De-denomination—a few thoughts following the publication of the new British Attitudes Survey
The “Overview” taken from the chapter on religion in the new British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey
Rise of the ‘nones’
Most of the shift in the religious profile of the nation has been towards non-affiliation, with 52% of the public now saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion. Of these, most were simply not brought up with a religion, with a smaller minority having lost a childhood faith. Those who do not regard themselves as belonging to a religion are increasingly secular, that is, likely to say they are “very” or “extremely” unreligious. The number of people with no religion, who were not brought up in one, has increased from 11% in 1998 to 23% in 2018.
Consolidation of attendance
Two-thirds (66%) of people in Britain never attend religious services, apart from special occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms. The proportion that report they attend religious services less than monthly has decreased. The proportion that report they attend at least weekly, or less often but at least monthly, has remained stable – at around 11% and 7% respectively.
Little time for religion, but prepared to be tolerant
Most people show little enthusiasm for institutionalised religion, although there is evidence that the public are, in general, prepared to be tolerant of the faith of others. Almost two-thirds (63%) believe religions bring more conflict than peace. Under half (46%) have some or more confidence in churches and religious organisations, with 21% expressing “no confidence at all”. Most people have a positive, or at least tolerant view, of members of other religious groups, but have more reservations about extremism.
Jesus said: “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”
From an interview with the poet A. R. Ammons conducted by David Lehman for the Paris Review in 1994
DL: Reading your poems I sometimes feel that they employ scientific means to reach a kind of religious end. I suppose I’ve always taken it for granted that you stopped going to church and that at some point—perhaps in your days as a sonar man (or “ping jockey”) in the navy during World War II—poetry became the means by which you expressed your religious convictions.
ARM: One day when I was nineteen, I was sitting on the bow of the ship anchored in a bay in the South Pacific. As I looked at the land, heard the roosters crowing, saw the thatched huts, etc., I thought down to the water level and then to the immediately changed and strange world below the waterline. But it was the line inscribed across the variable land mass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or could not grow, that hypnotized me. The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination: the water level was not what it was because of a single command by a higher power but because of an average result of a host of actions—runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers. I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be still a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what we don't yet know rather than what we are certain of. I was de-denominated.
The Unifying Principle (1969/1970)
A. R. Ammons
Ramshackle, archipelagoes, loose constellations
are less fierce, subsidiary centers, with the
attenuations of interstices, roughing the salience,
jarring the outbreak of too insistent commonalty:
a board, for example, not surrendering the rectitude
of its corners, the island of the oaks
an admonishment to pines, underfigurings (as of the Bear)
that take identity on: this motion is against
the grinding oneness of seas, hallows distinction
into the specific: but less lovely, too, for how
is the mass to be amassed, by what sanction
neighbor touch neighbor, island bear resemblance,
how are distinction’s hard lines to be dissolved
(and preserved): what may all the people turn to,
the old letters, the shaped, characteristic peak
generations of minds have deflected and kept:
a particular tread that sometimes unweaves, taking
more shape on, into dance: much must be
tolerated as out of timbre, out of step, as being not
in its time or mood (the hiatus of the unconcerned)
and much room provided for the wretched to find caves
to ponder way off inn: what then can lift the people
and only when they choose to rise or what can make
them want to rise, though business prevents: the
unifying principle will be a
phrase shared, an old cedar long known, general
wind-shapes in a usual sand: those objects single,
single enough to be uninterfering , multiple by
the piling on of shared sight, touch, saying:
when it’s found the people live the small wraths of ease.
De-denomination—a few thoughts following the publication of the new British Attitudes Survey
As the recent BSA survey shows the decline in church attendance and belonging in Britain has continued significantly to decline. However, it’s also important to note that along with this “shift away from religious worldviews” there has also come a
strengthening of confidence in science and technology, which not only permeate our day-to-day lives in practical ways, but also provide an alternative way of interpreting and understanding the world (Wilson, 2016). While trust in religious institutions is waning, trust in science and scientists is high. If there is indeed a crisis of trust in Britain today, it is far from being in evidence everywhere (p. 4).
