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‘People looked at me like I was weird’: Young Christians on life in secular Britain

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Earlier this week, 24-year-old Londoner Lou was chatting on a dating app, when the subject of her religion came up in conversation. The man she was talking to, she says, got “really confused. He was like, ‘So you’ll only date a Christian… isn’t that really restrictive?’” Her response? “I think it’s actually liberating not to think that I’ve got endless amounts of choice, that actually, I have a specific idea of who I want to spend time with. It’s not because I think someone who’s not a Christian is any worse [than me], it’s more because he just fundamentally will have things in common with me. But he found that really weird.”

From Monday to Friday, Lou works with influencers in the world of social media; on Sunday evenings, she heads to a weekly service at her “huge” church in the capital. The session is for worshippers in their twenties and thirties and is usually attended by about 350 people; it is just one of five Sunday services hosted by her church, which has a total congregation of around 1,000. Her faith impacts all aspects of her life, shaping how she tackles office politics and providing her with consolation when dealing with bereavement. Twenty-nine-year-old photographer Susannah Alltimes, meanwhile, says Christianity gives her “hope, peace and purpose”. She goes to church twice a week, and describes it as a community “filled with very gifted creative people”; her calendar gets filled with “weekly Bible studies, prayer dinners, worship nights with other local churches”, as well as social gatherings with church friends, like “going to our church brewery for quiz night [or] celebrating friends’ book launches”.

But although their London churches are thriving, young Christians like Lou and Susannah are increasingly in the minority. According to the 2021 census, the average age of UK Christians has hit 51, the highest in census history; those under 40 were also more likely to declare “no religion” than Christianity for the first time. The census also found overall that fewer than half of people in England and Wales (46.2 per cent) identified as Christian, placing them in the minority for the first time since the Dark Ages, back when the Romans were replaced by Woden-worshipping Anglo-Saxons. And this week, only a quarter (24.2 per cent) of 1,200 serving priests surveyed by The Times said that Britain can be described as a Christian country today; 64.2 per cent said that Britain could be called Christian “but only historically, not currently”.

Lou doesn’t come from a religious background – she describes her family as “pretty atheistic” and admits that her faith came as “a bit of a shock” for them – although she did attend a Church of England school. “So I was, I guess, exposed to it in that way, but I always thought that it wasn’t really for me”, she says, as “it was very ‘high church’”. In the Anglican tradition, this represents a focus on rituals, liturgy and sacraments, emphasising continuity with Catholicism. That “just wasn’t my vibe at all”, Lou says, but when she attended a Christian summer camp aged 13, she spoke to younger people about their faith. “I thought, ‘They’re not really like the old kind of white robe wearing [Christians] that I often see at school,’” she says. “I found that really encouraging, especially because they demonstrated that you don’t have to come across as perfect or put together, that wasn’t the point – actually a lot of it was just acknowledging the fact that we’re all imperfect people that struggle sometimes.”

She says that she only started to “live out” her Christianity when she headed off to university; everyone’s story is different, but among the Gen Z and millennial Christians I speak to, this emerges as a common theme. Twenty-three-year-old Alex, who attends church in Bournemouth, explains that when he moved out to study, he “started making decisions for myself, and found faith by myself – I grew up in a Christian household, but it wasn’t ever really them forcing me”. University, he says, “was a bit of a fresh start”. He saw friends and coursemates focusing on “quite futile things like alcohol, drugs, money”, which he saw as “fleeting” in contrast to the constancy of his beliefs. Alex’s faith “brings [him] hope”, he says, “and it brings a lot of joy. And because of it, we don’t have to worry about pain or turmoil, because we know that it will come to an end one day.”

Primary teacher Joel, 33, grew up with an Anglican vicar as a father; his dad no longer preaches – but now his mum does. He has experienced the “ebbs and flows, the ups and downs of faith” over time. “With each different phase of life, it changes,” he says. “It’s the same faith, but I’m such a different person.” He attended youth groups as a teenager, when “a big part of my identity was, I’m different, I’m distinctive – I listened to Christian rock music, I didn’t swear and I didn’t drink”. Then as he grew older, he would ask himself: “Is this [religion] just my parents’ thing? Is this just me being a white young man in Britain and therefore I’m a Christian, just a generic thing that I’ve inherited from my culture?” But he kept returning to Jesus and his “radical equality”. “What he challenges people, what he encourages people to do – I’ve still not come across a better philosophy for life,” he says. These days, Joel plays bass at his local church, and still describes himself as “a bit of a searcher and a questioner”. He and his wife are raising their two-year-old “to have faith, but a questioning faith – not just to be dogmatic”.

Religion also runs in the family for 30-year-old Shermara Fletcher, the principal officer for Pentecostal, charismatic and multi-cultural relations at Churches Together in England. With her parents and grandfather involved in Christian leadership, she “grew up in church from the womb”, but her “faith really became alive” at the age of 18, when she started working with homeless people. Her experience in the charity sector and her outreach work means that, despite the slew of headlines about Christianity becoming less prevalent, she “doesn’t see faith and secular society as binaries” or opposites. Instead, she believes they can work in tandem. “I saw that my faith can become alive in society if you really engage with society’s needs,” she says.

