By Ruth Peacock
Census, conflict, confusion, Covid, crisis, change and closure. These are the predicted themes of stories about religion that will hit the headlines in 2022.
The gloomy outlook was outlined at the first Religion Media Centre online briefing of the year, discussing the kind of headlines the media might encounter from religion in the next 12 months.
In the UK, the panellists expected that the results of the 2021 Census, which are due to be published in the spring, would show “significant changes”.
In 2011, the census showed 59 per cent said they were Christian, 25 per cent no religion and 5 per cent Muslim. Dr Azim Ahmed, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, said he expected that there would be a larger population of Muslims and changing geographical spread.
It is widely expected that the number identifying as Christian may dip below 50 per cent and the number ticking the non-religion box will rise. But Bishop Mike Royal, soon to be general secretary of Churches Together in England, said the headline of a church slowly ebbing away may mask the true picture.
In many communities, he said, religion was more important than ever. Sixty per cent of people in church in London, on any given Sunday, were black. There was a “huge explosion” of black-majority black-led churches and the Nigerian-led Redeemed Christian Church of God was the fastest growing denomination in the UK.
But there was no dispute that the total number of people attending worship in organised religion was in decline and Canon Professor Alison Milbank feared that small congregations and lack of money resulting in church closures would threaten the parish system. The challenge, she believed, was how to move resources so that churches were maintained for the people who needed them.
In Norfolk, she said, 1.9 per cent of people went to church but 85 per cent entered a church at least once during a year, showing there was a need for places of sanctuary, quiet reflection and meditation.
There were numerous examples from all panellists of the work of faith groups on the front line, supporting vulnerable people during the pandemic. Covid had changed the pattern of life for all religious communities, galvanised into joint social action to address desperate need.
Patricia Stoat, secretary of the Nottingham Interfaith Council, said faith groups had become the centre of community-based activism, during the pandemic, feeding people, providing clothing, visiting the lonely and isolated. The commitment to social action would continue, but volunteers were exhausted and this in turn would affect activity in maintaining worshipping communities .
Mike Royal said he saw this pattern of volunteer burnout throughout the country and predicted the effect of Covid on mental health and the cost of living would be the issues driving need in communities in 2022.
It’s the same in America. The panel was joined by Bob Smietana, a correspondent with the Religion News Service, who spoke of parallel issues. Covid had caused financial pressure for churches with already declining congregations. Attendance had halved in 20 years and local churches were disappearing as people flocked to mega churches.
But a local presence really mattered: these were the places where food, clothing and comfort were delivered. Yet volunteers were exhausted and it was difficult to recruit them back again.
Meanwhile, the two largest Protestant denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, were looking the other way and feuding on social issues while congregations declined.
In 2022, he said, the Southern Baptists would continue their sharp disagreement over how sex abuse cases had been dealt with by leaders, with the structure of the church — local autonomy over central control — in the balance. And the United Methodists meet in August when traditionalists and the more liberal wing will finally get round to a divorce in their dispute over same-sex marriage. Both flashpoints will be big headlines in the United States.
Conflict will also be played out in the public gaze at the Lambeth Conference in the summer, when bishops of the Anglican communion from 165 countries will meet in Canterbury and online.
The Rev Dr Will Adam, deputy general secretary of the Anglican Communion, revealed that the conference may be hybrid and held in three phases. The first is a set of virtual discussions already under way, the second is the physical meeting in August, but there may be a third, he suggested, after the conference, to continue discussing “anything that comes out of the Lambeth Conference”.
While he stressed that they would talk about issues of global concern such as climate change, poverty, conflict and the pandemic, the journalists at the briefing highlighted the continuing deep division over sexuality, something that has caused friction and splits in the Anglican communion in past decades.
They raised one incident which served to highlight the continuing theological divide in the global church. Last year, Anglican bishops in Ghana supported legislation to criminalise LGBTQ+ people. The Archbishop of Canterbury at first expressed grave concern then backtracked saying he should have talked to the bishops first. Dr Adam said there needed to be an honest conversation at the conference.
Bishop Royal, whose wife is Ghanaian, said it was nuanced. The Ghanaian proposals were populist and not necessarily supported by the clergy. There needed to be a level of trust in Ghanaian Anglican leaders and the wider church to work through the issue.
Rabbi Alex Goldberg, dean of the College of Chaplains and co-ordinating chaplain at Surrey University, has seen large numbers of students from Nigeria and India arrive on campus and this has required new responses from his chaplaincy team, even though online worship had made communities accessible all over the world. A black Pentecostal church was the fastest-growing worshipping institution on campus.
He was concerned about the rise of antisemitism, something he predicted would continue in 2022. He said David Baddiel’s book, Jews Don’t Count, had a massive impact on the psyche of his community with many students aware and more alert to the need to respond to what they see as everyday antisemitism, as well as attacks on individual Jews or institutions. Dealing with antisemitism had brought people together as a community.
He also offered the thought that the Muslim community had become more secularised. Dr Ahmed said this was an open question, though it was clear that younger Muslims were already “digitally comfortable” before the pandemic. But for members of local mosques, attendance had remained largely unchanged, perhaps because they were run by local congregants who kept them going financially.
The panel discussed whether the rise in non-religion, expected in the census results, could be interpreted as a binary choice.
Rabbi Goldberg said he was working with research from the Chaplaincy Innovation Hub at Brandeis University in America, which had explored humanism among students. It suggested that two-thirds of students on campus were humanist and two-thirds of that number also had some form of spirituality and were searching for meaning, so chaplaincies were working out how to engage in this quest.
Dr Ahmed believed that secularism was not the way that the UK or any other western country related to religion any more. It had been replaced by good religion (good works) and bad religion (agitational, radical, subversive), which he argued was important in a healthy society where authority is held to account.
But the question for 2022, post-census, was: without religious affiliation how do people find a sense of belonging?
Bob Smietana said the American attempt to build intentionally secular organisations that provided social cohesion had been very hard. It was like trying to organise disbelief. Whereas religion gathered people, giving them a message about changing the world, connecting them, it was not clear that non-religion could achieve this.
Dr Ahmed said the belief in the nation state, which had provided a sense of cohesion, was under strain with devolution in the UK, conflict in the United States and tensions in Europe.
He believed that belonging comes from community groups working with others, religious traditions alongside civil society groups. And because religious communities have the capacity to bind communities and give coherency to political agency, they will be important over the next few decades.