Lawmakers in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons approved a bill Tuesday that would allow same-sex couples in England and Wales to marry for the first time. The vote comes during the same month reports drew attention to a long-term drop in adherents of Christianity in Britain.
Although the Church of England opposes the homosexual marriage bill, its influence in the country seems to be waning along with church attendance: Figures for 2011, released May 7, show a weekly average attendance of 1.1 million Anglicans, down from 1.2 million in 2001.
U.K. census figures show an even starker reality. The proportion of people in England and Wales identifying themselves as Christian dropped to 59 percent in 2011, down from 72 percent in 2001. Meanwhile, the number of people claiming no religion nearly doubled.
The Church of England supports an existing law, in place since 2004, allowing gay couples to form civil partnerships. In a brief written for lawmakers, the Church said it wouldn’t back the same-sex marriage bill out of “concern for the uncertain and unforeseen consequences for wider society and the common good, when marriage is redefined in gender-neutral terms.”
Tuesday’s vote revealed a moral rift not only in Britain’s social fabric but also in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party. While Cameron supported the bill, 133 Conservatives did not. Their opposition wasn’t enough to derail the bill, which passed 366-161. It must still receive approval from the House of Lords, where a second reading is scheduled for June 3.
If the bill becomes law, it would make the United Kingdom the latest in a series of nations legalizing homosexual marriages. In France, President François Hollande signed a law on Saturday allowing homosexuals to marry and adopt children. Once Uruguay and New Zealand enact their recently approved gay marriage laws, they will bring to 14 the number of nations approving the redefinition of marriage since 2001. (Homosexual marriages are not yet universally legal in the United States, but 12 states and the District of Columbia have approved them.)
Steve Jenkins, a spokesman for the Church of England, told me census figures showing a decline in Christianity reflect fewer nominal Christians, who have historically identified themselves with the national Church as a “fallback,” whether or not they attend services: “Nowadays we see a bit less of that cultural Christianity.”
Church officials argue the latest figures actually show a “stabilizing” of Anglican attendance. Although weekly attendance fell 0.3 percent, christenings, adult baptisms, and Christmas Day attendance rose.
Data from the National Centre for Social Research shows that while affiliation with the Church of England among Britons dropped significantly between 1999 and 2009, affiliation with Roman Catholicism and other Christian denominations has remained steady.
To encourage church growth, Jenkins said the Church of England had partnered with Methodists to promote “fresh expressions,” a movement of informal gatherings intended to promote interest in religious matters in a non-church setting. Varieties of these groups include “cafe church,” where participants drink coffee and talk about God, and “Goth church,” targeted to black-clad youth.
Jenkins said his wife was involved in a fresh expressions group aimed at children: “[It’s a] cookery club,” where kids learn about cooking along with “a bit of theology thrown in.” The Church of England doesn’t keep exact records of how many are attending these less-structured groups, Jenkins said.
A new analysis of the census data, reported last week, shows the U.K.’s aging Christian population contrasting with an increase in young Muslims. More than one-in-10 residents under 25 now identify with Islam, the country’s second most popular faith.