If present trends continue, the United Kingdom – one of the world’s most irreligious societies and long home to a Protestant majority – is bound to become a Catholic nation for the first time since the time of Henry VIII. To be clear: while the bulk of British society will undoubtedly remain unchurched, the decline of the Church of England, growing immigration, and Catholic vibrancy are poised to make Catholicism Britain’s largest religious body in the tangible future.
A recent article in the Guardian quotes a study titled “Religious London” according to which 62 percent of Londoners identify as religious, compared to 53 percent of Britons overall. Furthermore, the capital is more socially conservative than the rest of the UK: 24 percent of its inhabitants oppose premarital sex, 29 percent are against homosexual relationships, and 38 percent believe that euthanasia is “at least sometimes wrong;” the corresponding figures for the country overall are 13, 23, and 27 percent.
This must be, you might think, because of the Muslims. And, indeed, one in ten Londoners are Muslims, compared to just 2 percent of the rest of the UK. However, among Christian denominations in London, Catholics are in pole position: they make up 35 percent of the city’s Christians, more than Anglicans (33 percent), Pentecostals (7 percent), and Orthodox (6 percent). Furthermore, Catholics in the capital are more likely to pray regularly than their co-religionists in the rest of the Isles (56 versus 32 percent).
The “Religious London” project is no outlier. In 2018, two separate studies were published showing the number of Britain’s Catholics catching up to its Anglicans. According to a British Social Attitudes study, the number of Britons identifying as Catholics has been stable between 2002 and 2017, at about 8 percent, while the proportion of Anglicans has more than halved, sliding from 31 to 14 percent.
Meanwhile, according to an international study of religious identity among young people in numerous European countries published by St. Mary’s University Twickenham London, the number of Catholic Britons aged 18 to 29 dwarfs that of their Anglican peers by a rate of 10 to 7 percent.
The ascendant position of Catholicism in Britain is not new, even if not often noted. In terms of absolute numbers, Catholic churchgoers began to outnumber Anglican ones as far back as 2007.
Certainly, one reason for this trend is immigration. The last time I visited London was in July of 2019. I attended Sunday Mass at the lovely striped-brick Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Although it was an afternoon Mass, most of the pews were filled (how many other cathedrals in Western European capitals can say the same?). At least half of the congregants, however, were of visibly non-European origin, and the priest celebrating the Mass appeared to be from South Asia.
Of the Caucasian believers in the cathedral, many were likely from the less prosperous half of Europe, large swathes of which joined the European Union in 2004, 2007, and 2013, leading to massive migration from such Catholic strongholds as Poland, Croatia, or Slovakia.
This is no new phenomenon. As in the United States, Argentina, or Australia, the Catholic Church in Britain has long been a Church of immigrants. In the nineteenth century, when Catholics’ civil rights were restored in Britain following centuries of often-bloody persecutions, the nation’s Catholics mostly consisted of Irish immigrants fleeing famine.
Although the United Kingdom is one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations, migration cannot be the only explanation for this trend. Britain’s Catholics are not only growing in number, but in recent years many of them have been returning to God. Many British dioceses are seeing the largest numbers of seminarians in decades; Scotland in particular seems to be doing well in this respect. Meanwhile, the British Social Attitudes survey cited earlier reveals that monthly church attendance among Catholics is exactly double that among Anglicans (42 versus 21 percent).
In March, meanwhile, as churches around the world were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than half a million English Catholics live-streamed the rededication of their country to Mary.
It could be that as the Church of England has strayed far from tradition on such issues as homosexuality and an all-male priesthood (among new Anglican seminarians, women now make up the majority) and thus sowed discontent and confusion among its conservative-minded faithful, Catholicism has become one of the last anchors of tradition and unchanging values in a post-Christian society. Sociologists of religion agree that more traditional churches are more resistant to secularization. In the United States, for example, the Catholic Church is incomparably more vibrant than the (Anglican) Episcopal Church, which is literally facing extinction.
Although Catholics are set to become Britain’s largest religious group, only one in twelve Britons is Catholic. Still, they could something of a “creative minority,” a concept of the (fittingly) British historian Arnold Toynbee often quoted by Pope Benedict XVI as to the role of serious Christians in increasingly secularized Western societies.
Today’s Britain is one of the world’s least religious countries. The near total collapse of Christian morality there has led to scores of social problems, including high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and homelessness. A strong Catholic minority could become a prominent voice in discussions on such matters.
As a Catholic and an Anglophile, I have often speculated what would have happened if Britain had remained Catholic, something that could have plausibly happened, as Henry VIII’s break with Rome was not so much about doctrine, as in the case of Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, or Calvin. While the Anglican Communion’s recent abandonment of tradition makes reunification with Rome seem like theological fiction, Britain will in a sense likely become a Catholic country once more in the coming years.
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