A spectacular decline

‘A spectacular decline’ is the phrase used to describe the persistent decline in Christian belief and practice among European nations.  It refers to the fact that Europe, which has been the custodian of Christianity for almost 2000 years, is fast becoming post-Christian, or even anti-Christian.  Many European nations, especially the Scandinavian ones, have virtually abandoned their Christian identity.  In 1975, prosperous and liberal Sweden decided unanimously to abandon their traditional staid Lutheran model and become multicultural.  Forty years on, they now have a massive problem with Muslim ghettos where integration is rejected, and so are all secular values.  In Malmo there are no-go areas where even the police and fire-fighters hesitate to enter.

In 2003 the European Constitution was published. It was largely the work French politician, Valerie Giscard D'Estaing.  In this huge document the Christian basis of European society is not even mentioned.  The Vatican and the Polish government loudly complained but nothing was achieved.  The prevailing ethos of Europe was now stated to be secularism.

In the UK the situation is similar.  For the first time in our history those who have religious faith (the nones) outnumber those who profess some Christian belief.  Even more surprising is the fact that over half those who say they are Christian never go to church.  The absence of faith is especially marked among the young.

An academic did some research in this area.  He asked a group of students to narrate three stories containing an ethical dilemma.  Many students found it very difficult to imagine such cases, saying that ethics was simply a matter of personal taste.  The Christian moral code is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The mainline churches in the UK are in a parlous condition. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, recently said that the Anglican Church was one generation away from extinction. You might consider this opinion rather alarmist, but the statistics bear it out. In 1983 40% in the UK claimed to be Anglicans; in 2004 the percentage was 28%, and by 2013 it had dropped to just 17%.  If this trend continues, the decline will hit the buffers in about 15 years.  

This potential state of affairs will raise serious constitutional issues.  If Queen Elizabeth lives to be a hundred, as her mother did, by that time there will far more worshiping Muslims than Anglicans in the UK.  In this case, a multi-faith Coronation service will probably be in order.  In the traditional Coronation service the Queen or King is presented with a Bible, which is described as the 'lively oracles of God' and the most precious thing this world affords.  The Sovereign makes a promise is made to uphold the 'laws of God and the Gospel.'  With such a minority of Anglicans, these sentiments will be a real sticking point, so a constitutional crisis is bound to occur.

It’s not only Anglicanism which is declining; Methodism is also in serious decline.  In the Methodist Church, each year there are far more funerals than baptisms, and altogether they have lost 100,000 members in ten years.  In the 90s the church lost a 1000 children every week.  In my locality nearly every town or village has a Methodist Church, but many stand empty and others have been converted into homes.  Sadly, when liberalism became popular in the Church at large in the last years of the 19th century, it was Methodism that embraced it the most readily.

It’s not just in Europe that we can note the decline: you’ll see it virtually everywhere where there is a substantial Caucasian population.  For example, I was surprised to read that Christian commitment in New Zealand is lower than 5%.

Some might argue that the USA is a significant exception to the trend.  Surely America is still a stable bastion of the Faith.  I doubt it!  In reality, atheism and agnosticism are growing rapidly, especially among those under 30, and the post-Christian trend is gathering pace. The atheist evangelist, Richard Dawkins, is very popular on American campuses.  In the Western world there is now a spiritual vacuum, and as the philosopher said: ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’.  Something must fill the gap.

Whilst many consider the biggest challenge for the Church at large to be Islam, my comments above indicate that in fact the greatest challenge is secular humanism. This world view took root in the 18th century in the period we call the Enlightenment.  It was during this period that Deism became very popular, which stated that God created the world, fixed its laws, and then withdrew from the scene.  Reason and moderation were the things most desired in the Church.  The supernatural was looked upon with great suspicion, because it was 'enthusiasm' , a word which at that time was synonymous with religious fanaticism.

One famous incident from the Enlightenment period is very pertinent. John Wesley was preaching apostolic Christianity with considerable power and success.  Bishop Butler, a very famous and learned Anglican, said of John:

pretending to special revelations of the Holy Ghost Mr Wesley is a very horrid thing. It’s a very horrid thing indeed

A famous poet at the time, Alexander Pope, seems to sum up the Enlightenment in a famous couplet:

Presume not God to scan

The proper study of mankind is man

Two hundred years on, secularism is a very powerful force in our culture today.  Christian ideas and attitudes are strenuously marginalized, and have no place in the public arena.  It's not all doom and gloom, for in the West many strongly evangelical churches are thriving, as are black Pentecostal churches. Nevertheless, the decline, especially among those churches embracing a liberal agenda, is a significant trend.

Outside Europe the situation is very different.  In West Africa, South America, and especially in China the church is positively thriving.  The evangelisation of China is a truly  amazing story.  When a young man named Hudson Taylor walked along Brighton Beach in 1865, he felt the Lord urging him to send workers into inland China.  His initial response was to shudder at the implications of such a move.  How would the workers survive?  What if they became ill?  Having come to terms with the call, later he obeyed God and started the China Inland Mission. Today this massive region contains many millions of converts and the Church in China is growing by hundreds every day.

Recently I saw a headline that challenged me.  On careful reflection it seemed to contain some explanation of the decline of Christianity in Britain and the West.  The headline ran as follows:

The nominals have become the nones

Today there are millions of nominal Christians in the West, who are living more authentically, because they have discarded all pretence of religious fervour.  This situation of greater honesty could provide the kind of environment into which a supernatural move of God may happen again,and thus it may be a precursor of true renewal.


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