That was the Church that Was: Dane Law
Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She is the co-author of “That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People.”
I’ve been reading the book, and while it is full of gossip, the sociological explanations seem to be facile, and not standing up to the evidence. But what is the evidence? Here is some of it, from an interview, she gave in November 2016:
“The Church of England's own statistics, published late last month, show attendance falling relentlessly by 1% a year, and funerals declining even faster - down 30% since 2005. Today only about 1% of the population (750,000) are in one of its churches on Sunday, and fewer than one in three have an Anglican funeral.”
In her narrative of decline, she makes the following comparison with the Danish Church
“Church leaders like to blame ‘secularization’ but a glance at the Church of England's sister churches in Scandinavia shows this can't be the whole story.”
“Take the Church of Denmark, a fellow Reformation church integral to the project of nation-building and existing today in the context of an affluent liberal democracy. Its decline is far slower than the Church of England's, with over three-quarters of Danes still choosing to pay church tax, 83% having a Church funeral and two-thirds of Danish babies baptised.”
Her thesis is that by doing things wrong on an organisational and managerial level, the Church of England has declined more than the Danish Church.
But dig beneath the surface of the Church of Denmark, and a very different picture begins to emerge. This rather undermines her thesis, as it demonstrates that allegiance is only skin-deep, and it is beginning to decay just as rapidly as the Church of England.
The Independent in 2016 reports:
Thousands of people have left the Church of Denmark following a nationwide advertising campaign by the country's atheist society. Between April and June, 10,000 people left the church - the highest number of registered withdrawals since 2007. Chairman of the society Anders Stjernholm told Politiken: "We’re pleased that Danes have taken the opportunity to express what they actually want. “We have long seen in surveys that there aren’t that many Danes who are devout Christians.”
In fact, the final statistics show that some 25,000 Danes ceased to be a member of the church in 2016 – of which 35 percent were aged 18-28.
Part of the reason is that baptism confers automatic membership of the church in Denmark.
“All Danish citizens automatically become members of the Church of Denmark when they are baptised and can withdraw by written application to their parish office or by joining another faith.”
This is however a small number in terms of church membership, but far more significant is the decline in baptisms. CHP Post reports on figures from the Church Ministry that:
“The figures reveal that 62.6 percent of all new-borns in Denmark were christened in 2014 – a 1.3 percent drop from the year before and a considerable decline since 1990, when 80.6 percent were baptised.”
The reasons are seen by observers as due to lifestyle choices rather than anything the Church is doing:
“Research has also showed that younger people are less likely to feel connected to the Danish Church and its rituals. More and more children are making their own decisions now. ‘Many parents refuse to make a choice regarding religion for their children,’ said Trolle. ‘Most of the parents that I spoke to, in connection with the survey produced by theologian Karen Marie Leth-Nissen and myself, said the child’s right to choose was most important.’”
As “The Local DK” website reports:
“As of the first quarter of 2016, there were just under 4.4 million members of the Church, amounting to 76.9 percent of the population. Ten years ago, 83.1 percent of Danes were members.”
It also notes that “as a place of worship, attendances have never been lower, with only 10 percent regularly attending church.” That’s 2016. In 2012, “only about 20 percent of members attend regular Sunday services.” That is a huge decline over 4 years.
A result of this cultural shift is that more people in Denmark attend All Saint’s Day rather than Christmas. The most popular service hasn’t been Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, but rather All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday of November.
“Danish people, following a similar tradition to Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), use the service to remember the passing of their loved ones.”
A recent Epinion survey on behalf of national broadcaster Danmarks Radio (DR) reveals that religion means little to most Danes:
“Just 17 percent of the respondents said religion was important to their lives. Fully 49 percent disagreed with the statement that “religion is very important to my life”, and a further 30 percent were ambivalent.”
“The vast majority of the doubters are not religious or atheist at all, but simply don’t care. It’s a growing group – in Denmark and in the rest of the world.”
Yet despite only 17 percent finding religion to be of importance, the survey also notes that 76 percent of Danes are still members of the Church of Denmark. But according to Jacobsen, that’s down to culture, not religion.
“For many Danes, their relationship with the church has more to do with a national identity rather than a religious one,” he said. And clearly that no longer needs church as notional for life rituals.
So despite Linda Woodhead’s comparison, what picture really emerges in Denmark is a church in decline, buildings being sold off, a decline in numbers of clergy, less baptisms, and even where there are baptisms, this is more of a token rite of passage, more folk religion than Christianity. Membership figures are falling, but within that membership figures – and despite embracing women priests and gay marriage – fewer and fewer people are making a real commitment.
The surface decline appears notionally slower in Denmark than England, but as surveys show, the actual decline is just as prevalent.