosophy spoiled Theology starting in Tubingen, Germany, around 1825-1830. I would argue that Protestantism that was believing made their lands better places to be than Catholicism made Catholic lands. Such smug condemnation of believing Protestantism. Let us recall that Luther, Ridley, and Latimer feared God, and the latter two enough to die for the truth of God’s Word and the clarity and probity of God’s Holy Word. Look at the scandal in Ireland today and I think I can rest the case that Catholics have done any better than believing Protestants to make better societies. Another thing. I’m a Catholic who rejoices in what Fr Newman and Longnecker are doing in South Carolina. But Fr Dwight spent time in Oxford, okay but did he live long elsewhere in Britain to call it any less Christian than other places in the world? To me, the people in Britain are humbler generally, less materialist, less show-off, and their Christianity is not too far from their evaluations but they judge it not too differently than Wilberforce who wrote down his practical views, speaking for many in the attitude that says “show me your christianity by your talk and I will show you mine from my deeds to benefit others. Last, how did it come about that converts to Catholicism bring life and warmth to their congregations and that without them the parishes have often been cold and unfriendly? You criticise the Reformation, but I dare say you wouldn’t have wanted to characterize Christianity by many Catholic parishes that without the new life of converts have often been the coldest and unfriendliest places on earth! And that’s because we failed to preach the liberating Gospel of God and gave them Law instead and the belief that if you stumbled tomorrow you would go to hell. Well, surprise, the Bible doesn’t say that. In fact the New Testament in many places speaks of being purified as silver is in the fire and that in Corinthians the worst stumbler of all wasn’t hell bound but as I say, his soul “saved as though by fire” indicating the opposite of the Catholic notion of “saved today, damned tomorrow” unless you get to Confession on Saturday! Let’s note our own sins and stop blaming the Protestant Reformation for all the world’s problems!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I lived in various parts of England and was there for 25 years. Just because we trace the present decline to the philosophical roots of Protestantism doesn’t mean we think all Protestants are bad.

  • Jean Marie

    In addition to what Jacob S wrote, I find it puzzling how papal documents since the Second Vatican Council have called for the laity to be the evangelizers in the Church when they themselves have not been evangelized due to watered-down catechesis.

  • Debbie

    Father, thanks for the article. It was great! Keep them coming! I really liked your last sentence about Americans. Very chilling, I must say. Please elaborate more on this, please! Another article perhaps? Another thing came to mind. What are the beliefs of the current younger Royalty in Britain, like Prince Williamd and Kate? If I had to guess, the Queen is probably more into her faith than they are. What do you think? It is something not very much discussed anywhere. God bless!

  • Sue Korlan

    There is no one poorer than an unborn child. The only thing it has is its life, and because people err with respect to pelvic issues, they believe they have the right to take that child’s life from it. If that isn’t a social justice issue there aren’t any.

  • Sue Korlan

    The Church condemned that idea at the second Council of Constantinople. It was one of Origen’s suggestions to resolve certain theological problems he perceived.

  • Sue Korlan

    I disagree with you on nominalism as the cause. Luther rejected it out of hand. Some of the early Protestant reformers, for example Karlstadt and Oecolampadius, had been taught by Dominicans and were probably Thomists before the Reformation. The problem then was a more severe version of the problem we have had recently. If most of the clergy ignore their vows and do whatever they please sexually, if most of the clergy are ignorant of the faith, if the leadership of the Church is more concerned with their wealth and power than with whether anyone else even knows what the Church teaches, you end up with the average Joe despising the Church even if he doesn’t dare say so. And once he’s free to act without fear of penalty, he’s gone.

  • Jack Quirk

    D.A. Howard, if you have converted about 70 people in the past ten years, then I would have to say that you have been given a specific gift and mission. I’m happy for you and for them. Of course, it’s the Holy Spirit who actually does the converting, but if he has used you for his purposes in this way then I am also thankful.

