Did anyone say Amen?

The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000
December 12, 2003

The 1960s may have swung away from guilt and morality, but, says Richard Harries, spirituality is still very much part of us

In the 1960s, sociologists of religion believed that the world was in the grip of an irreversible process of secularisation. But this theory did not account for the US, at once the most modern and the most religious country in the world. Furthermore, would France, with its 40,000 professional fortune-tellers, be counted as a secular society? Now those who ply the trade believe that their predecessors got it the wrong way round. Modernisation has heightened the role of religion on the public stage, most obviously in the case of Islam. Here the exception is Europe, hence the phrase "European exceptionalism", though even here something significant is happening in the field of religion-spirituality. This is a useful edited collection that includes an overview of secularisation theory and its weaknesses and a series of more detailed case studies, not only in relation to Britain but also to Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and France.

No one can doubt that big changes have occurred in the significance of religion over the past two or three centuries. First, there is the rise of pluralism. In British society, the Toleration Act of 1689 seriously undermined the legal basis for the enforcement of religious uniformity and moral discipline, and in the 18th century ideas of religious tolerance rapidly gained pace. In England and Ireland, first steps towards the abolition of anti-Catholic penal laws were taken in 1778. But pluralism does not necessarily lead to a decline in religious practice. On the contrary, in Britain it led to the Evangelical revival in the 18th century and the remarkable strength of non-conformity in the 19th. And, as David Hempton shows, paradoxically, this was built on the basic religious knowledge promulgated by the established church through its schools and catechetical work. For example, in Wales the country parson Griffith Jones was responsible in his lifetime for founding more than 3,000 parochial schools in which some 250,000 pupils - about half the Welsh population - were taught to read religious literature. The chief beneficiaries of this were the Methodist and more radical forms of dissent whose followers could whip up this knowledge into religious enthusiasm.

Second, there is the cutting or loosening of the ties that bind church and state, which has happened rather differently in different European countries. What is interesting is how few countries have followed the example of France in not allowing religious education in schools. But again, even a complete separation of church and state does not necessarily lead to a decline in religious fervour, as is most notably the case in the US. Other factors include the abolition of censorship in 1694, allowing anti-Christian ideas to be promulgated, though this in itself cannot be taken as leading inevitably to a decline in religion, for historically it led to the rise of deism rather than atheism. Then, finally, there is the decline in religious practice - in France, for example, between 1958 and 1990 the percentage of people in the population baptised fell from 95 per cent to 51 per cent.

Sociologists of religion disagree about when and why the most significant changes occurred. Some look to the 18th century and, certainly, in some continental countries there seems to have been a very significant decline between about 1750 and 1800, most notably in the practice of receiving Holy Communion. But, on the whole, the idea of the 18th century as still a fundamentally religious century has been revived in recent decades.

What 18th-century religion does bring out, however, is the very different understandings of religion that people have in different ages. Religion in the 18th century was very much bound up with property and property transactions, and support of the status quo. This was true of most non-conformists as well as members of the Church of England. If most people in the 18th century were religious in this sense, it is a rather different understanding of religion from a 21st-century understanding of it as something that is essentially inward, personally chosen and related to individual fulfilment.

So there is a very proper sceptical note in this volume about the ability to measure continuities in religion over the centuries. Any idea of steady decline from the 18th century is bucked by revivals later in the century.

Their influence can be seen in the following century, especially in terms of the 19th-century's Anglo-Catholic revival. This in turn decisively affected the Church of England right through until the 1950s. It was a religiously vigorous century, at least for its first three-quarters, although even here we have to be very sceptical of any idea of a golden age. As Robin Gill showed, the Victorians not only built too many churches, they built them too large, so they were never full and, from the first, congregations had an idea that things were declining.

Some writers, notably Callum Brown in this volume, locate the 1960s as the key period in the decline of religious practice, regarding this as a qualitatively different slide in its steepness compared with anything that happened before. The 1960s saw a radical change in the role of women, and this had implications for religion. No less significant, it was, according to Philip Larkin, the time when sex was invented. Corks could be heard popping out of bottles all over the place as people set out to enjoy themselves. The background was a series of liberalising laws, on obscenity (1959), abortion (1967) and divorce (1969), the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults (1967), abolition of theatre censorship (1968) and the provision of contracep-tives to unmarried couples through the National Health Service (1967). The intellectual climate of moral relativism, an emphasis on personal, especially sexual, fulfilment, and suspicion of guilt all contributed to a decline in the number of Catholics going to confession and a general loosening of the hold of churches over people through control of their sexual mores and the ability to inculcate guilt.

That said, what happened in the 1960s needs to be seen against something of the roller coaster in earlier 20th-century religion. As Adrian Hastings brought out so well in his history of English Christianity in the 20th century, it was taken for granted in the early part of the century by anyone who could rub two thoughts together that everyone they knew would be agnostic. This began to change in the 1930s with the emergence of a number of significant Christian intellectuals and their influence was highly significant until the end of the 1950s. So at the end of the 1950s comparatively large numbers of people were being ordained. From an intellectual point of view what happened in the 1960s is certainly a sharp contrast to the 1950s, but not to the Edwardian era. One of the problems, according to Jeffrey Cox, is that secularisation as a theory, defined by Bryan Wilson as "the process by which religion loses social significance", has had no alternative or rival master narrative.

There are now signs that an alternative master narrative is beginning to emerge. This story is not so much one of religious decline as religious change. Recent statistics, available only since the essays in this book were first put together, indicate that whereas 39 per cent of the country regard themselves as not religious, only 12 per cent are willing to define themselves as not spiritual.

Of course "spiritual" covers a multitude of meanings and goes much wider than new-age religion, or cults, with which the word is usually associated.

At any rate, it indicates an understanding of religion or the spiritual that is in essence personal, value-based and freely chosen. This understanding of religion raises a question mark about what sociologists in the past have allowed to count in their understanding of "social". This kind of religion is much more difficult to measure. And one of the healthy notes of scepticism in this book is about how most attempts to collect statistics in the past had unexamined assumptions. These statistics are "problematic", for, as one Edwardian compiler opined, they are "unimpeachable witnesses to vigor, progress and interest". What religious statistics are collected, how they are ordered and in relation to what master narrative, are all questions that reveal underlying assumptions and presuppositions.

Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000

Editor - Hugh McCloud and Werner Ustorf
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 234
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 521 81493 6

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