Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, is a leading proponent of the secularisation thesis. Religion has been in decline in Britain for 150 years, he argues, and there is little reason to think this process is going to be halted. Religious believers will not find his new book a comforting read but it does have lessons to teach us. Members of the Church of England concerned with evangelism and church growth would do well to read it.
Bruce is adept at dismissing those who have argued in defence of the persistence of religion. Grace Davie has spoken of vicarious religion in which a small proportion of the population are seen as carrying out religious activities on behalf of a larger number of people who are not directly involved. The role clergy often play when disaster strikes could be seen as an example of vicarious religion but Bruce argues clergy are candidates to act as honest brokers because they no longer have religious significance. ‘Like eunuchs working in a harem,’ he writes, ‘the clergy are invited to play significant social roles because they are impotent’.
For many Christians the charismatic movement is an important sign of renewal. Bruce argues this has not brought many new members into the churches. Most of those who have been at attracted were already Christian. Only 1 per cent of those who attend Alpha courses have not at some time been regular church goers. Bruce sees dangers for Christianity in the way the charismatic movement prefers feelings over doctrine and moves away from a distinctive culture of church architecture, liturgy, dress, ritual and hymns. In some ways it represents a secularisation of Christianity. Examining New Age beliefs and practices Bruce, correctly argues, they are not widespread enough to take the place of Christianity.
When it comes to new African or West Indian churches, Bruce maintains that their language and style is too alien to enable them to be effective carriers of the gospel to the white, British population. He may have a point here but he is mistaken in arguing that church growth in London is only fuelled by the immigration. The Diocese of London has seen significant growth and John Wolfe has analysed why this has happened. David Goodhew has also written of growing churches in London and elsewhere but Bruce nowhere refers to his work.