THE RELIGION OF NO RELIGION
A PERSONAL REFLECTION
THE VERY REV’D JOHN MOSES, KCVO
JOHN MACQUARRIE PROFESSOR OF ANGLICAN THEOLOGY
Opinion polls among the population at large have long since drawn attention to the decline in church attendance and in the use of the occasional offices in churches throughout the United Kingdom. It was possible, however, for an earlier generation to take some comfort from the fact that large numbers of people fitted into a category that could justly be described as ‘believing without belonging.’ Professor Linda Woodhead’s lecture, the Sixth Annual Vincent Strudwick Lecture, required a large audience in Oxford to face the facts that are now becoming self-evident as increasingly large numbers of people refuse to acknowledge the claims of belief.
The title of Professor Woodhead’s lecture – The Religion of No Religion: Are the ‘Nones’ Religious, Spiritual or Neither? – hinted at the questions that must be addressed by those who care about the claims of personal faith, the role of the churches, and the religious dimension in public life. It is a commonplace to speak of a loss of confidence in the churches and of a growing dissent from the claims of organised religion – things that are being reflected also in the United States and, indeed, in other faith communities – but surveys conducted in the UK between 1983 and 2017 suggest that those who make no claim to religion or spirituality have increased in percentage terms throughout that period from 31% to 53%. It is a sobering statistic and one that is borne out by the findings of local research projects.
The loss of deference across the board, the breakdown of trust in public institutions, the degree to which attitudes and commitments have changed where the churches are concerned can perhaps be seen most clearly in the ways that people now approach the funeral service. It is no longer a question of turning to the Prayer Book and allowing the priest to read the service. What is often wanted – leaving the Humanist Service on one side – will often be a mixture of words and music that are both religious and non-religious, together with a high degree of personal participation by members of the family and friends.
The outpouring of public grief that attended the death and the funeral service of Princess Diana in the UK in 1997 hinted, however, at something else: the need for ritual – personal and public – which might unite a community, a nation, in their grief. It certainly served to bring home the question about the things that society at large is in danger of losing if God and the churches no longer speak to people and hold for them the articles of faith, the traditions of worship, and the age-old connections across the many constituencies of community life.
But is it possible to identify the basic ingredients which are so often to be found in what might called the religion or the spirituality of the ‘Nones’? Certainly some would place an emphasis upon elements that are experiential (life is for living), liberal (a loving kindness to all), romantic (and especially in relation to the natural world), and pragmatic (if it works all well and good). It is a list that demands critical attention, and not least of all by churches that aspire to be communities of faith rather than groups of like-minded people with some shared values.
The lecture – together with the extended question and answer session that followed – held up a mirror to the face of the churches, puncturing the complacency that can so easily overtake all institutions, and yet was marvelously devoid of the pessimism that could so easily have attended any recital of the hard facts and the questions that do not lend themselves to easy answers. There are many people for whom Vincent Strudwick has represented down the years a proper awareness of the importance of the religious dimension in public life. This lecture raised some of the important questions that have to be addressed by those who carry any responsibility for the continuing life of the Christian churches, but are also relevant to clergy and ministers in all religious traditions in these uncertain times.