There were a lot of headlines this week in response to the latest ONS census of Religion in England and Wales, a voluntary survey conducted every ten years. The major two findings were:
For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question.
“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011.
This was interpreted as meaning that the Christian faith was now a minority position in England and Wales, and passing this milestone was felt by some to trigger major questions, including why the Church of England should remain established.
Before digging into what is going on, it is worth noting what is driving this change. In a population where the average life expectancy is around 80, and where there is no significant infant mortality, in 10 years the population will have changed by around 12%, that is, 12% will have died, and another 12% will have entered adulthood and so be part of the census for the first time. Given the drop in identification as ‘Christian’ was 13% and the growth in ‘no religion’ was 12%, this suggests that the vast majority of the change was generational; rather than individuals changing their view, what we are seeing is a shift in attitudes from one generation to the next. I will return to the significance of this at the end of this piece.
The census was of ‘religious attitudes‘, and not religious practice, so there was no question here about any kind of attendance. This leads to some key observations.
First, there is a large disparity between those identifying as ‘Christian’ and actual regular attendance at churches, on Sundays or midweek. C of E regular attendance is around 850,000, and (according to the work of Peter Brierley) this represents around a quarter of all attendance, which would then be 3.4 million, or just under 6% or the population. That attendance figure is a small part of the 27.5 million identifying as ‘Christian’.
(An interesting comparison is football viewing and attendance. In 2020/21, a record breaking 26.8m people or 40% of the population watched a live Premier League match at some point during the year. During football season match days, total attendance at matches of the first four divisions is 720,000—so the Christian faith is still far more popular, in terms of commitment and affiliation, than football!)
So the question is, what did people mean by saying they identified as Christian? For some, they will be aware of the heritage of Christian values which has shaped our culture—but I suspect for most, particularly those who are older, the term is effectively equivalent to ‘decent’, ‘moral’, ‘respectable’, or even ‘traditional British’.
This is very different from any reasonable working definition of ‘Christian’. In the gospels, it is clear that the core of Jesus’ message is ‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand—repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1.15). We might express this in contemporary terms: ‘the kingly, ruling presence of God is on its way; change the direction of your life, and trust your life to me.’ St Paul sums up Christian commitment as confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom 10.9, 1 Cor 12.3), that is to say, it is to Jesus we owe the faithful allegiance of our lives as we receive the forgiveness, hope and confidence that he offers through his life, death and resurrection. As an ordained Christian minister, I confess I am much more concerned with how many people are Christian in this sense, than how many tick a box on a census form!
Secondly, Danny Webster, of Evangelical Alliance, has done a similar calculation:
First of all, these findings are not a surprise; it has been widely predicted that this would be the result, and our own research through Talking Jesus found that 48% of the UK population described themselves as Christian. Second, it is vital to understand what the census measures and what it doesn’t. The decline in this figure is primarily representative of fewer people holding to the cultural label of Christian. The same Talking Jesus research found that between 2015 and 2021 the number of practicing Christians had remained fairly stable at 6% – this takes a composite measure of people who attend church at least monthly, read the Bible weekly and pray weekly. Other surveys have consistently found that around 10% attend church at least once a month.
(Mark Woods, of Bible Society, notes similar findings from other surveys.)
In other words, this change is primarily a decline in nominal religious affiliation, whilst active attendance has actually remained steady. That is highly significant, given the age demographic in many churches: despite many church attenders being ‘promoted to glory’, especially in Anglican and rural contexts, active Christian commitment has remained steady, which suggests that young people are coming to faith, though in different places and within different denominations. (In my city, Nottingham, there are a good number of large and growing churches which are attracting young people—but most of them are not Anglican, and none of them are theologically liberal.)
This loss of nominal affiliation is a reflection of changes in our culture; all formal associations have experienced fairly catastrophic decline in recent years, as we have become a society which is much less concerned with structured commitment to organisations. Actual church attendance has been affected by this too; where committed Christians might have attended church twice a Sunday on most Sundays in a month in the past, now even committed church members will not be there four times in a month.
