John Winterson Richards asks whether David Cameron’s comments on Christianity also apply to Wales.
For much, possibly most, of its two thousand year history, Christianity has appeared on the verge of imminent extinction.
Predictions of its demise began almost immediately, when its Founder was executed, His supporters ran away, and His hand-picked second-in-command went around telling strangers that he had never met the man. That was just the beginning of two millennia of persistent near-death experience for the Church.
There followed waves of persecution, the early career of Saul of Tarsus, Nero, Domitian, Decius, Diocletian, then the Arian Heresy, Julian the Apostate, the Barbarian Invasions, the Fall of the Roman Empire, a thousand years of Islamic expansion, the Norsemen, the Dark Ages, the Great Schism, the Mongols, the Fall of Constantinople, Deism, the Encyclopaedists, the French Revolution, Higher Criticism, Marxism, National Socialism – the list could go on. Each prompted many Christians to fear the end was nigh and many non-Christians to hope they were right. Yet here we are, two thousand years later. Christianity has always stood at the graves of its opponents – or converted them.
The latest to predict the end of Christianity are a small but vociferous and well-connected lobby of militant atheists, calling themselves secularists. Their strategy has been to keep saying Britain is a secular country loud enough and long enough until everyone believes it must be true. Since they are disproportionately strong in the media and the education system, they have had disproportionate influence.
So they were obviously upset when David Cameron stated that Britain is still a Christian country. The point here is that Mr Cameron is, by his own admission, not a particularly religious man. His statement seems therefore to be based on the shrewd calculation that there are more votes in saying Britain is Christian than in saying Britain is secular. That such a coldly objective assessment can come to such a conclusion is itself strong evidence that Britain is more Christian than secular.
In any case, Mr Cameron is factually correct. The United Kingdom, with its Established Churches, is constitutionally and legally a Christian country. It is also culturally a Christian country. It is impossible to understand British history and literature without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, and Christianity has also had a profound and continuing influence on the evolution of art, music, politics, economics, law, ethics, and social conventions and organisation in Britain.
Then there is the obvious fact that a majority choose to describe themselves as Christian. If many of these are lacking in knowledge of, and commitment to, the specific doctrines of the Christian faith, that was true even in supposedly more ‘religious’ times. The fact remains that most Britons believe in some form of Higher Power, and a majority of these choose to align that belief with the traditional faith of their forefathers. What they are saying is that they are not secularists.
Nor should too much be read into the statistic that relatively few are now Church-goers. Since the publication of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in 1995, it has been well-documented that organised social activity in general has been in decline throughout the Western world. Most clubs, charities, political parties, and fraternal societies suffer from the same membership and attendance problems as most religious denominations.
Any feeling that the concept of a ‘Christian country’ is incompatible with toleration of other faiths can be dispelled by actually talking with practising members of those other faiths. Devout Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, and their mainstream leaders in this country, often express surprise that Christians are not more assertive about their beliefs – and many say they wish Christian leaders stood up for shared religious values more.
Secularists who are grudgingly forced to admit that the faith of the majority is closer to Christianity than to atheism then suggest that these ‘private opinions’ nevertheless have no place in the ‘public forum.’ This is nonsense. An individual’s core beliefs, or lack thereof, must inevitably influence his actions, in private, in business – and in the voting booth. Hardly anyone advocates setting up a theocracy in this country today, but an increasing number feel that, far from forcing politicians to leave their consciences at the door, we need leaders with stronger principles to fill the moral void near the top.
So Christianity certainly has a place in public life in Britain as a whole – but what of Wales?
The big difference here is that the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1914 means that Wales as Wales has no Established Church. By a curious irony, the Church in Wales now enjoys a larger attendance than any of the Nonconformist denominations whose popularity in the 19th Century was the key factor in Disestablishment.
Still Wales is as culturally Christian as Britain as a whole – perhaps more so in some ways.
Although media reports of the 2011 Census in Wales focussed on the decline of the number of self-described Christians, and the increase in the number of unbelievers, the most important statistic remains that a majority of Welsh people consider themselves Christians. Indeed self-described Christians outnumber unbelievers two-to-one. The proportion of people who call themselves Christians is about the same in Wales as it is in Britain as a whole. These basic facts are too often overlooked in discussion of the place of Christianity in public affairs in Wales.
Also overlooked is the role of Christianity in defining who the Welsh are as a nation. It was their common Christian faith that first enabled people from different ethnic backgrounds to unite against the pagan Anglo-Saxons and become the Cymry. Religion was not the cause of their war with the invaders, but it gave our ancestors the strength and cohesion they needed to fight effectively.
At the same time the Celtic Church was the repository of their culture, their knowledge, their literature, and their arts. The Roman Catholic Church in Wales later took on this role. The Kings of England understood its importance, and their military operations were paralleled by diplomatic and intellectual campaigns to take over the Welsh Bishoprics. They knew that to control the Welsh Church was to control the soul of Welsh nationhood. After the Bishoprics fell to English control, Abbeys became the ideological centres of Welsh resistance. As a result they were especially targeted by English expeditionary forces in a deliberate attempt to deprive the Welsh of their cultural heritage.
Much later, it was the Nonconformist Chapels which became, in turn, the storehouses and hothouses of Welsh language, literature, and music. It is no coincidence that, as they declined, so did a clearly defined independent Welsh culture. The history of Welsh culture is to a very great extent the history of Welsh Christianity.
If there was sometimes a touch of the Pharisee about the Chapels, there was also kindness, generosity, and social cohesion to be found there that has not been found anywhere else since. According to the Census, unbelief in Wales is greatest in the Valleys – Blaenau Gwent is the second most atheist place in Britain – where secular socialist attempts to build social cohesion without religion have failed miserably.
It has become fashionable to say that one is ‘spiritual but not into organised religion.’ Faith is indeed ultimately about an individual’s relationship with God, but it also has social consequences. One of those communal side-effects was the forging and preservation of Welsh identity, and the decline of organised religion in Wales has left a vacuum that nothing else has been able to fill.