By Jonathan Petre
PEOPLE are converting from one religious denomination or faith to
another at a faster rate than ever, with 1,000 swapping every week,
according to a new study.
Despite the decline in formal church attendance, the remaining
"religious traffic" is "heading in all directions", Rabbi Jonathan Romain claims
in a book to be published next month. Traditional barriers between religions
are crumbling in a multi-faith, consumerist society, he says in Your
God Shall Be My God.
Anglicans are becoming Roman Catholics, and vice versa, Jews are
becoming Buddhists, Muslims are becoming Anglicans and Roman Catholics Jews.
Between 10 and 30 per cent of converts to Buddhism are Jewish,
according to official estimates. Such converts are referred to as a "Jew-Bu".
Dharmachavi Vishvapani, 35, a Jew who changed his name from Simon
Blomfield to join the Western Buddhist Order, said he preferred
Buddhism because it focused on practice rather than dogma. He said: "Not long
after my barmitzvah, at the age of 15, I took up meditation. It all happened
quite quickly after that. Judaism did not seem relevant to my life. It
was more about sustaining a culture than living a good life."
A high proportion of the 1,500 to 2,500 converts to Islam every year
are Catholics. According to Sarah Jacobs, a former Catholic who is now a
Muslim, the leap between the two faiths is not as great as it seems.
She was confirmed in the Catholic Church, the faith of her mother, at 13.
When one of her brothers married a Muslim she was horrified, but three years
ago she followed him, to the dismay of the rest of her family. She
said: "What appealed to me was the incredible simplicity and clarity of
Dr Ahmed Andrews, a lecturer in the sociology of religion at Derby
University and another convert from Catholicism to Islam said: "There
are between 5,000 and 10,000 white Muslim converts in this country, and
most of the ones I know are former Catholics." Rabbi Romain maintains that
Islam is not the only beneficiary: of the 300 to 400 coverts to Judaism
every year, about a fifth are Catholics.
Catholicism has also had some high-profile converts, including the
Duchess of Kent and Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary. Defections from
Anglicanism to Rome, dubbed "crossing the Tiber", reached a peak after
the Church of England's decision to ordain women. The traditionalist
umbrella group Forward in Faith, believes about 350 clergy and thousands of lay
people have switched.
Many conversions follow marriage, as in the high-profile cases of the
society girl Santa Palmer-Tomkinson, who became a Jew after she married
the writer Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter
of the half-Jewish tycoon Sir James, who became a Muslim after marrying
the former cricketer Imran Khan.
Rabbi Romain, minister of Maidenhead synagogue, Berkshire, says in his
book: "Not only is Britain a multi-faith society, but it is proudly so.
People previously used to one faith are now presented with an array of
different religious options that were hardly thought of beforehand." He
says that a further spiritual impetus has been created by the
"While there has been a decline in knowledge about religion, the
spiritual yearning for answers to questions of the meaning of life and personal
direction remain. People feel a spiritual vacuum so they look outside
their own religious backgrounds, and there is a lot more on offer."
The biggest growth is being experienced by Islam and Buddhism, and
movements such as New Age and paganism. Rabbi Romain believes that
Britain is more fruitful territory for the "new religious movements", or cults,
than the United States. An estimated 400 have spring up since 1945, and
there are 3.2 cults per million of the population in this country
compared with 2.3 per million in the US. "Britain also has the distinction of
being the country in Europe with the highest number of Indian and Eastern
cult centres and communities," he adds.
Peter Brierley, of Christian Research, said the rate of
cross-fertilisation appeared to have increased. He added: "What we
don't know is whether people, having changed, are not changing back again
five years later."