I’ll return to this latter point later on in this address.
It is not surprising that this most recent survey has only added to the concern felt by many formally religious people in Britain and their respective denominations. One very strong temptation is to respond to the situation by engaging in growth initiatives nearly all of which rely upon an ever greater delineation of their own particular denominations, either under the headings of tradition, belief and doctrine or, as modern parlance has it, USPs (unique selling points).
Although, there are always many denominational leaders confidently and optimistically assuring people that these growth initiatives will eventually work, I have noticed of late that even some significant establishment voices are now prepared to admit how serious things are, not only for formal religion in general, but especially for Britain’s Christian denominations. Here, for example, is what Michael Sadgrove (a former Dean of Durham Cathedral) wrote last week:
Tell the truth about decline, bishops especially. This historical force is beyond our control. All the church growth initiatives in the world will not turn the tide. So bear witness faithfully. Grow smaller with grace. Learn “Modest Church”. Keep hope alive (Source here)
Sadgrove is, of course, speaking to a strong sense that the outgoing tide of the “Sea of Faith” spoken of by Matthew Arnold in 1867 in his poem “Dover Beach” is, in Britain at least, unstoppably continuing “[i]ts melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. Although I fully acknowledge I could be wrong, I share this sense (though not the melancholy) and find the nearly two centuries of census and survey figures to be utterly persuasive and that traditional belief and denominational ways of being together are in terminal decline.
Given this, it might be thought that I’d also agree with Sadgrove in adopting his strategy of managed decline but, actually, I don’t.
I don’t because, as I have occasionally reminded you, despite what nearly everyone expected, the process of secularisation has actually made it possible for a revitalisation of a certain kind of religion (or religiosity) — just take a look at the general spirituality and/or self-help shelves in bookshops everywhere or spin over to YouTube and type the word “spirituality” into the search box. What these and other examples illustrate is that as religion has become increasingly decoupled from the state, faith has also been able to decouple itself from formal religious institutions and religion has become a much more fluid and flexible phenomenon capable of finding new ways to thrive in what has been called “the marketplace of modernity”. Noting this Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist, has emphasised two processes allied to secularisation: “individualisation and cosmopolitanisation. In the former, individuals become free to adapt and choose their religious pathways and find a ‘God of one’s own’. In the latter, religion becomes decoupled from territories and nations and enmeshes itself within a pluralistic world.”
Given this it seems to me that the appropriate response to the continued decline of all denominationally defined religion in Britain is going to be intimately related to how successful we are in dissolving the idea that hard and fast denominational distinctions are somehow either ultimate, final and/or necessary.
To help me unfold this thought I want today to introduce you to an insight about “de-denomination” had by the poet A. R. Ammons.
The idea of “de-denomination” has long been close to my own heart because as a life-long, freethinking, religious seeker myself and my, by now nearly twenty-year long experience as the person called by you to be the minister of this particular church, I have yet to meet anyone who, in the first instance, was seeking out this church with the expressed intention of becoming a member of the Unitarian denomination. Instead, again and again, I have found that people come here in the hope that, to borrow James Luther Adams’ pithy phrase, they’ll find a place where they can safely explore in the company of other people questions concerning matters of “ultimacy and intimacy”; they do not come seeking denomination. But this should come as no surprise because, as Beck noted, religion is in this country now thoroughly decoupled from territories and nation states and has become wholly enmeshed within a pluralistic world. Importantly, as the new BSA survey has also revealed, our modern, pluralistic world is one that is now powerfully shaped by a confidence in science and technology which together provide an alternative and, it has to be said, far more plausible and persuasive way of interpreting and understanding the world to those once offered by traditional, denominational religious worldviews. Again, in my experience, although it’s sometimes tempting to say, as does Beck, that people are coming to seek out “a God of their own”, it seems to me to be more accurate to say that people are coming to seek out a more general and wholly naturalistic “unifying principle” which, in turn, they hope can help them to lead better lives than they did previously. It’s my professional and personal experience that when it comes to religion more and more people today have intuited and deeply internalised something analogous to that intuited by Ammons when he was sitting on the bow of his ship whilst moored in a South Pacific bay.
