In both Europe and the Middle Eastern homeland of Christendom, 2013 will be bleak for the mainstream churches that have carried the Christian message for centuries. Declines will accelerate and problems intensify.
The greatest woes await the Anglican church, led—weakly and nominally—by the Britain-based new Archbishop of Canterbury, who inherits a disastrous legacy from the outgoing Rowan Williams. The glue that holds together this curious Protestant-Catholic hybrid is weakening. There will be more splintering in 2013. Anglicans in Africa will go their own way, in partnership with like-minded conservatives from America. They are appalled by the theological liberalism of the Williams era, especially on issues of sexual morality. So too are the parishes in Britain that hew to Bible-centred Christianity, rather than the diluted and trendy version beloved by the church leadership. These evangelical parishes will remain lively and wealthy. But they are the exception, not the rule. The typical Anglican parish will be older, smaller, shabbier and more female in 2013, with fewer services, less cash and an over-stretched ministry.
In Britain, Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike will be in the trenches in 2013 fighting the government’s plans to legalise gay marriage. Many are privately unbothered by the principle of same-sex weddings: they are glad to have anything that brings people into church. But they fear discrimination lawsuits against priests who refuse to conduct such ceremonies. In a secular Britain that sees discrimination on sexual orientation as akin to racism, the row over gay marriage will muffle the churches’ already feeble efforts to get across their messages of love and justice.
The churches will have lost the battle over gay marriage
But the fight is doomed. By the end of 2013 the churches will have lost the battle over gay marriage, with their reputation for tolerance a casualty. Secularists will press their advantage, challenging what they regard as the privileges of a declining minority religion. Cries of religious persecution will mount as Christians struggle to defend what outsiders see as a baffling sub-culture.
Over in Rome, Pope Benedict’s lot look little better. All over Europe and North America (albeit not in Asia and Africa), the numbers of priests and parishioners will continue their remorseless decline. Expect more calls for flexibility from hard-pressed grassroots Catholics: women priests are off the agenda, but calls for the ordination of married men, viriprobati in church-speak, will grow. If you attend a Catholic funeral in 2013, you may find it taken by a layman (or laywoman): there are simply not enough priests to go round.
Sex-abuse scandals will bubble up anew in the Catholic church. Many date from decades ago—but they will mean more bankrupt dioceses, especially in North America, and more demoralisation for the faithful. As the church allegedly shuffles assets to protect them from victims’ lawsuits, prosecutions loom.
The brainy but increasingly frail pope will struggle with these woes—and the intrigues of those jostling to succeed him. But some things will improve. Visit a Catholic service in 2013 and you have a slightly better chance of finding beauty and holiness, rather than guitar-strumming dirges and multicoloured polyester vestments.
North America will remain an outlier in the rich world, in terms of public religiosity if not actual belief. But numbers are declining, and secularism is on the rise—especially among the young and well-educated. Publicly acknowledging atheism will be less of a taboo in 2013 than it has been for more than a century, especially for those in a big city or university town.
The Bible bolt
Yet the greatest trouble for Christians is in the places that feature in the Bible: 2013 will be one of the worst years ever for Christians in the Middle East. The exodus of Christians from Palestine and Iraq will slow—but only because so many have already left. Instead, Christians will be fleeing Syria and Egypt. Do not expect the Muslim Brotherhood rulers of Egypt to mourn their going. For an Islamist party, there are few votes in religious tolerance.
The lot of Christians in places such as Pakistan will worsen even more, with the prospect of more blasphemy trials or outright lynchings as these believers pay the price of public hostility towards anything associated, however unfairly, with the West.
On the upside, Christianity will boom in East Asia. In countries such as South Korea, China and Taiwan new Protestant churches are making headway, with an upbeat message of self-improvement and prosperity. Their services may lack the serene dignity of the ancient Christian denominations. But they strike a chord that in the old West is increasingly dulled.
This post originally appeared on Atheism and Agnosticism.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Lucas.
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