This week the statistics for the religious picture of England and Wales were released by the Office for National Statistics. These are based on the responses to the 2021 Census and they have been widely reported. The number of people self-identifying as Christian has dropped significantly from 59.3% in 2011 to under half the population (46.2%) in ten years. The big rise was in those who described themselves as ‘no religion’, up from 25.2% in 2011 to 37.2% in 2021. In Wales the figures are starker still with ‘nones’, what sociologists of religion call those who say they have ‘no religion’, overtaking the number of Christians at 46.5% and 43.6% respectively. Drill deeper and in Newport ‘nones’ and Christians are close at 43% and 42.8% respectively – pretty much level pegging.
These represent the big challenge that we know we face. It is a reminder of the cultural backdrop in which we minister, profess our faith and seek to draw people into a closer encounter and relationship with the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The language of faith, which previous generations could rely on, is not there and hasn’t been for quite a while. All the strategies that have been familiar have not worked and are going to work even less successfully as time goes by. Mere leaflets, posters and other things which will have spoken a shared language when Christianity could be assumed to be the cultural tone of our society are going to land like all the other junk mail that comes through the door. In short we have to work harder and smarter, to learn to speak a different language in a changed landscape. And many are not equipped for it; we need to listen to those who are fluent in a new cultural language. Our guides will be the younger members of our community.
Well, that’s one interpretation, and I agree with it to a point. The heart of our faith, though, remains the same. Christ came to change lives, to call us to grow in holiness, to pray, and to put that into practice in how we relate and care. He came to announce that life has a point and that point lies with God’s grace. We were created by the will of a loving creator and that love does not let us go, even at the point of death. It calls us to changed lives, ones that live in trust, justice and peace. It calls us, to use the gospel imagery, to be light and salt (Matthew 5:13-16) – to bring light wherever there is darkness and to bring out the flavour and beauty of where we are. To be yeast (Matthew 13:33) that takes dry flour, fluffs it up and something much more abundant – the bread of life – comes into being. What does it mean to be light in dark places? What does it mean to be salt and bring out the flavour, to help people flourish? What does it mean to be yeast, to make a difference and transform a situation?
The Bishop of St Asaph, Gregory Cameron, responded to the publication of these statistics by reminding us that the challenge remains to “demonstrate to society why we still believe faith is life transforming”. We cannot assume that the people around us know this or think it. In fact there is a strong chance that they don’t. He said,
“We have become a society where we can be more honest about faith, and societal expectations are, if anything secular rather than religious, so to profess a faith is to stand out, rather than to blend in.”
In other words, what we have gathered here to do this morning is weird to most people – who do not have the language, culture or understanding of worship or prayer as we do it, let alone the Christian narrative – the stories of faith. This is alien territory – to them and to us who have long since stopped noticing how different this is. And those of us who conduct life events see this very sharply and have done for a long time. What we are seeing is a continuing trend.
Before we despair, these statistics only give a partial snapshot. There has been a lot of work into those who self-identify as ‘no religion’. It is not a clear or homogenous group. Only 56,000 people in England and Wales described themselves as Humanist (10,000), Atheist (14,000) or Agnostic (32,000) out of 60mn. That offers a much more complicated and hopeful picture than might be assumed at first sight. When I was a student, a long time ago, one of my lecturers talked about the difference between Religion with a big ‘R’ and religion with a small ‘r’ – I can’t remember who he was talking about now. Big ‘R’ is institutional faith, signed up and belonging. Small ‘r’ religion is the more difficult to pin down spirituality, a sense of the numinous and ‘other’, the stirrings of awe and wonder that stands looking at the stars and ponders and dreams. That shows no signs of dying. It is an approach that can start to engage with the deeper meanings of biblical narratives and see connections – the kind of thing we try to do here as we preach each week, connect with Stormzy or whoever. But in doing this, we have to recognise the new language needed and that our culture does not start from a shared place. We have to work harder to begin the conversation.
The other area of hope is that when people see Christianity that seems real – deeply spiritual and pursuing social justice; Christianity with its sleeves rolled up and which is more human not less, more truly human is where good spirituality takes you – then they start taking notice. It catches them by surprise, as it caught those who saw the first Christians at work by surprise – their caring for the weak and vulnerable impressed because it was different. Feeding the spirit and feeding the mouth are intimately joined. When people come into this building and are struck by something they can’t identify, by a peace and spiritual depth, God is at work, as God has been here for 1500 years. When they see the caring, they see God at work through it and take note.
Our readings this morning provide more connection with this new world order than might seem obvious. Isaiah (11:1-10) gives a vision of a new world order, where peace and justice are the rule of the day and they flow from the Root of Jesse, from the promised one to come, whom we announce to have come in the child in the crib, the Christ who comes among us. It speaks of lives changed by the power of God.
In the Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) we were given John the Baptist coming to prepare the way for the Lord. He is the warm-up act and we need John the Baptists today who will go as those who announce, who stir the hearts so that the awe and wonder, the religion with a small ‘r’, have somewhere to latch on to so that they can find out more. We are in times where the people have lost touch with the faith of their forebears and the connection needs to be made again. It has gone cold and needs to warm up. We have to give an account of the light and hope within us and join up the dots where we can.
The second reading (Romans 15:4-13) ended with one of Paul’s incredibly powerful and pregnant phrases – a good note with which to end:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Filled with the Spirit’s power, with joy and peace, with hope, we have light to bring to spiritual darkness, our own and others. And I see it. I see it in some of the newly ordained, those training and those exploring vocations. I see it in those who gather for quiet prayer and in the eyes of those who come forward to receive communion.
This church is not dead and it’s not dying. But it is changing and it has to continue to change to be able to speak to a generation that doesn’t know the story, doesn’t share the cultural expectations and background, and has grown cold towards what we do and stand for. The task remains the same, to be people of hope, of joy and peace. And the God of peace will be with you and in you.
Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 4th December 2022