Battleground Yorkshire: Religion and politics in Britain are undergoing big changes

For the first time in the 2021 census, less than half of England and Wales described themselves as Christian.

“Faith in this country used to be quite broad, but shallow. It is now narrow, but deeper,” says Mr Bickley.

“When you see what churches are up to, there are fewer of them, many of them the pews are empty but they are often more activist. There’s been a real switch in the last couple of decades to much greater levels of volunteerism.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He says that the “thick black line” between those in the church and out has thinned, meaning that people are now quite seriously engaging in work the church is doing but are not among its worshippers.

Paul Bickley, who is the Head of Political Engagement for TheosPaul Bickley, who is the Head of Political Engagement for Theos
Paul Bickley, who is the Head of Political Engagement for Theos

Despite the headline statistics indicating a loss of faith in Britain, there are outliers.

In the Muslim community, there are a lot of Gen Z young people with a very profound and serious faith, says Mr Bickley, adding that some religious groups are seeing something different to the gradual drop-off of church attendance from grandparents through to grandchildren.

This decline in religious faith has also come hand in hand with a decline in “traditional morality” , says Mr Bickley, where views on sex before marriage, abortion, euthanasia have all become more liberal and moved away from the established religious aversion to them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s truly seismic the way some social attitudes have changed over a 40-year period.”

However, Mr Bickley says that despite this a lot of our moral sentiments are still drawn from Christian heritage in the UK, where the liberalising idea of “equality” has its history in many Christian teachings.

Along with greater outreach from the country's churches, so too has there seemingly been an increase in the interventions by religious leaders in politics, most notably with the government’s Rwanda scheme.

“It’s not necessarily new,” says Mr Bickley. “We’re getting up to the 40th anniversary of a CofE report called Faith in the City, which Conservative MPs called "pure Marxist theology"

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It was an attempt by the church to speak to itself about how it was engaging in urban poverty but also commenting on a policy.

“That story of conflict isn’t new but it has certainly gone up a notch.”

Despite this, much of the backlash towards the church does come from Conservative-backing newspapers, whose readership are more likely to be from sections of Christianity.

Mr Bickley said that Anglicans are still heavily Conservative-leaning, but when it comes to practising Anglicans they are more likely to vote Labour or Lib Dem.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“That suggests a difference between cultural faith and practising faith,” he says.

“Conservative politicians are looking at the cultural faith and saying ‘I thought we were basically on the same team, so why is the Archbishop of Canterbury always complaining about our refugee policy?’”

“That’s part of the explanation as to why there’s a sense of disjoint between the political right and what they thought was their natural fellow traveller, the Anglican church.”

This disconnect has meant that we now see senior members of the church being rather outspoken, but arguably not in a way that comes down to political dividing lines of Labour vs Tory.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I think you want religious leaders to bring something different to the conversation,” says Mr Bickley.

He said that this “grounded reflection” is, in a sense, virtue signalling where they can say “this is the way to virtue, if we want a better society, then we should go in this direction.”

“I think this is part of their public vocation”.