Received 'wisdom' says organised religion is in decline... so why are more and more of us turning to prayer?
New research for Tearfund claims that more than half of UK adults - 51% - pray, despite many of them having no creed. But can the Christian Churches capitalise on this outpouring of faith, asks Martin O'Brien
An eye-catching headline grabbed my attention the other day. It was on The Guardian website, so it couldn't be fake news, could it? But, in these days of Trumpery, you just don't know do you?
"Non-believers turn to prayer in a crisis, poll finds," the headline ran. The story went on to say that just over half of adults in the UK actually pray.
Funny, I thought. I had read somewhere recently that the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) had found, for the first time, more than half of Britons say they have no religion at all. So, I was intrigued, hooked and wanted to read on.
But before I discuss what I found I think I should, as they say, declare an interest, so you know where I am coming from.
I am a believer and I do pray regularly, in my own words and formally, to praise and thank God, to ask for God's help for others and myself, including at daily Mass, which Catholics consider the greatest prayer and source of grace.
And, talking of prayer, I consider one of the most evocative prayers in the Bible to be those verses in Psalm 42(41):2-3, where an exiled priest yearns to be back worshipping in the Temple in Jerusalem:
"Like the deer that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning for you my God.
My soul is thirsting for God,
the God of my life;
when can I enter and see
the face of God?"
The Guardian story (I discovered it later on several other news outlets) was intriguing, showed evidence of that yearning for God and did not seem, on the face of it, to quite chime with supposed conventional wisdom.
That is that there is a rising tide of secularisation around our shores, although Northern Ireland is clearly and by a long distance the least irreligious part of the UK, with just 10% stating they had no religion (similar to the 2016 census in the Republic) and 82% stating they were Christian in the last UK census in 2011. That Christianity "as a backdrop to people's lives... has almost been vanquished", as the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor put it as far back as 2001.
That (according to the BSAS in 2014) Anglicanism in Britain is declining so rapidly that, if current trends continue, it will, as The Spectator apocalyptically put it, "be set to disappear from Britain by 2033", presumably leaving the country with a monarch with very little supreme governing to do.
And, according to a 2015 Faith Survey, church attendance in Britain dropped from 6.5 million to just over 3 million between 1980 and 2015, in contrast to a still much larger (if still declining) church attendance in both parts of Ireland.
But The Guardian was reporting a story that raised many interesting questions and seemed to suggest that there might be a way back for the Church of England (and, indeed, other declining Christian denominations) if only they can find a way to engage with people and communicate the enduring Good News of Jesus Christ in a fresh and meaningful way, earthed in the daily, messy lives of people, wherever they are.
The story centred on the results of an opinion poll in early-December conducted by ComRes, the respected polling organisation, for Tearfund, the Christian relief and development agency, in which it interviewed 2,069 adults, including 62 people in Northern Ireland, weighted to be representative of all UK adults aged 18-plus by age, gender, region and socio-economic grade.
One of the most staggering figures revealed by the ComRes research is that 51% of adults in the UK - that is an estimated 26,672,652 people - were "identified as having prayed", as it was put in a Tearfund Press release.
We are told the research indicated that 55% say they are most likely to pray in a crisis and that the next most common reason for praying (39%) was belief in God and that people prayed for their family, to thank God, for healing, for friends and for the alleviation of poverty or global disasters in that order.
Intriguingly, one-fifth of people who do not consider themselves religious pray, and Tearfund says that "praying has become incorporated into people's daily routine, with significant proportions now praying on the go, whether that's while travelling (15%), doing household activities like cooking (20%), or doing leisure activities, such as exercising (12%)".
However, a third of those who pray do so at a place of worship and a third do so on waking, or before going to sleep.
The evidence of the reality of prayer, which might be most simply defined as engaging with or talking to God, in a UK where organised religion is in such serious decline, raises challenging questions, not least for the Churches.
Two questions in particular arise. Firstly, what does all this freshly documented prayer mean? It surely must mean that there are a lot of people out there, who may never have heard of St Augustine of Hippo, one of the Fathers of the Church, who lived in the fourth century, but who share the sentiments in his most famous statement: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
In other words, at least half the UK population may be open to experiencing the love of God - even if many only turn God-ward in times of crisis.
That doesn't mean that all of them are open to organised religion, but it must be a fair guess that many of them would be if they were invited to have a look.
The second question is: have the Churches the will and the imagination to outreach those many millions of people? Of course, they cannot do it overnight and they must begin modestly and realistically.
But have they the resolve and the savvy to make a serious start now that they have hard evidence that there are countless open hearts out there?
Another important early Church figure, St John Damascene, or John of Damascus, a Syrian monk who died in 749, a Father of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, famously wrote: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God, or the requesting of good things from God."
At the start of this new year, the latest ComRes research should give the Churches fresh heart and embolden them in their own prayer life - even if the challenge to reach all those praying people is daunting.
Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and an award-winning former BBC producer