Two of the main findings of census are surely related to migration:
There were increases in the number of people who described themselves as “Muslim” (3.9 million, 6.5% in 2021, up from 2.7 million, 4.9% in 2011) and “Hindu” (1.0 million, 1.7% in 2021, up from 818,000, 1.5% in 2011).
London remains the most religiously diverse region of England in 2021, with over a quarter (25.3%) of all usual residents reporting a religion other than “Christian”; the North East and South West are the least religiously diverse regions, with 4.2% and 3.2%, respectively, selecting a religion other than “Christian”.
Migration has resulted in 1 in 6 of the population of England and Wales being born in another country, and a good proportion of those will have come from countries where Islam and Hinduism are the major religions, especially since Brexit. In addition, birth rates amongst these minority groups are generally much higher than amongst the indigenous white UK population.
But the net result is that, whilst affiliation to the Christian faith has declined, and those stating ‘no religion’ has dramatically increased, it is still the case that, in total, 56.4% of respondents declared a religious affiliation and outlook, compared with 37.2% without. We are still a pretty religious country, even though that is changing.
Given all these qualifications, let’s now return to the causes and consequences of these changes.
One correspondent to the Daily Telegraph is very clear on the reasons for decline in affiliation:
SIR – I fear that the decline in the number of people in England and Wales espousing Christian belief, now less than 50 per cent (report, November 30), is largely self-inflicted.
Decades of “modernising” church services to the point of ineffable blandness haven’t helped, while clergy numbers have fallen to a level where retired clergy are working hard to cover the gaps in stipendiary ministry. On top of that, the Church of England has gone down the road of micromanagement, so that the real reason for its existence has been lost in a sea of secular directives.
The situation can be salvaged but, as with the NHS, a radical change of direction is required. The closure of churches during the first lockdown was a major error – a missed opportunity to help people in real distress . Now, amid a cost-of-living crisis, there is a similar opportunity.
However, although the faith is strong, the organisation to proclaim it isn’t. We need vigorous leadership, with better resources for parishes. If more parish churches had a regular priest providing inspiring worship, with a real feeling for the community, the tide could turn.
Rev Simon Douglas Lane
Although the writer completely misses the question of nominal affiliation versus actual attendance, there are some important points here. Church leaders, particularly in the C of E, are widely perceived as being more interested in commenting on social issues than making challenging claims about the gospel. And it is certainly the case that diocesan strategies which cut the number of stipendiary clergy posts will inevitably lead to further decline.
Alongside this, there are some very strange claims about the problems with the church. Michael Coren both laments that this decline is happening, lays the blame on the church, notes that it is only ‘conservatives’ churches and religions that are growing, but claims that the ‘progressive’ gospel is the real deal, all at the same time!
Christians can’t blame anyone else for the decline in belief—a vocal, intolerant minority has defined us for too long…
A factor that should give pause to progressives, whatever their religious beliefs, is that Christian growth in Britain is often within conservative elements, whether they be Catholic, evangelical or inside the Church of England. No surprise really, in that certainty sells in times of transition and instability, especially when it’s glued to religious culture.
And here’s where it all becomes so frustrating. Mainstream churches – based on authentic Gospel principles of love, justice, forgiveness, acceptance, progress and peace – simply aren’t doing a very good job of selling the brand. It’s almost as though we’re more concerned with apologies than apologetics.
It doesn’t appear to occur to him that it is precisely this ‘progressive gospel’ which is actually the problem! When the church simply repeats the values of the changing culture and its progressive values, it is not really surprising that people wonder why they need to bother going to church at all.
This leads us to consider the consequences of this change. David Aaronovitch (who agrees with me that this is a generational change) is worried about the decline in religious belief, despite himself being an atheist:
I was struck by something the Archbishop of York said in response to the census findings. The church had existed for two millennia in order to “share the good news of Jesus Christ, serve our neighbour and bring hope to a troubled world”. And the need for all that, he added, had not gone away.
