Jesus suffered setbacks and so will Christians, says Archbishop of York

The Archbishop of York (centre) admits that he did not find the ONS results on Christianity 'surprising' - Ian Forsyth/Getty Images Europe
The Archbishop of York (centre) admits that he did not find the ONS results on Christianity 'surprising' - Ian Forsyth/Getty Images Europe

Jesus suffered setbacks over the years and so will Christians, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell has said in the wake of the Census.

The Archbishop made the comments after earlier this week it was revealed that for the first time in Census history, Christians now account for less than half of England and Wales' population.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) results showed that 46.2 per cent of the population (27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian” in 2021, marking a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3 per cent (33.3 million people) in 2011.

The Census data also showed that every major religion increased over the 10-year period, except for Christianity.

Despite the Census results, the Archbishop insisted that he is “full of hope” because Christians “are part of the largest global movement on Earth”. He added that Christianity is not in “terminal decline” because “the story that defines our identity has never been one of overwhelming numerical growth nor fear of extinction”.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, he did admit that he did not find the ONS results “surprising”, because “we have left behind the time when many people almost automatically identified as Christian”.

However, he said that while “some commentators have responded to the census data… by predicting the terminal decline of Christianity in our nation or declaring this as a statistical watershed moment. I am interested in the overall story that this census snapshot informs”.

“Christians should approach this data with humility, attentiveness, and self-reflection.”

He said that Christianity also continues to play a vital role in secular society, especially during the current cost of living through offering food banks and warm spaces to people in need.

“Across our nation Christians are offering practical help and spiritual support to anyone in need,” he said. “This winter, perhaps more than ever before, food and warmth and companionship are being made available by Christians.”

The ONS results also come in the wake of multiple senior clergy and laypeople warning that the “bedrock” of the Church of England was crumbling amid fears over its “collapse” in rural communities. Analysis of Church of England data by this newspaper earlier this year found that 423 churches were closed between 2010 and 2019.

The Archbishop has previously spoken out about this subject insisting that he is committed to revitalising rural parish churches, and he has suffered “sleepless nights” after being accused of jeopardising them.

However, following the Census results, the Archbishop admitted that while the rise of secularism has impacted the number of regular churchgoers, there are contrasting “snapshots” of evidence that reveal the faith is not in “terminal decline”.

He added: “There are fewer people in the pews on a typical Sunday morning than a few decades ago but, at the same time, some of our churches - of all traditions and styles - are growing significantly and we are also seeing people coming to faith in Jesus Christ to whom the idea of joining a weekly service would not necessarily occur.

“These apparently contrasting statistical snapshots inform a more complicated though incomplete story, which is not one of terminal decline for religious faith nor Christianity, but more about how individuals in our ever-changing nation and culture choose to express their identity.

“This is a story on which I and other Christians must reflect carefully and humbly… [Jesus’] story is not a tale of linear success, but about how that light shines through the difficult realities of our lives and finally overcomes all darkness.”

Despite the decrease in the number of Christians in England and Wales, the Census data did show that “Christian” remained the most common response to the question about religion. “No religion” was the second most common response, increasing to 37.2 per cent (22.2 million) from 25.2 per cent (14.1 million) across the 10-year period.

Following the results of the Census, Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, said the “biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last 10 years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious”.

“They mean the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.”