Religion news 7 December 2022

"Vitruvian Man": Leonardo da Vinci. Image credit: public domain

Is this the beginning of an atheist age in the UK?  

The 2021 census for England and Wales which showed non religion rising to 37 per cent of the population, while Christian affiliation went under half for the first time, was said to be a moment which crystallised a shift that has been seen for decades, if not centuries. The trend and the meaning of non religion was discussed at a Religion Media Centre briefing. Dr Lois Lee, University of Kent, said non-religion is a key identity that is distinctive to the UK, a category that is negative but with a whole set of worldviews and beliefs underneath, that aren’t well described in census data. Research showing belief in God was in the minority in Britain suggested that this was, perhaps, the beginning of an atheist age. The census moment, she said, had provoked an awareness that the language of religion may not be fit for purpose, and there was growing use of the term “world views”, describing engagement with existential and ethical questions, Other speakers addressed spirituality among the non religious, ethnicity and religion and the process of secularisation. View the briefing again on or YouTube channel here

National Secular Society launches campaign to separate church from state 

The National Secular Society says it is ridiculous that the Church of England continues as an established church in a society where less than half the population is Christian. It says ”the privileged position the church holds within the UK state undermines equality, democracy and fairness for all”, citing 26 bishops in the Lords, the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England, prayers in parliament and influence in schools. It says: “We’re now a largely irreligious and religiously diverse country. The case for separation of church and state has never been stronger”. It is urging people to write to their MP, tweet support and join their organisation.  

Church of England attendance fails to recover from covid 

Statistics from the Church of England show that average weekly attendance was 605,000 in 2021, lower than the pre-covid 2019 figure of 854,000 people. The pandemic had forced the attendance figure down to 345,000 in 2020, so the 2021 figure showed there was some recovery, but not enough to return to old levels. The CofE stats show that religion has moved online, with downloads of the Church of England’s Daily Prayer audio at 3.2 million in 2022 and all social media content including prayers, Bible verses, reflection, good news stories and encouragement, seen more than 65 million times this year. The CofE is optimistic, explaining that 2021 included partial lockdowns and it expects further bouncing back to pre-covid levels this year.

BBC accused of intellectual arrogance over faith 

Ernie Rea, the BBC’s former head of religious broadcasting from 1989-2001, has criticised the BBC on its coverage of religion and accused it of “intellectual arrogance” over faith. Interviewed by Roger Bolton for his new podcast “Beeb Watch”, Ernie Rea said with 82 per cent of the world belonging to a faith tradition, it was “absolutely plain the BBC should be covering it, should be exploring it, should be criticising it…It should be part of the asking questions to power, but it’s not doing it.”  Speaking about his time as head of religion, he said BBC radio network controllers always gave him a fair hearing, but BBC TV controllers were “of a secular hue”. He said: “I can remember in the early 1990s, proposing a series on Islam in Britain and the controller looked at me and he said, ‘I can’t imagine that anybody would be interested in that’. You look back on that and there’s such an intellectual arrogance about that, that it’s almost breath-taking. I think that distinction probably still applies.”   In response, a BBC spokesperson said Ernie Rea was talking of his experiences 20 years ago and since then, the BBC had reaffirmed its commitment to religion and ethics broadcasting across television and radio. It delivered “a range of high quality religion and ethics content, including documentaries, news coverage and content marking key faith festivals, far exceeding what we are required to do”.   

Church of England vicar guilty of antisemitism 

The Rev Dr Stephen Sizer has been found guilty of  conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders, in that he provoked and offended the Jewish community and engaged in antisemitic activity. The complaint was brought by the President of  The Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, and was heard by a church tribunal meeting in May. There were eleven allegations of misconduct including attendance at conferences and using social media for posts about Israel and Jeremy Corbyn. Dr Sizer was the vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, but was suspended in 2018 pending the outcome of the hearing. He denied that he provoked and offended the Jewish community by his actions and/or that he engaged in antisemitic activity. After the judgment, the Jewish Chronicle reports that he issued a statement through his barrister: “I accept those conclusions and the criticisms of my conduct and apologise unreservedly for the hurt and offence caused”. The consequences will be announced later. 

Indonesia new laws on religious affiliation and sex 

The Associated Press reports that Indonesia’s Parliament has voted to  ban sex outside marriage, punishable by a year in prison, applicable to foreign visitors and citizens. Cohabitation warrants a six month sentence. The measures are part of an overhaul of the country’s criminal code which also expands an existing blasphemy law and keeps a five-year prison term for deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. AP says the code still needs approval from the president, and the government says it will not be fully implemented for several years. Indonesia is a secular country with the largest Muslim population in the world at 231 million – 87 per cent of the total. 

Christmas customs 

The Evening Standard lists various Christmas traditions from cards to Christmas trees, tracing the origin of customs. Martin Luther is said to be the first person to have lit candles on Christmas trees, mince pies have their origin in Middle East spices and the earliest Christmas cards illustrated the 19th century divide between rich and poor.  

Church court case over pink and lilac chairs 

The Times reports that St Mary-the-Virgin in Primrose Hill, north London, have been told to remove 20 pink and lilac upholstered chairs as they were too colourful and could “cause puzzlement” when placed alongside white and blue versions. Their presence was challenged in a church consistory court which delivered a 3,400 word ruling that they should all be one “muted” shade as the multi colours could give rise to the thought that the church had been unable to find enough upholstered chairs of the same colour. 


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