You will recall that as he “looked at the land, heard the roosters crowing, saw the thatched huts, etc.” he “thought down to the water level and then to the immediately changed and strange world below the waterline.” It is important to see that the thing which captures his attention, “hypnotises” him he says, is something that can often easily be missed, namely, the waterline itself: “the line inscribed across the variable land mass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or could not grow”.
Noticing that line — rather than the specific, individual things that make up the landscape above and the seascape below — he tells us that the “whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination”. To remind you, the moment of illumination came when he saw that “the water level was not what it was because of a single command by a higher power but because of an average result of a host of actions—runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers.”
It is at this moment that Ammons:
. . . began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be still a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what we don't yet know rather than what we are certain of.
It is this illumination which “de-denominates” him but which still leaves him open to religion, albeit of a wholly naturalistic kind that is open to radical uncertainty (and which is clearly related to Keat’s idea of negative capability). What he’s talking about is his recognition that the lines which had until that moment seemed to have denominated him and the whole world, were not ultimate, fixed and final things given forever and unchangingly by “a single command by a higher power” but are, instead, caused by “an average result of a host of actions”. It’s a realisation that whatever it is he and we are — or anything else is — is purely the result of complex ongoing, dynamic motion or, as I’ve been putting it recently, the result of the constant material flows, folds and fields out of which all things ceaselessly come, and go.
Now it seems to me that this is a good, general description of an increasing number of modern people’s intuitive understanding of how the world is and their place in it. To a greater or lesser extent, it seems that most of us in Britain at the moment are aware that had circumstances been only slightly different we could all easily have been very different kinds of people to the ones we are now. We could easily have been born Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, Hindu, secular humanist and so on. We could as easily have been born in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe or Australia. We could just as easily have been born gay or straight, trans, bi-sexual or non-binary, black, white, yellow or brown and so on almost ad infinitum. We could just as easily been born with or without certain physical and mental gifts and/or disabilities. Nearly all of us now seem intuitively to know that who we are is in some fashion the result of a complex, natural, ongoing, dynamic motion involving the movements of culture, parents, friends, teachers, doctors, politicians, climate, etc., etc. and that we are NOT, I repeat, NOT, the result of a single command by a higher power.
Given all this, at least as far as I’m concerned, if after coming here you somehow end up as some identifiable denominational thing called a “Unitarian” then we will have failed you. This is because what’s going on here — again as far as I’m concerned — is to create a safe place and a community (“a cave to ponder way off in”) in which, as is described in Ammons’ poem “The Unifying Principle”, you are both helped and encouraged to become “happy ramshackles”, “archipelagos”, “loose constellations”, “subsidiary centres” and “attestations of interstices” — in other words to become the kind of people who push gently against the “too insistent commonality” once foisted upon us by our old ways of being religious but who still want to find good ways way that both sanction a touching and meeting with one’s neighbour and gift us all with a sense a unifying resemblance.
I have the modest hope that here you can become “a board” that simply won’t surrender “the rectitude of its corners” or an “island of oaks” amidst a forest of pines. I hope that here you can become “underfigurings”, that is to say people who are not overdrawn, or too early or too much filled in, but nevertheless still people who are far from being nothing because you are always-already works of art still and forever in the making.
I hope that here we can offer you “a particular tread that sometimes unweaves, taking more shape on, into dance” — namely, the dance that is a de-denominated life unfolding. I hope that here we can offer you a way to live well with those “timbres” in your life that don’t quite “match”, the things which seem out of time or mood, and also about being slightly out of step with this, and now that.
And the “unifying principle” which we have all come here to seek will be no more or less than the finally un-denominatable sense of family resemblance we all share with each other and all things about which we can say no more nor any less than it is a something like “a shared phrase, an old cedar long known and general wind-shapes in a usual sand”.
As intuitively de-denominated people I have hope that here we can become “single enough to be uninterfering” but yet “multiple by the piling on of shared sight [and] touch”. And the result will be the becoming of a people who can “live the small wraths of ease” which is, I think, simply a way of saying we will never again be happy to rest content with any easy dividing up or denomination of anything, least of all our religiosity.