Sometime in the late 1960s, Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, an eccentric but saintly figure, was asked by journalists over lunch whether he thought the Church of England would survive into the next century. Doubtless beetling his copious eyebrows, he replied, ‘Well, you know, that is not certain, not certain, not certain at all. Not certain. It might easily, easily, it might easily, quite easily, just fall away after twenty years or so. Just fall away.’
Fifty years on and here we are. It is still there but the Church of England has never seemed more battered. Riven by poisonous and prolonged internal feuds over the positions first of women in its pulpits and then of gays in its presbyteries, it has appeared increasingly irrelevant to the wider society it is meant to serve as the nation’s established church. While supposedly open to all, it has almost gone out of its way to seem unwelcoming to many.
In 2013 the British Social Attitudes Survey recorded for the first time a slight majority of respondents saying they had no religion. At the same time, two-thirds of marriages were civil ones, with the Church of England conducting just one wedding in five and one baptism in ten. Two-thirds of