CHRISTIANS have now entered the season of Advent. It is the time of preparation for Christmas, the feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ and the hour when the ‘light of men’ entered human history. This is the light that, according to St John, ‘shines in darkness and darkness could not overpower it’.
The words of the Evangelist from the prologue to the fourth Gospel may offer consolation to those disheartened by a clear sense of encroaching darkness and of new and destructive ideologies emerging as Christianity diminishes rapidly.
Such decline is not in doubt. It was observed numerically in the census published this week by the Office for National Statistics which found that Christians are in a minority in England and Wales for the first time since records began some 200 years ago.
The census revealed that in 2021 a total of 46.2 per cent of citizens (27.5million) described themselves as Christian compared with 59.3 per cent (33.3million) in 2011. ‘No religion’ was the second most common response and was offered by 37.2 per cent (22.2million).
The decline in the numbers who say they are Christians represents a 13.1 percentage point decrease in the last decade. Those of ‘no religion’, on the other hand, soared by 14.1million, from 25.2 per cent.
Christians remain the largest single group of the religious belief category and their numbers are still significantly higher than those with no religion at all. This means it is a moment for alarm but not for despair although, from a Christian perspective, the signs are troubling not only because of the direction of traffic and the rate of decline but also because of what might be replacing Christianity now and in the future.
The census is useless on this latter point because it offers no insight into the beliefs of those who purport to have ‘no religion’. It would be safe to assert that such people do not believe in nothing, however. They believe in something. They must have an explanation for their existence. They may have a world view, their own systems of morality and often, in the place of religion, subscribe to one ideology or another.
The writer G K Chesterton is often credited with the aphorism that ‘when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything’. Today, instead of Christianity there is Islamism, neo-Marxism, globalist authoritarianism, climate change fanaticism, death cults agitating for easy abortion and legal euthanasia, and the ideologies of identity politics, which include an ever-expansive ideology of gender, to name a few. Often the adherents of these ideologies are at war with each other as much as they are constantly attacking the moral and religious bedrock upon which rests the best of British civilisation. They seek to subvert and re-invent authentic human rights to fit some very dubious and twisted agendas. They are tribes, jostling and competing aggressively with each other for rights, privileges and influence.
The result of years of this is confusion. Generations are growing up unable to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, but virtue-signal with infantile naivety at anything they are told, often erroneously, to be noble and true. Such confusion is an example of the malaise which Pope St John Paul II described in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (the splendour of the truth) as the ‘most dangerous crisis which can afflict mankind’.
For all the flag-waving and knee-taking, British society is surely more dystopian, irrational, unfair, unforgiving, anarchic, balkanised, ungovernable, violent and cruel than it has been for many years.
Perhaps Britain has moved closer to the prediction by Cardinal John Henry Newman, England’s newest saint, in a sermon of 1873 called ‘The Infidelity of the Future’. He preached that ‘the trials which lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St Athanasius, St Gregory I, or St Gregory VII, and they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it. The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. I do not mean to presume to say that this is the last time, but that it has had the evil prerogative of being like that more terrible season, when it is said that the elect themselves will be in danger of falling away.’
At that time Newman could see how the philosophies of John Stuart Mill in particular were accelerating the secularisation of Victorian society and also the Church of England. Among the most influential of these was the ‘Essay on Liberty’, a thesis which rested on the single criterion that actions which do not harm others are to be permitted.
According to the late Cambridge historian Dermot Fenlon, this work was more important to the cultural development of late 20th and early 21st century Britain than the writings of either Karl Marx or Charles Darwin.
The logic of Mill, he noted, was cited time and again in every social revolution and innovation, from easy divorce to the destructive of early human life, same-sex marriage and the treatment of children as utilitarian possessions. Mill, perhaps even more than Roy Jenkins, is the founding father and patron saint of the permissive society.
Yet Mill’s criterion for ‘harm’ was ill-defined and today it has come to refer to a duty not to harm other people’s ‘feelings’, a concept which is giving rise to sinister totalitarian ideas very much opposed to liberty such as hate crimes, thought crimes, censorship and the curtailing and destruction of freedom of speech and expression. This is real harm by any objective criteria, and it is made harmful only because so many people surrender to it.
Perhaps the situation has now arrived when the members of all Christian churches and denominations are indeed, as Newman predicted, among those who are surrendering. They are falling away not only into the outright apostasy reflected in the findings of the 2021 census but, just as perilously, also in craven conformity to the prevailing culture and to the Zeitgeist, the transient yet awful spirit of the age.
What these secularising trends demand from Christians are not conformity, compliance and invisibility but a principled spiritual and practical resistance and a commitment to a new evangelisation. This surely begins with the individual response of each baptised person to accept the invitation to conversion and repentance, to embrace orthodox Christianity, to change their lives by rejecting what is evil and holding fast to what is good, and to take the tough and narrow uphill path instead of the broad and easy road to perdition.
This invitation is sounded by St John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, in the Gospel readings at Christian services in first two weeks of Advent. It is no accident. His message corresponds with the time when the hearts and minds of all who believe in a loving God begin to focus intensely on the hope of their salvation, upon a child born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. It tells them what they must do.