“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness … we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
This tale is not of two cities but of two countries, Britain and China. Divided in many ways, with one particular paradigm challenging some of our assumptions.
Religion remains a force in our world, for good or for evil, despite the best efforts of those both in and outside of faith communities to tarnish and up-end these movements.
The epoch of incredulity
In the U.K., with a Christian heritage, state-church, and long history of religion taking place in the public sphere, the church is in decline.
The Guardian reported findings from a recent British Social Attitudes Survey showing that for the first time more adults in the U.K. believe to have no religion, with just 15% of a population of around 65 million pledging allegiance to the state church. It was 53% of adults (some 20-30 million people) who declared to have ‘no religion’. For a state with such a long religious history this is quite fascinating.
The epoch of belief
On the other side of the world, rapidly emerging as a superpower, is China. Although historically an officially atheist state, China’s 1.3 billion citizens have undergone a spiritual revolution rather quietly, though the mainstream media is starting to pick up on it.
One particular aspect of this is the growth of Christianity, particularly in unofficial, underground ‘house churches.’ However, this name is somewhat inaccurate since many of these gatherings are too large to meet in conventional venues.
One recent analysis of the province of Shandong (with a population of around 100 million) found that there are more than 5 million Christians.
As well as being a matter of scale of population – which is a conversation in itself – there is also a notable difference in the kind of Christianity that China is seeing grow. Starting from a base of just one million in 1949, there are now around 50 million Protestants in the country today, with some estimates as high as 60-100 million.
The direction of travel in China and the U.K. is very different. One reason for the rise in those identifying as having ‘no religion’ in the UK is ‘de-conversion’ – that is, people who were brought up religious losing their faith as they grow older.
In China, given the historic stigma against practising and professing personal faith, particularly in the public square, to do so is a potentially revolutionary act. From a Christian perspective, this is particularly interesting, as a recent article in US magazine Christianity Today put it: “What goes on in China matters to the Church worldwide; soon, it will be the country with the largest Christian population and, in time, it might have the world’s largest missionary force”.
Whilst the Christian media could be argued to have a particular interest in seeing growth, they are not alone in spotting this trend, as Ian Johnson’s recent article in The Atlantic shows.
He observes that in China, “while problems [for Christians] abound, the space for religious expression has grown rapidly, and Chinese believers eagerly grab it as they search for new ideas and values to underpin a society that long ago discarded traditional morality”.
Counterproductive state support
Dickens wrote the opening words of his novel in a culture that was eminently Christian. It would be fascinating to know what he would make of the change in fortune that the UK’s church has undergone.
We see here two government systems – one officially secular, one nominally Christian. One might expect Christianity to be thriving in the place where it has held power, been part of the educational system, and has enjoyed influence at the highest levels of government.
But it seems that the opposite is true. Moreover, the growth that we do see in Christianity in China appears not to be so strong in the officially state sanctioned churches, but in the smaller, and often illegal, house churches.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here for those seeking to effect cultural ideological change. The Chinese Communist Party’s original failure to root out religion as well as its difficulties in controlling the system of house churches point to a religion that thrives when it escapes association with the state apparatus.
The differing courses of Christianity in Britain and China make for a fascinating study in the global shifts of power, and the personal stories and values of the people involved.