Like many countries in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of the 2010s is notable for the near-complete absence of religion and spirituality in public discourse: the country has undergone a process of profound secularisation in the last twenty-five years, with many basic social values unrecognisable from their 1980s counterparts. It was therefore with some interest that our CSO read an article authored by Cristina Odone – one of a tiny number of British journalists who is even capable of writing about religious topics in anything other than media clichés – claiming that the UK is ‘on the brink of a Christian Spring’ (Despite our secularist enemies, we are on the brink of a Christian Spring, 19th November 2013).
Odone posits three reasons for a resurgence of Christianity in Britain: (i) Pope Francis; (ii) Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury; and (iii) a popular ‘backlash’ against the more gross examples of shallow materialism. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana do not find any of these to be compelling. While billions of people around the world of all faiths and none seem to find Pope Francis an unusually brilliant spiritual beacon – and his papacy has already seen a stunning turnaround in mass attendances, at least in Italy and the United Kingdom – the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church, not least systematic child abuse and eye-watering levels of financial corruption, are in all likelihood far too deep for one pope to solve. As to Justin Welby, we would bet good money that a plurality of a representative sample of the British public are more familiar with the teachings of Justin Timberlake; ‘twerking’ might be viewed as somewhat quaint in ten years’ time.
However, Odone might be onto something, at least indirectly: she could be correct in pointing to a largely-unexpected change in spiritual orientation in the UK, but for entirely different reasons – principally economic ones.
The economy of the United Kingdom is starting to show alarming signs of social distress. Mired in corruption and with no realistic prospect of experiencing any kind of meaningful growth, the British economy is essentially dysfunctional for an ever-increasing percentage of the population. This can be seen in the surreal blossoming in what is meant to be a G7 country of the food bank, an institution that was unknown even a few years ago but the utilisation of which has been burgeoning beyond the exponential: while just 26,000 food parcels were handed out in 2008-9, the figure for April-September of 2013 was over 350,000. And things are likely to get much, much worse, with inevitable interest rate rises almost certain to clobber millions of ‘middle class’ households in the years to come.
Of course, these developments are not guaranteed to produce any given spiritual outcome. But it is almost unthinkable that religious institutions, and religion and spirituality more generally, are going to take the flak for the mess – partly because they have become so marginal in the lives of most people, and partly because they tend to stand in stark opposition to the rampant materialism and wild social distancing that has helped to engender this situation. Instead, it is a set of elites which are largely defined by their alienation from religion which will be seen to have failed. It is in precisely this kind of social flux that new movements step in to fill vacua. What these will be is anyone’s guess – but to exclude some form of religious or spiritual dynamic from them, even in a macro-context of increasing secularisation – may be premature, or even incorrect.