  • FW Ken

    Monk -

    As a convert, I agree with many of your points. However, I read Father’s comments as aimed at nominalism and protestantism more than protestants. And while it’s true that Ridley et. al. Loved God enough to die, so did St. Thomas More. Finally, your criticisms of much of Catholic life (again, I agree with you about them) might have been made in defense of Montanism. They are quite old. :-).

  • TheInformer

    “The leadership may be weak, but most leaders are simply reflections of those whom they lead. Christianity in Britain is not weak because of weak leadership. The leadership is weak because Christians in Britain are weak.”

    NONSENSE! Having prayed at daily Mass for many years I can tell you that I’ve heard less than 50 decent sermons, with rare exception! Most of you guys push the fluffy devotionalism or do-goodism and count that as “solid food”. I’m very disappointed with the low quality of sermons. Doctrine? hah!

  • Richard M

    Hello Fr. Longnecker,

    “However, I must disagree with Damian’s diagnosis of the problem. Damian points the finger at the dismal leadership of both Rowan Williams in the Church of England and the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. These men aren’t to blame for the lack of Christianity in Britain. The roots of the problem lie much deeper.”

    Perhaps I’m misreading him, too, but I don’t think Damian is blaming them, in the main. He did say: “It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism.” Obviously, that predates the leadership of either man. In fact, predates even their births. I’d be shocked if Damian felt otherwise.

    But he is saying that their leadership isn’t helping matters – indeed, is probably exacerbating matters. The Catholic Church in E&W has been poorly served by its bishops for at least two or three generations now. We can’t blame it all even on the whole lot of them, but having courageous and passionate leaders sure does help.

  • Juan Manuel Perez Porrua

    I wonder if indeed “Europe is the Faith” because it seems the future of the faith is outside Europe.

  • indrajit dutta

    Yes, I agree that the formidable foe of Christianity both in America and Europe today is the joint force of oppressive Islam in one hand and Atheism on the other hand by the intellectuals. What is amazing is that the scholars, scientists and intellectuals in Islamic world dare not to say anything about Islam but rather embrace in a holy way whereas the layman in the West, forget about the so called scholars and wise man of West feels it a honour to speak arrogantly about the Church. It seems they have forgotten the sense of belonging. Christ help them.

  • William J. Eichenberger

    Anyone interested in this subject needs to read “Christendom Awake” by Aidan Nichols. O.P..

  • William J. Eichenberger

    That is a lot of nonsense.

  • Micha Elyi

    “If most of the clergy ignore their vows and do whatever they please sexually…”
    –Sue Korlan

    Hmpf. “Most”?

    The first step upon the road to fanaticism is to lose all sense of proportion.

    “if the leadership of the Church is more concerned with their wealth and power…”

    The patrimony of the faith doesn’t provide much spendable cash, Sue. As for power, I suggest you meditate on Stalin’s question of how many divisions does the Pope have.

    And dial down your exaggeration knob to something below 11. There aren’t any albino monks for you to fear.

  • Micha Elyi

    Quoting Hitchens: …”my children… seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”

    Those children are remarkably like the Pope. He’s also “uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.” (If Peter Hitchens’s late hard drinking, poison pen wielding brother is there, he sent himself.)

  • Jacob

    I don’t know bud… You guys have done societal collapse like Shakespeare crafting a work of art..

    I don’t think we’re capable of destroying and denigrating our Christian heritage as thoroughly as you have even if we tried..

  • http://aol ron a.

    Fr. Dwight—Thanks for your insightful comments!

  • Sophia

    Sue, I agree with you and I do NOT think you exaggerate or have lost a sense of proportion. I also think that Fr. has given us a fine piece here. The only thing I’d beg to differ with him on is the notion of leadership…for those lay Christians seeking to be true to the Faith, finding support, confirmation, direction, even good example from clergy and the institutional Church in the US has been very difficult (there are exceptions) for many decades now. I’m pretty sure that’s a well established fact which would be difficult to deny at this stage.

  • Sophia

    In reply to Howard’s:
    “Catholicism has a bad hangover from Aggiornamento.”
    Oh My Goodness…that is so well said!!! I love it… and must remember that phrase! Thanks!!!