4th Sunday of Advent

The 2011 census relating to England and Wales has garnered quite a bit of media comment. The big picture brush strokes get the press coverage. In 2001 71.7% of the population said they were Christian and now in 2011 it’s 59.3%. The percentage of people claiming ‘No religion’ has risen from 14.8% in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011. So the media has pretty much the usual lines from the usual cast of characters. The Church leaders talk about ‘challenging times’ and ‘changes in church adherence from a religion of culture to a religion of decision and commitment’ (so say the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales). The secularists and humanists are pleased the data and call for a number of things (not so much the end of religion as such) but more a call to bring to an end to religion’s ‘privileged position’ in society.

The finer brush strokes on this big landscape shows things far more nuanced – even to the point of alleg-edly claiming that Norwich is the most ‘godless’ place in England and Wales because it had the highest pro-portion of people reporting ‘no religion’. Conversely Knowsley in Lancashire is the most Christian town. Ah the things you can do with numbers! Non Christian religions were all showing increases of varying de-grees and I particularly took notice that Jedi Knights dropped in number from 390,000 (2001) to 176,632 (2011).

Counting involves knowing what you’re counting. Answers are determined by questions. I’m not sure how much we can really match the two things. What is ‘religion’? What is ‘spirituality’? What do we mean by the religious ‘labels’ and descriptions used? (I find it interesting that research claims that 23% of atheists believe in the human soul, 15% in life after death, and 14% in reincar-nation!)
Census data has good purposes of course in terms of planning and resource management. Gov-ernments are interested in them. So are historians. The problem with them is that they can sug-gest ‘reality’ – make things official and real. The non Christian religions are pleased to be counted because it means they are recognised here – and I would love to see Lutherans listed in the census for the same reason (rather than hiding us in ‘Other’ – where I presume we are!). But a picture from a census is never the ‘full story’.

It is interesting that when King David undertook a census, God was singularly unimpressed (see 1 Chronicles 21). It would seem that David was going to put his trust in numbers. Today we may talk of numbers in the Church but we must be very careful not to make them define us … or our reality. Our lives are anchored in things unseen – our faith looks to apparent weakness – a single man, words, water, bread and wine. The story of Jesus is the account of God’s love for all people – the love of one person for the many. That is true whether we’re in a group of two or three or thousands, whether the society around is ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’. God builds his kingdom one per-son at a time.

And invariably another census gets mentioned … see Luke 2:1-3 … and more … and that’s a whole other story! Have a blessed Christmas!  –GS