TWO weeks ago, I stood with the crowds that had gathered to watch the sun as it set over the sea north of Whitby. It was a spectacular sight. The sky was clear of all but a few clouds, the sea gentle, almost still.
On the beach and clifftop, people watched in silence as the grand light dipped into the water in a bright red glow. I stood above the growing shadows and watched the sun die. It was a deeply moving and spiritual experience.
Possibly just another sunset, but this was the summer solstice eve and in a few short hours the sun would rise again. People would gather at ancient places, a coming together of pagans, Druids, witches and a quickly growing number of the mildly interested.
In a land where formal religion is in trouble it would appear that faith worked out through the church is in decline but a belief in spirituality is growing.
Between 2001 and 2010 the number of Christians fell by 5.3 million – a loss of 10,000 per week. That is a staggering amount of people to move from the faith first brought here by Augustine. At that rate Christianity will be extinct in the UK by 2033.
Hit the hardest was the good old Church of England. Already warned by George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, that it would be dead within a generation, Anglicanism fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1983 to 17 per cent last year. In one year alone, the CoE lost 1.5 million followers.
By contrast, the belief in paganism is on the rise. It is currently believed that there are in excess of a quarter of a million active pagans in the country, a number that is growing year on year.
It is easy to understand why the broad umbrella of paganism is attracting so many followers – the church has lost its mystery and purpose. Instead of proclaiming a supernatural deity that can change lives, it focused on environmental and social campaigns that did not include evangelism.
Churches were often seen as being more concerned with the upkeep of ancient buildings than the spiritual welfare of their communities. I know from my experience as a priest that many hours would be spent discussing the fabric of buildings and hardly any on mission.
The minority of churches that are growing are usually those with a dynamic programme of outreach and growth and yet even these appear to have reached a zenith of expansion.
Even though the established Christian religion in this country appears to be in turmoil, spirituality seems to be as strong as ever. Many people admit to believing in a supernatural deity. Mindfulness and meditation are commonly available on the high street and in the workplace. Clairvoyants fill theatres usually only packed by fans of pop stars. Throughout the summer, music festivals will offer spiritual fields and gatherings. Sadly, a Christian presence at these events is often lacking.
It seems to be in-built within the human condition that we need to seek a super-natural dimension in our lives. When established religion fails to provide this, then people will seek an alternative source.
I do not think this is a bad thing. The church has a lot to learn from those it once persecuted and burnt at the stake. I, too, have had a vast change in attitude to a religion I once viewed with suspicion.
If Christianity followed the example of paganism, then the churches could be handed over for community use and upkeep. The clergy would be voluntary and more locally relevant than the Dibley-esque characters we have now. Worship too would be more vibrant with a faith that offered deep spirituality, mystery and fulfilment, bringing the church into line with the pagan Jesus who walked on water, calmed the waves and was in tune with the elements of the created world.
What makes us human is our attachment and dependence on all that which is around us.
Humankind has done a great job in destroying the beauty of nature and creation.
It could be the case that our true salvation as a race could be found in the adoration of the natural world that brings together the elements of air, earth, fire and water.
I felt closer to the creator of the universe on the cliffs of Whitby watching the sun set than I have at any church service. Early Christianity was only successful because it took over the pre-Christian holy days of Imbolc, Lammas, Samhain and the winter solstice. Perhaps now is the time for it to delve into its pagan past to assure it of a Christian future.
GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster and can be followed @GPTaylorauthor.