Habiba Katsha says that ‘when you’re Black, there is an assumption that you are religious’

(Handout)

Her religion has also given her some “breathtaking” opportunities. Last September, Shermara read a prayer of comfort at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, watched by more than 29 million people around the country. “She was the Queen to the rest of us but to her family she was a grandmother,” she says. “I had actually lost my grandmother the year before, around the same time, so I had so much empathy for the family – to lose such a matriarch, it’s not easy.” When it came to dressing for the historic event, she decided not to wear “a traditional priestly outfit”, instead she opted for an outfit that was more “relatable, it was what women like me would wear – although maybe not the cape”.

When faith comes up in conversation, the reactions of others can be “a very mixed bag”, Lou says. “I remember in freshers’ week, there were some people who just looked at me like I was really weird, or I was oppressed in some way, and I just didn’t understand that.” Her belief in no sex before marriage “definitely ruffled feathers” among other students too. “People used to ask about your ‘house totals’ – across your house, how many people you’d slept with – and I remember someone being really confused as to why mine was zero. I’m not judging, but that was just my personal choice.” She has come across others, she says, “who are very hardened against” religion, and believe it to be “silly or stupid”. But preconceptions about religion can differ depending on your background: 27-year-old freelance journalist Habiba Katsha notes that “when you’re Black, there is an assumption that you are religious. It’s more weird if you’re an atheist, so I feel like it’s not really shocking if you say you’re a Christian”.



I think the assumption often is, ‘Oh, here’s someone of faith, he must just hate gay people and women’

Joel

Joel finds that most people “don’t tend to challenge” him when his faith comes up in conversation, but has noticed that some will reference “high profile scandals” such as the case of Mike Pilavachi, the founder of Soul Survivor youth ministry in Watford who has been accused of inappropriate conduct (the allegations against Pilavachi are being investigated by the Church of England’s safeguarding team, and the pastor resigned from his role with the ministry in March). Joel finds there are sometimes preconceptions about his Christian values, too. “I think the assumption often is ‘oh, here’s someone of faith, he must just hate gay people and women,’” he says. The fact that every Christian will have a different relationship with God, which “leads them to really different values” is “one of the most exciting parts” of the religion for him, but this can also be “challenging and demoralising, to look around the world and see [that] people who profess to have the same faith as me will have totally opposing viewpoints or ideas about minority issues”.

Faith can be a difficult thing to define, especially within the confines of a tick-box in a survey, as it has been for 36-year-old freelance journalist Nicola Agius, who was raised as a Catholic and attended convent school. She still describes herself as a Christian, but now tends only to head to services on big occasions like Easter and Christmas. “If you define a Christian as somebody that goes to church [regularly], then I guess it is on the decline, but if you speak to people like myself or most of the people I went to school with, I would say they’re Christian in their heart,” she says. In the absence of any kids’ clubs or Sunday school at the churches near where she lives in Essex, she’d struggle to attend with her young son. “When you have a one-year-old that wants to run up and down, there’s no way I’d be able to get him to sit still for mass.” When she was arranging his baptism, after a break from churchgoing due to the pandemic, she was questioned about her beliefs by a priest. “You’re supposed to be welcoming people into the house of God and you’re making me feel like you’re a bouncer,” she says.

Susannah Alltimes says Christianity gives her ‘hope, peace and purpose’

(Handout)

When the pandemic forced churches to close their doors, writer Habiba took the chance to reconsider her attitude to churchgoing. Pre-Covid, she had found a small church in south London, the first she had come across “that was quite progressive”, but when lockdown hit, she attended online, then “started to re-evaluate my relationship with church”. After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, she saw that a pastor at a UK branch of Hillsong, the “megachurch” once popular with celebrities including Justin Bieber and Vanessa Hudgens, had suggested that he shouldn’t get involved in an American issue. “Christianity has a legacy of having a race problem, so I was thinking about that, and other things in terms of misogyny and purity culture.” Stepping back from churchgoing, she explains, allowed her “to have a wider view of the world” and “to read up on things, to come to my own conclusions” about her own Christian values, but her faith has remained a constant: “If you’re steadfast on God, that is one thing that is constant in your life, and I think that has really helped me. I quit my job to go freelance, and I think that could really shake someone if their identity is in their job.” She is now looking to return to a church that aligns with those values (ideally one closer to her home, to cut down the Sunday morning commute).

In 2013, the average attendance for Church of England Sunday services was just over one million, but by 2019, the figure had dropped to 854,000; it’s thought that the pandemic will have further accelerated this decline. Joel draws a comparison between these struggles and the dwindling of local facilities like cinemas, libraries and pubs. “They’ve been in huge decline, not because people don’t like films, books or going for a drink, but the way they’re shaped is maybe missing the mark,” he says. “So many rural congregations are elderly and love tradition, and that’s wonderful. That sense of homely, close-knit community, where you just know when to stand up and sit down [in a church service]. But I’ve heard the phrase before that these communities are ‘keeping their traditions but losing their kids’. It’s a matter of saying, ‘What if a new young family turned up to worship?’ Would they feel like this is relevant and interesting?” There is much more to Christianity than branding, he stresses, but “maybe we’ve been doing the brand about 20 years behind the curve, so [younger] people don’t think it’s for them, they think it’s for grandma”.

Shermara agrees that making faith feel relatable is imperative. “We’ve got so much jargon, and that can be quite exclusive,” she says. But, she notes, social media is awash with references to “new age spirituality, mindfulness” – all of which implies some kind of quest for deeper meaning. “Sometimes what people are searching for is in our Christian tradition [already] – maybe what we need to be better at is marketing it well.”

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