Thought for the Day - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme
Wednesday, 30th November, 2022
Good morning. The results of the 2021 census show that, for the first time, fewer than half the people of England and Wales identify as Christian. The census question, ‘What is your religion?’, offered a variety of tick-box responses. It’s a blunt instrument for measuring the beliefs of a nation, and religion is a complex and contested concept. For many believers, faith is not a religion but a way of life. Others may feel a deep spiritual awareness but would not describe themselves as religious. Catholic writer Richard Rohr refers to those who live ‘on the edge of the inside’. This is not, he says, ‘an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together.’ I think that’s where many Christians like me find ourselves in the modern world, balancing precariously between a religious tradition that gives form and expression to our spiritual quest, and a secular culture that offers opportunities, equalities, and freedoms which are still denied in many religious institutions.
So what does it mean to say, as some headlines do in response to the census results, that England and Wales are no longer Christian countries? In the past and still today, Christianity has inspired great acts of altruism and philanthropy, and the harsh edges of social injustice have been softened by those whose Christian faith has moved them to act. But if full churches signify a Christian country, then Christianity has gone hand in hand with the cruelties of the slave trade and the tyrannies of empire, as well as the often degrading and exploitative practices that flourished with the emergence of capitalism and the industrial revolution. Today, one of the greatest threats facing the world is the rise of religious nationalism.
The idea of a Christian nation or country is not really Christian at all. In his Letter to the Philippians, St Paul reminds the early Christians that their citizenship is in heaven. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers how they will be recognised. It’s not by their noisy proclamations of faith, nor we might add, their ticking of boxes on a census, but by their care for those rejected and cast aside by society – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison. There are many Christians in Britain today working with and for others of all religions and none to express their faith in these practical ways. It might not look like religion, but it’s the expression of a living faith.