One of the important events earlier this year, which passed by almost unnoticed in the midst of the intense focus on the pandemic, was the national census, which took place in March. A newspaper report of the time suggested that “the post-Christian era will be cemented by data emerging from [the] census”, and that over half of the adult population will self-identify as having no religion, with that proportion becoming much larger amongst younger people. This could confirm the results of the British social attitudes survey in 2018, in which 52% said they had no religion. This is roughly double the number from the last census.
There is little doubt that very large and increasing numbers of our contemporaries see religious faith as either irrelevant or, indeed, damaging to life. The Church of England has responded in many different ways to this context with imaginative mission initiatives designed to engage with those who have become disconnected. Much of this is a necessary response, but in many ways is not proving sufficient to re-engage the large numbers who have little link. The pandemic has accelerated and intensified some existing trends and raised serious questions about the future shape of our world and the Church. There are major concerns about the future at every level including our parishes and Dioceses.
Despite this, I believe we are at a time of real opportunity and hope given the profound shake-up that the pandemic is producing in every aspect of our lives. One crucial part of the Church’s mission is the apologetic task which the theologian Alister McGrath has described as creating “an intellectual and imaginative climate conducive to the birth and nurture of faith”. The philosopher Charles Taylor has written an important book entitled, A Secular Age in which he analyses what he calls the “conditions of belief” and why it is that, compared with 500 years ago, it has become so much more difficult for people to believe in and follow the Christian faith. We are now living in a culture where it is one option amongst many, and a deeply contested one. He suggests both that those who do believe in God have many questions about their faith, and that those who have rejected God are also haunted by the possibility of theism. So faith and questioning go together.
God’s Church is called “to proclaim the Gospel afresh in each generation” and, arguably, the pandemic has produced a generational shift in the space of a year or two. The good news of God’s all-embracing love in Christ, and the expression of the church’s mission in the five Anglican “marks of mission”, can speak powerfully to the wider “build back better” agenda, with its emphasis on economic, racial and environmental justice and human flourishing. At every level of Church life we need a powerful apologetic, in both word and action, if we are truly to engage with our generation. There are, of course, many fine examples of this already, but I think we are at a time when the apologetic task is more central than ever.
Many of us are very tired after all the effort to cope with the constant changes, challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic, but I hope and pray that the summer months might give us all an opportunity to rest a bit, to wait on God, and reflect on how the Holy Spirit is leading God’s mission into the future, and how we might all play our part in that in both word and deed.