Pope Benedict XVI endured protests and warned of "aggressive secularism" on his September visit to the United Kingdom. But a survey released shortly before his arrival suggests Britain's long-term slide away from church has bottomed out.
The British number-crunching group Christian Research declared an end to a decades-old attendance decline in the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and a slight uptick among Baptists.
This was surprising news to those who figured Christianity was still dying in Britain, where only about 7 percent of people regularly attend worship, and where atheist groups bought billboards to tell the passing pope, "Two million Scots are good without God."
Christians cautiously welcomed the survey. "It's not a massive upswing by any means," said Michael Hudson of Christian Research. "But it did look as if the decline had come to an end."
The numbers showed Church of England attendance holding fairly steady since 2001 at just under 1.2 million. Catholic attendance leveled off in 2005 at a little more than 900,000, while Baptist Union attendance increased modestly since 2002 to nearly 154,000.
The findings contradicted recent forecasts. Retired Christian Research director Peter Brierley earlier this year projected further decline, including an alarming drop-off among young adults.
"He may well prove to be right, but in the short term there's a pickup we thought might encourage the churches," Hudson said.
It encouraged Dennis Pethers, a Baptist evangelist who has been trying to get Britons interested in Christ since 1993. Pethers, who heads Viz-A-Viz Ministries, said the numbers reflect churches getting more involved in people's lives, and people getting involved in nontraditional Christian venues such as the cafechurch coffeehouse network.
"Church is not a place to which people come but a community to which they belong," he said. "And that doesn't necessarily have to be on Sunday."
Many Britons have found spiritual resonance in such ventures as Fresh Expressions, a network of nontraditional congregations, and the long-running Greenbelt music festival. The Alpha Course, developed by the vibrant Anglican church Holy Trinity Brompton, is a popular introduction to faith that has reached an estimated 1.5 million Britons.
One observer says increased interest in spirituality—and faith's increased role in public life—are signs that secularization has failed to deliver. "Religion is on every agenda, whether news media or politics, in a way that it wasn't in the past," said Paul Woolley, director of the Theos think tank.
However, Krish Kandiah of the Evangelical Alliance UK is skeptical of the new survey's import. Although immigrant churches add vitality, the church has "massive problems" including disaffected youth, he said. "I'd be worried if we started to relax and think we've accomplished our mission."
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