The Church of England no longer has any political power, although its archbishops and some bishops still sit in the House of Lords. There are about 27 million Anglicans in the UK, although relatively few attend church. Roman Catholics number more than 5 million, Presbyterians about 2 million, Methodists about 700,000, and Jews about 400,000. Numerous other religions are practised in England, and in many cities there are significant Muslim and Hindu communities. Society is secular, and religious education in schools now embraces a wide range of religions, not only Christianity.
GREETINGS AND GESTURES
Many English people will simply say “Hello”, but a handshake is the formal way of greeting and parting. On first meeting, “How do you do?” or a less formal phrase is used. Among friends, women are often kissed (by men and women) lightly on one cheek. Handshakes are firm. The use of first names is widespread. Titles such as “Mr” and “Mrs” are being used less frequently, even when children address adults.
The English are in general a reserved people, who do not approve of loud or highly demonstrative behaviour (except in very informal gatherings). Personal space is respected, and people feel uncomfortable when others stand too close to them during conversation. Touching is generally avoided. Manners are important, although standards are not as high among young people, who account for nearly one-fifth of the population.
English families are small (one or two children are the norm) and often tightly knit. Fewer people are getting married and those who do are marrying later. Women are having fewer children and are waiting longer to have them. In the past three decades, a substantial number of women have begun working outside the home. In recent years, the divorce rate has risen, as has the number of single-parent families.
The standard of living is lower than in the United States and many of the country's European Union (EU) partners, though the UK ranks in the top 20 countries in the world in this respect. Since the early 1980s, the division between rich and poor has grown, but the middle class remains the largest section of society. Home ownership is high: about two-thirds of people own their own houses or flats.
Although many couples choose to live together before or instead of marriage, the most widely preferred living arrangement is still based on marriage. Marriage is legal at the age of 16 but usually takes place when people are in their mid to late 20s.
DIET AND EATING
The traditional English breakfast consists of any or all of the following: bacon, sausages, grilled or fried tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs, fried bread, black pudding (blood sausage), and kippers (smoked herring). However, fewer people now eat a cooked breakfast on a regular basis, preferring various combinations of cereal, toast, juice or fruit, and tea or coffee. Since the 1960s, the British have become more adventurous in their diet and now eat a wide variety of food from around the world. Many traditional foods such as beef and potatoes have given way to seafood and pasta dishes. Fast food has also become more available, and hamburger restaurants now rival the traditional fish-and-chip shops in popularity. Numerous Chinese and Indian restaurants and pizza houses provide take-away services, and many pubs (public houses) serve anything from snacks to full meals as well as alcoholic beverages. Traditional English dishes include roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (a baked batter) and steak-and-kidney pie.
The English generally eat three meals a day. The midday meal is usually referred to as lunch and the evening meal as dinner or, when it is less formal, as supper. Northerners often call the meal they have in the early evening “tea”. The tradition of afternoon tea, that is taking tea, biscuits, and cakes at about 4 PM, is declining. Similarly, many people no longer have more than a light lunch or snack in the middle of the day. In restaurants, a waiter is summoned by either raising the hand or establishing eye contact.
It is customary to telephone before visiting; the English guard their privacy and in general do not like to be taken by surprise. When invited to a meal by friends, guests often bring a bottle of wine, chocolates, or flowers. If invited by strangers, it is usual to take a bottle of wine or nothing at all. A thank-you note should be sent after a formal occasion. After an informal dinner with friends, it is appreciated if one expresses thanks by telephone.
Wintertime national sports are football (soccer) and Rugby Union. Rugby League, which is played mainly in the north, switched from a winter to a summer season in 1996. One of the most popular spectator sports is horse racing (over jumps in the winter and on a flat track in the summer). The traditional summer sport is cricket. Modern lawn tennis was first played in England, and the rules of modern boxing originated here. The English are avid walkers and also enjoy golf and fishing. Gardening is a favourite way to relax and represents a huge industry (gardening books can become best-sellers). Other sports that attract enthusiasts are sailing, rowing, squash, snooker, and darts.
The pub remains a popular place to socialize with friends. Relaxing in the home, however, is still more popular. The British watch more television than the people of any other nation with the exception of the US; British programmes are generally of high quality. Videos are also popular, but many people equally enjoy seeing films at the cinema. All types of music and theatre are well supported. The country also has a wealth of art galleries and museums.
HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS
In northern England, on New Year's Day (1 January) the old custom of “first-footing”, being the first to cross the threshold of a home in the early-morning hours, is sometimes practised. To bring the household luck, the “first-footer” must come laden with breads, cakes, cheeses, and a lump of coal.
Pancake Day, another name for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent), was traditionally a day to make pancakes in order to use up all the butter and eggs that would not be allowed during Lent. In an annual race held in Olney since 1945, women run 380 metres (415 yards), each carrying a pan and a pancake that must be flipped three times.
Mothering Sunday, traditionally the fourth Sunday in Lent, is a day to visit one's mother, bearing a cake or flowers. On 1 April, April Fool's tricks are played until noon.
May Day (1 May) used to be a time for dancing around the maypole and crowning a May Queen; now it is England's Labour Day. On the second Saturday in June, Queen Elizabeth II's birthday is celebrated. The queen's birthday is actually in April —ðt h e d a t e d i s c r e p a n c y i s p e r h a p s d u e t o t h e t y p i c a l l y u n p l e a s a n t A p r i l w e a t h e r .