Some 15 per cent of Britain’s population goes to Church once a month – and the weekly figure will be even lower. Church attendance has been falling since the 1950s, the average age of worshippers rising, and churchgoing in the UK is among the lowest in Europe. These grim statistics for British Christians raise the question of why David Cameron has chosen, as Easter approaches, to make a public meal of his own Christian faith, writing in the Church Times. After all, it is not as though the churches fell over themselves to take up his idea of the Big Society – at least not in the sense that some Conservative radicals would have hoped, by volunteering through their own provision to roll back the frontiers of the state. And the Prime Minister’s Downing Street is not itself especially faith-literate, packed with people who have a special interest or understanding of religion (though a few members of his team, such as Clare Foges, his main speechwriter, are serious Christians).
The most simple explanations are sometimes the best, and that Cameron has said he is a Christian simply because he is one may be as good an answer as one will get. Certainly, he brings to politics what might be called an Anglican temperament: a certain moderation of tone, a reluctance to get hung up about doctrinal differences, an attraction to consensus, an aversion to “enthusiasm”, a sense of establishment and his own place in it, and good manners (most of the time). The boy raised in an old rectory has become the man who pops in to sung Eucharist at St Mary Abbott’s, the church in Kensington he sometimes attends on Sundays. In his Church Times piece, he describes himself as a member of the Church of England, and “a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith”. Going deeper, it’s worth clocking his words on the part faith can play in tough times. “I have known this in my own life,” he writes – a reference to the life and death of his disabled son, Ivan.
But since Cameron is indeed a politician, there will be more to his decision to write in the Church Times than that he happened to feel like doing so. Some 58 per cent of the population describe themselves as Christians, so it is obvious that the Prime Minister is in some way making an appeal to it, as well as to the followers of other religions who would rather, all other things being equal, have a believer in Downing Street than an atheist – such as Ed Miliband. The Daily Telegraph speculates that he is trying to ward off UKIP, which gained from the same sex marriage debacle, and to older voters who didn’t like it. There is something in this. He is doubtless also seeking to shore up Conservative support in the churches themselves: hence his stress on the activist aspect of Christianity, and what the Government is doing to “help the vulnerable”, as Iain Duncan Smith put it – the £8 million for the Near Neighbours programme, the meeting of the aid target, and so on (as well as the £20 million for cathedral repairs).
The Government’s welfare reforms have been criticised by Church of England bishops and by Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, so part of the article is a defence of the programme – which is timely, given the Government’s continuing tussle with the Trussell Trust, the charity that runs a big slice of Britain’s food banks. I think there is another reason. As James Forsyth writes in this week’s Spectator, there are signs that Cameron is increasingly sensitive to public concern and anger about the treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries: David Alton provided some grisly details in a piece for this site last Christmas. The Prime Minister’s inclination has always been to be tough on Islamist extremism: read his Munich speech. There is more that the Government could do here – publishing a Foreign Office religious freedom index, and linking it to what we do on trade and aid. There is also much more it could manage when it comes to ensuring that the churches, and other faith communities, help to form the Big Society that presumably remains his ideal.
Though the churches don’t want to recover the role in, say, school or hospital provision that they held before the formation of the welfare state, their commitment to social service continues within it and beyond it. As Mark Hoban has pointed out, the Catholic Church is now involved in the academies programme, having shied away from doing so when Labour was in office. Indeed, when it comes to providing hospital chaplaincies, drug or alcohol addiction programmes, training for unemployed young people, shelters for the homeless, or a mass of other projects, the churches are the Big Society, as are the other faith communities. But government and local authorities are sometimes wary of church initiatives, and not – to use the phrase again – faith-literate. The Conservatives ought also to take a long, hard look at the equality acts, which may give some protection to religion, but have no hierarchy of characteristics. Just as a dog is for life, not just for Christmas, so the Government’s commitment must last all year – not just for the Easter season.