The Bible begins in a garden and ends up in a City; it goes from Eden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Jesus was a country person — his stories of sowers and weeds and fishermen all being rooted in the bucolic greenery of the upper Galilee. But Paul was thoroughly urban — the apostle’s message was spread throughout the cities of the Roman empire and along the migration routes that connected them.
It is interesting, therefore, to see that according to the data published by UnHerd today, the city remains far more religious than the countryside. Respondents were asked whether or not they thought morality is rooted in religion (my answer: it’s not). But I am going to assume that, generally speaking (and unlike me), the more religious you are, the more likely you are to think that morality is rooted in religion. As a result, the survey gives an idea of the distribution of religious belief around the UK.
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It is no surprise to me that faith is more vigorous in the cities, especially in places shaped by migration. This is partly about the impact of Islam in the West Midlands and elsewhere. But also about the extraordinary growth of Christianity worldwide and its return back to the places that first sponsored its evangelisation.
Take the patterns of church growth/decline within the Anglican communion, which has doubled in size in the last 50 years. There are now some 86 million Anglicans worldwide. Western liberals might keep telling themselves the story of secularisation, but in truth this is bubble thinking: religion is growing fast and expected to keep on growing. From China to India, in post-Soviet Russia, throughout the Middle East, religion has been growing fast since the mid 20th century. It was not that long ago that only a couple of hundred thousand people went on the Hajj to Mecca; it is now 2.5 million. And no, this growth is not just in poorer places – South Korea has gone from 1% Christian to 30% in half a century.
As with the first Urban Christians, faith is pulsed around the world via the arteries of migration. And so it is, within the Church of England for instance, that church-going is declining fastest in those Dioceses that are furthest away from the big cities. And even though the overall picture is one of decline, this conceals as much as it reveals. For example, between 1990 and 2010, adult membership in the Diocese of London grew by a whopping 70%.
My own congregation near the Elephant and Castle is a good example of why. Looking back at parish photographs of 50 years ago, a large congregation of exclusively white faces tells the story of the important role that religion played in the lives of working-class Londoners. Today, my congregation is mostly black, many originally from West Africa, and I host packed services of Christians from Zimbabwe to Sierra Leonne.
My boss, Bishop Woywin Karowei Dorgu, was born in Nigeria, where Anglicans grew from 3 million in 1970 to 20 million in 2010. When there is trouble in the congregation, it is in Yoruba that the Churchwarden tips me off: “Wahala” she whispers. I suspect there is no place in this country that is as diverse as a London church. Just down the road from me, the other side of the Elephant and Castle, is a growing Church of England congregation that has Mass in Spanish to cater for the large numbers of people who have come to settle here from South America.
Not that urban Christianity is the best way to understand this survey. For a while, I was Vicar of a parish in North Walsall, number 2 on the list. It was a great big barn of a church and very few people came. It is Islam that best explains many of these figures. In 1961 there were 50,000 Muslims in England and Wales. In 2017, there were 3.4 million. And the Muslim population continues to grow some 10 times faster than the rest of the population, generally in the cities.
One familiar explanation for the religiosity of migrants is that faith is a way of maintaining a connection with the places and culture from which people have travelled. There may be something to this, but the bigger story is surely that the world is a much more religious place than the western secular imagination often recognises. If Brexit happens, and the UK is forced to face more towards a world outside of Europe, it will be engaging with a world that is far more religious than it is used to and perhaps comfortable with.
It is not insignificant that many of the places in this list that are the ‘least religious’ — Cambridge, Edinburgh etc — are also the most Remain-y. For the secular minded, the EU is a safe little space where the fantasy of religious decline can still be maintained. Stuck in a mid-20th-century narrative of secularisation, Remainers are trying to ward off the realisation that they may have to contend again with an idea that they believed to have been dead and buried – that of God.
As David Goodhew, director of The Centre for Church Growth Research, has put it: “The assumption that everywhere will eventually become like the West has a strong whiff of imperialism about it. We should be sceptical of the idea that the future belongs either to the ‘modern’, the secular or the West.”
It is interesting to note where religion is renewing itself in the UK, many of these places are traditionally Labour seats. Now, I would not describe Labour as the least religion-friendly of the main political parties – that prize is clearly won by the Liberal Democrats who have, for example, just deselected a candidate for being a Roman Catholic. But Labour, more Marx than Methodism, is often tone-deaf to a great many religious sensitivities – as Corbyn’s failure to understand anti-Semitism so obviously demonstrates (Finchley and Golders Green is number 23 on this list).
When Labour tries to address the subject, it talks obliquely about ‘communities’ – as with the recent launch of its “Race and Faith Manifesto”. This includes a commitment to set up a new body to teach about the legacy of colonialism. I wonder if this body will explain how colonialism also helped spread Christianity throughout the world, a legacy that is now returning home as those who were originally converted by the British are now arriving here to remind us of the faith we have abandoned.
“We don’t do God” as Alastair Campbell famously put it. Unless they are content with being the party of the few not the many, they had better find a way to do precisely that.
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