The changing face of religion

By Sheila Moorcroft

Two major Christian churches both appointed new leaders in the last 12 months. Both men appear to be making radical breaks with the past in terms of personality and how they present not only themselves, but also what they represent as the very public face of their respective churches. Their impact along with the growth of both Christianity and Islam may influence business values and politics more

What is changing?

Pope Francis has signalled not just a new style, but new substance. His approach is based on humility, mercy and care – demonstrated in his living modestly and not in the Papal apartments; using public transport and going on walkabouts; consulting Catholics on their beliefs about many issues such as contraception. He is also calling for a church of the poor, less judgement and more tolerance, and reform of the institution; but also a willingness to face the scandals that have been revealed in recent times. In short his leadership appears to be about walking the talk of the core values of the Catholic Church.

Likewise the new Archbishop of Canterbury, but in different ways. An ex oil-man by profession, he is willing to stand up and be counted on a growing range of topics – energy price rises, pay-day lending, affordable housing, economic growth, the church’s role in colonialism, tolerance not homophobia – even if not gay marriage, the role of women. He has also been dubbed the unofficial opposition to the UK government, and appears to bring a real-world edge to the Anglican Church.

Also, despite predictions of its demise – e.g. increasing discussion about declining attendance and empty Churches in the UK – globally Christianity is a growing religion, and remains at present the largest in the world with 2.2 billion followers; 2.66 billion by 2020. That growth is coming mainly in Africa, Asia and to a lesser extent Europe.

Islam is also growing strongly, currently it has 1.6 billion adherents and by 2030 will have an estimated 2.2 billion. It also has the youngest average age of any of the major religions – 23 compared with 30 for Christianity, 26 for Hinduism and 34 for Buddhism. It is attracting converts in the UK and North America and its family values, clarity of message and expectation of obedience are seen as characteristics which are encouraging the trend.

However, new approaches are also emerging. In the UK an ‘atheist church’ established in January in London – the Sunday Assembly – is going global. It has the motto – live better, help more and wonder more, and meets weekly – on a Sunday – providing a focus for community discussion and contact. It is about to open branches in 22 cities around the world and raise funds through Indiegogo. This perhaps also reflects the huge jump of agnostics from 6 million to 14 million, as listed in the census between 2001 and 2011, but a continued desire for meaning in or lives.


Religion has been a source of moral compass and social framework for centuries, providing a sense of meaning for millions. In times of uncertainty that need often increases. Discussions of happiness and social values also indicate the need for a sense of meaning which both new and the established religions are meeting. Greater clarity and sense of purpose among mainstream churches may help to reduce the appeal of more radical and fundamentalist beliefs. We may also see a greater sense of morality entering public and business life, as the mores of political and business elites come under greater scrutiny, and these religions institutions gain greater credibility and regain their voice.

The style of both Christian leaders can also be seen as excellent examples of values based leadership – a willingness to walk the talk, which many senior managers could perhaps learn from. They provide a powerful example of how CSR strategies and new approaches to business can transform the image of an organisation. Research indicates that companies showing an ethical stance tend to succeed better; the same may also be true of churches.

In addition, research on the impacts of social inequalities shows that less inequality has wider benefits for all of society, way beyond purely financial impacts. Might these two new religious leaders begin to exert a wider influence on business and political values, and issues such as social inequality?

But it is not just Christian influence that is growing. The loss of faith in financial institutions, perceived corruption and exploitation are providing a major boost for Sharia finance, which has clear and distinct values and rules – and a reputation that they will be followed. The growth of Islam is providing increased demand not just for Sharia finance but also for a wide range of Halal products. (See previous alert on the emerging global Halal market). They are appealing not just to the followers of Islam, but many others.

Religion has often been seen as the cause of conflict; perhaps we are seeing a new phase of influence.

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