Fewer people might believe in that kind of good news, but the serving our neighbour bit is a different matter and it’s why, despite being an atheist, I meet this latest news with mixed feelings. If I look out of my house I see an Anglican church and beyond it a Quaker meeting hall. Just below, out of sight, is a small synagogue. At various times people congregate in these buildings. They greet each other, chant, sing, collect for good causes. I simply don’t believe life around here would be better if they stopped. In fact, I believe the opposite.
It may be coincidental but the census showed that the South Wales valleys, the old mining towns and villages that were once all union and chapel, were among the least religious parts of Britain. They are also some of the most depressed, with high rates of addiction and suicide. Is there a possible correlation here? Should we be thinking harder about what we do to replace the communal function of declining religion? To mitigate the loss from this change?
I was invited to discuss the census results on LBC with Ben Kentish earlier this week, and you can listen back here. Ben was positive about the decline, since he believed that religion was responsible for a whole host of negative things that we have (thankfully) moved beyond. But he then sounded a fascinating note of concern:
If modern, open, tolerant values are triumphing over outdated and even repressive religious ones, I think that is a good thing. But if religion is on the way out, and it seems that it is certainly in decline, I do worry about what is replacing it. Because, yes, the decline in our religious beliefs has had good consequences, but I think it has had bad ones too. I say that because I think all religions promote similar values: doing good; looking after other people; treating others as you would want to be treated yourself; the idea that there is something bigger than each of us. Now those things are not reliant on religious values—of course they are not—and if people’s religious values are being replaced by secular values of looking out for each other, being part of a community, caring for each other, then I would say ‘great’. Good religious values without the actual religion—that, to me, is not a big problem.
But I am not sure that is what is happening. My worry is that, as religion is replaced, it is replaced by a country that is increasingly fragmented, increasingly just a collection of individuals who don’t feel they have as much of a duty or an obligation to each other, that the idea of every man and woman for themselves, the opposite of what I think religion teaches us, is become ever more common, and we have a culture in which money and material possession, and power and status, are more and more seen as more important than the things that I think religion tells us are important. Things like responsibility to each other, like duty, sacrifice, those sorts of values, and that does go hand in hand with the fall in people who say they have a religion, and I don’t think it is a stretch at all to say those two things are linked.
Ben is of course mistaken here in saying that all religions teach the same thing. He is right, though, to be worried about what is replacing religion. He would love to have religious values, but without religion—yet this is simply not possible. Caring for your neighbour, protecting the vulnerable, making space for the views of others, are all costly, and you need both a transcendent motivation and the resources of faith to enact these things.
Tom Holland has repeatedly pointed out that these Western liberal values are far from universal, as is often thought, but derive specifically from Christian faith.
There is no single text, perhaps, that is more consistently the object of humanist contempt than the book of Genesis… Yet humanists, no less than Jews or Christians, are indelibly stamped by it. In fact, if there is a single wellspring for the reverence they display towards their own species, it is the opening chapter of the Bible.
Gods in antiquity were not in the habit of endowing humanity with an inherent dignity. Quite the opposite. “I will make man, who shall inhabit the world, that the service of the gods may be established, and their shrines built.” So spoke Marduk, who according to the Babylonians created humanity out of a sticky compound of dust and blood to be the slaves of deities. Here was an understanding of man’s purpose, bleak and despairing, that it would have been very easy for the exiles brought to the banks of the Euphrates from sacked Jerusalem to accept: for it would certainly have corresponded to a sense of their puniness before the immensity of Babylon the Great.
But the exiles from Judah did not accept it. They clung instead to the conviction that it was their own god who had brought humanity into being, per Genesis. Man and woman, in the various stories told by the exiles, were endowed with a uniquely privileged status. They alone had been shaped in God’s image; they alone had been granted mastery over every living creature; they alone, after five days of divine labour, had been created on the sixth day.
But Holland is also clear that you cannot hold onto these values forever whilst abandoning faith:
It is hardly surprising, of course, in a society that has increasingly abandoned the institutional practice of Christianity, yet still clings to its assumptions, its values, its myths, that we should shrink from staring the implications of our current predicament fully in the face. “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)