By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JAN. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The news of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s entry into the Catholic Church just before Christmas sparked off a notable debate. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor presided over the Mass in which Blair was received into the Church, held at Archbishop’s House, Westminster, on Dec. 21.
Raised in the Anglican Church, Blair now joins his wife, Cherie, and his children in the Catholic Church. Rumors about a possible conversion circulated for years, prompted in party by Tony Blair’s regular attendance at Sunday Mass with his family.
One factor reportedly delaying Blair’s entry into the Catholic Church was a desire not to appear overly religious in an increasingly secularized society. In fact, fewer than half of the ministers in the ruling Labor Party government admit to believing in God, reported the Daily Mail newspaper on Dec. 23.
According to a survey carried out by the paper, only eight of 22 ministers are prepared to say they are Christians, while two admit to being atheists. Some ministers refused to answer the question about their religious belief.
As well, just days before Blair’s reception into the Church, Nick Clegg, the new leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, declared he did not believe in God, reported the BBC on Dec. 19. His admission came during an interview on BBC radio. Clegg’s wife and children are Catholic.
Reactions to the news about Blair varied widely. John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said in a Dec. 22 press release: “During his premiership, Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death -- promoting abortion, experiments on human embryos, including on cloned human embryos, and euthanasia by neglect."
Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative Party member of Parliament and herself a convert to the Catholic Church, also remarked on the Blair government’s policies in contrast with Catholic teaching, on life issues and matters such as homosexuality, the Sunday Times reported Dec. 23.
Blair was defended by Father Timothy Russ, parish priest at Great Missendon, the nearest Catholic church to the prime minister’s country residence at Chequers. Father Russ, according to a Dec. 24 report by the Times, played an important role in Blair’s conversion.
“I would advise people who are critical to wait and see what sort of man this will be, and how he might help our cause,” commented Father Russ.
Blair's biographer, Anthony Seldon, also supported the former prime minister, saying that the political leader’s faith had always been a major influence on his politics, reported the BBC on Dec. 22. In fact, Seldon attributed religion as the cause that brought Blair into politics in the first place.
Debate over the state of religion received a further boost with a series of articles published on Dec. 23 by the Telegraph newspaper on attendance figures. The paper reported that Catholics now outnumber Anglicans when it comes to the number of Sunday worshippers. According to the Telegraph a survey of attendance carried out the Christian Research organization shows 861,000 Sunday Mass participants, as opposed to 852,000 people at Sunday services in the Anglican Church.
Both churches have suffered large drops in Sunday numbers over last decades, the article noted. The situation of the Catholic Church has, however, suffered less in recent times due to the arrival of large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European nations.
Further material published the same day by the Telegraph examined the sharp increase in numbers of Pentecostals. Britain now has 2,480 Pentecostal churches, mostly in London, and their membership grew by 23% from 2000 to 2006.
Not all were in agreement with the estimates cited by the study. The survey of Sunday attendance was criticized by the Anglican Church, the Telegraph reported in an article published the following day.
The Reverend Lynda Barley, head of research for the Anglican Church, said that while official statistics for 2006 had not yet been compiled, she expected them to be similar to the Sunday attendance figures of 2005, which were 993,000. Barley pointed out that Christian Research based its figures on just one Sunday, whereas the Church carried out a survey of worshippers over four Sundays in October.
The latest report caps off a year in which a number of press articles have dwelt on the falling number of adherents in the mainstream churches. On Feb. 10 the Times newspaper reported that out of the current number of 47,000 churches in Britain -- already down from 55,000 in 1961 -- thousands will soon close their doors.
The article said that no fewer than 1,700 Anglican churches have ceased activity since 1969. This leaves the Church of England still with some 16,000 churches. Methodist churches are down from 14,000 in 1932 to 6,000 now, and are closing at the rate of 100 a year.
The Catholic versus Anglican numbers were also aired some months ago, when on Feb. 15 the Times reported that Catholics would soon overtake Anglicans in terms of regularly active members. The paper based its prediction on a report published by the Cambridge-based Von Hugel Institute, regarding the influence of Polish immigrants in London’s Catholic community.
Not all is rosy, nevertheless, for the Catholic Church. On Feb. 23 the Guardian newspaper commented that the aging population of British nuns, currently at around 1,100, “is teetering on the verge of extinction.” According to the article, there were just seven new novices entering female religious congregations in 2004, and 13 in 2005.
The contrasting growth in followers of evangelical groups was also commented on, by the Associated Press on April 20. The article noted that evangelicals make up about 40% of all the nation's regular churchgoers, according to the Christian Research organization.
Followers include white Anglican believers, who belong to the evangelical wing of the their church. Many, however, are black immigrants from Africa. In recent years Africa has been one of the largest sources of immigrants into Britain. Many of them have brought with them their Pentecostal faith, the Associated Press reported.
Immigrants, it seems, might well be one of the main sources of followers for the Christian churches in Britain unless some way is found to reawaken the faith among the general population. Curiously, the decline in religious participation, and the ever-increasing marginalization of Christianity in public life, comes at a time when public debate over religion is reaching peak levels.
“Not since Victorian times has there been such an intense and sustained debate about religious belief,” commented the Times newspaper in a Christmas Eve editorial. Last year Richard Dawkins’ book, "The God Delusion," sold more than a million copies in Britain. Public debates over God and belief have also flourished, together with controversy over the film "The Golden Compass."
Perhaps the public tussles over God and the role of religion will serve to make people reflect over what place faith has in their lives. Moreover, not all the news is negative. On Sept. 18 a report published on the Christian Today Web site noted that vocations to the priesthood are up in the Catholic Diocese of Westminster.
With eight new seminarians entering last September the total number of those preparing for the priesthood increased to 40, and the average age is down to 28, the lowest in a number of years. Hope still exists, then, for Christianity in Britain, but the road ahead will be difficult.