The Church of England Under Threat of Being Dismantled

December 06, 2022
King Charles III and Justin Welby, Anglican Primate

Census results have revealed that England is no longer a predominantly Christian country and have sparked calls for an end to the role of the Church in Parliament and schools, while Leicester and Birmingham have become Britain's first cities to introduce “minority majorities.”

The expression “Church of England” designates the Anglican Church in England, so called because of its privileged situation, in particular because the King - or Queen - is the supreme governor of this Church. The coronation oath also contains this affirmation: “I will support with all my power the Reformed Protestant religion established by law in the United Kingdom.”

As a result, Anglican bishops and archbishops hold 26 seats in the House of Lords, and state schools may be required to hold Anglican worship. 

A Publication of the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

The Office of National Statistics has just released an ethical and religious census. It is the second aspect that is being considered here. However, for the first time in a census, less than half of the population of England and Wales, or 27.5 million people, described themselves as “Christian,” 5.5 million less than in 2011.

In addition, the census reveals that the Muslim population has increased from 2.7 million people in 2011 to 3.9 million in 2021. While 46.2% of people say they are Christian, 37.2% or 22 million people say they have no religion. If current trends continue, there will be more people with no religion than Christians within ten years.

ONS Deputy Census Director Jon Wroth-Smith said the figures described “the increasingly multicultural society we live in,” but added that, despite increasing ethnic diversity, “nine people in ten in England and Wales, and nearly eight in ten people in London, still identify with a British national identity.”

Calls for Dismantling the Church of England

The census result has sparked calls for the urgent reform of laws regarding the privileged place of the Church of England. The role of the Church in Parliament and in schools is in question as the census reveals a drop of 5.5 million believers in England and Wales.

This fall in the numbers of Christendom is revealed, somewhat ironically, shortly after King Charles assumed the titles of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said the church knows it must struggle to stem the decline, saying it “challenges us, not only to believe that God will build his kingdom on earth, but also to play our part in making Christ known.”

Lynne Cullens, Bishop of Barking, insisted the Church should not feel “defeated.” “We have to go down before we go up. We will evolve into a Church more in tune with the worship needs of communities as they are today.”

But other voices are rising: Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King's College London, said the results make the case for keeping Church of England leaders in the House of Lords “more difficult to justify” and “raises the question of the deconstitutionalisation of the Church of England.”

National Secular Society chief executive Stephen Evans said the current status quo was “absurd and unsustainable,” while Professor Linda Woodhead, head of theology and religious studies department at King's College London, said: “The fact that Christianity is no longer the majority religion means that politics is out of step with society.”

Dr. Scot Peterson, a scholar of religion and state at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, said, “Since the turn of the 20th century it has been difficult to defend the existence of an established church, but it now becomes a figment of the imagination. The king being the head of the Church of England made sense in 1650, but not in 2022.”

Reaction of Catholic Bishops

The publication of the survey was also taken up by the Catholic bishops. Philip Egan, Bishop of Portsmouth, said “these data are not surprising given the strong secularizing forces at work in Britain.”

“As Catholics, we always have a mission ad intra and ad extra: that is, to evangelize ourselves and deepen our relationship with God, as well as to reach out to those around us to offer them the Gospel,” he said in a November 29 message to Catholic News Service.

37% of society declares itself “without religion,” he continued. “It should inspire us to reach out to them, to serve and accompany them, to help them pray and to help them find Jesus Christ. A figure like this is not just a challenge: it is a great opportunity.”

Mark Daies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, said: “A census which shows that just over 46% of the population declare themselves Christian, while over 37% say they have no religion, is a challenge not only for Christians in the task of the new evangelization, but a profound challenge for British society, founded and built on Christian values.”

“We are witnessing a drift from our Christian roots, more, it seems, by default than by conviction. People cannot live long in a vacuum, and unless Christianity is rediscovered as our guiding light, society will be increasingly vulnerable to passing and often dangerous ideologies.”