Where Are the Young Believers?

Portsmouth University student and committed Christian Sophie Bramley asks why so many young people are turning away from religion and what churches in Portsmouth might do to attract them back.

Last February, an interviewer for RTE television’s The Meaning of Life asked author and actor Stephen Fry what he would say if he were to meet God. Fry, an outspoken atheist, replied, ‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ This controversial comment sent shockwaves through the media, politics and various religions. Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, waded in.

However, as a Christian, the most common complaint I hear from atheists or agnostics is, ‘I don’t mind God, it’s his fan club that bothers me the most.’ By ‘fan club’ they mean the church and its followers. On other occasions, Stephen Fry has also voiced concerns about how people interpret and apply religious teachings in bigoted and ignorant ways. Even as a believer myself, I have to concede that the church hasn’t done the best job it could as God’s representative on Earth.

According to a study by Statistics for Mission 2013, church attendance is falling rapidly. The average weekly attendance in England for 2013 was 1,009,000 which equates to just 2% of the population. (This doesn’t include those who visit occasionally for weddings, baptisms or funerals). Compared to 1998, there are 500,000 fewer of us going to services.

The figures are even worse for people of my generation. A YouGov poll in 2013 found that only a quarter of those aged 16 to 24 believe in God, and a significantly smaller number regularly go to church.

Why might that be? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

Although we’re not far into 2015, already the year has been eventful for the Church of England. It ordained its first ever female bishop, Libby Lane, back in January, which I celebrated as a massive step forward in gender equality and a victory for women of faith everywhere.

But clearly someone (who I shall not grant the dignity of naming) forgot what year it was when they stood up mid-ceremony and shouted ‘not in the Bible!’ Newsflash: they didn’t have bishops in the Bible. Male or female. Sit down, son.

Over the centuries, various religions and denominations have sought to curtail women’s rights, whether regarding contraception, abortion or the sanctity of marriage. By contrast, I raised a toast in 2013 when same-sex marriage was legalised after a long campaign.

This issue is very close to my heart and I’d like to share an anecdote that inspired me to write this article. I was eighteen when parliament was furiously debating same-sex marriage and, at the time, attending the local Methodist church. I went to my usual service one Sunday morning and one of the flock tried to persuade everyone to sign a petition against what he called, ‘a law changing the definition of marriage.’

Needless to say, I didn’t sign. I left feeling sad that someone belonging to my faith – which strongly supports the institution of marriage – would try to bar others from achieving true happiness, just because their sexual identities differ to his own.

A few weeks later, I was at another church member’s house for a weekly youth prayer group when I bravely – or foolishly – asked the prayer leader’s opinion on perhaps the most controversial passage in the Bible: Leviticus 20:13. For those of you who are unaware, this passage explicitly forbids homosexuality and has been used for centuries by Christians to justify the persecution of LGBT people.

The prayer leader’s reply broke my heart. He said that we must use prayer to ‘deliver’ gay and lesbian people from their ‘demons.’ This process is more commonly known as exorcism, in which members – usually led by a preacher – pray over someone in order to expel the demons that they believe are causing them to sin. Exorcism has been known to have horrific psychological consequences on those who have undergone it. I left the church that very night.

It’s important to note that the majority of churches in Britain do not practise exorcism for homosexuality, although a tiny number still do. In fact, church groups are much more likely to use prayer to heal the sick and injured.

Unsurprisingly, such bigotry means that many young LGBTs and their straight supporters no longer feel welcome in churches. Tom Berriman, a Portsmouth University student and a member of its LGBT society, has been alienated in this way. ‘I don’t want to approach people when I know they might have a problem with me. They think being gay is against the rules of God.’

Tom attended a faith primary school and Sunday school up until year five. He is no longer religious himself and doesn’t think he will ever see the inside of a church again. ‘It’s been too long,’ he explains, ‘and when you realise you’re gay you get put off by religion.’ Tom went on to tell me that he knew of religious associations that accepted gay members, but wasn’t sure exactly which ones.

Vanessa Williams, a criminology student, is not a member of any faith, although she counts herself as ‘spiritual’. She shares Tom’s dim view of church homophobia. ‘Love is love in whatever form,’ she tells me. ‘It all depends on how people perceive the Bible, and that can be misinterpreted.’

At the same time, Vanessa appreciates that religion can have positive effects. ‘The church does a wonderful job, but like all human institutions it makes mistakes. Everyone needs hope and faith and religion can help to manifest that: faith in oneself can also be faith in God, Allah, Buddha etcetera.’

She further elaborates on how the church has played a vital social role within communities like Portsmouth. ‘The church takes in the homeless and other minority groups who aren’t always accepted. Some people are shunned by society and the church picks up the bill. It was the church that introduced food banks, not the government.’

Furthermore, churches of all kinds do sterling work aiding impoverished, war-torn and developing countries. They also raise more money for charity than any other public institution. They support the vulnerable and provide counselling and comfort during people’s darkest moments.  But if that’s the case then why are people like Stephen Fry so resistant to religion? If the church does all this worthy stuff why is support for it falling fast? Where are all the believers, especially the young ones?

The most commonsensical answer I can find is from Nabiel Osman, a young Muslim studying advanced manufacturing at Portsmouth: ‘Religions need to work harder to accept people. How can you use the term “welcome” when you have something in your heart against them?’

One local preacher who is answering Nabiel’s call is Reverend Andy Marshall, who was ordained a priest in 2000 and currently works as Anglican chaplain at Portsmouth University. He recently posted on Facebook: ‘When people call for the right to deny services to others because of their religious dogma, what about my freedom to believe in and serve a God who welcomes values and loves ALL?’

The point is clear: instead of building barriers between people, churches need to encourage diverse friendships. Conflicts of opinions happen, it’s an unavoidable part of life, but isn’t reaching out and connecting with your fellow man more important? It’s a message at the root of my own faith and many others. The Church of England should be standing up for its very British values of diversity, acceptance and community.

In order to survive, churches must serve others as Jesus did by following his example. The term “love thy neighbour” does not come with any conditions, exceptions or small print.

In the twenty-first century, literal belief in every single word of a 2,000-year-old doctrine not only breaks laws against hate speech and intolerance, but gives religion a terrible image.

Those fundamentalists who try to follow the Bible to the letter, ticking off all the requirements like a to-do list, do not achieve happiness, a fulfilling life or inner peace. However, most Christians know that literalism is foolish, offensive and impossible.

If Jesus can love us for our imperfect human selves and never reject us, then his churches should follow suit.