Christian Research and Churchgoing

Two articles in yesterday’s broadsheet press gave somewhat conflicting assessments of the state of religion in contemporary Britain, in the lead-in to the papal visit to Britain, which starts next Thursday.

Writing in The Guardian, Julian Glover portrayed ‘a nation of fuzzy doubters’, with believers and churchgoers in a minority but a cultural identity with Christianity still strong. There were extensive quotes from BRIN’s David Voas of the University of Manchester, who has documented (through the 2008 British Social Attitudes – BSA – Survey and other research) that there is a large middle-ground of ‘fuzzy people who don’t really care’ about religion. ‘It is not the case that Britain is getting more religious’, Voas was quoted. Glover’s article can be found at:

The other piece was by Martin Beckford in the Daily Telegraph under the headline of ‘Churchgoing stabilises after years of decline, research shows’. ‘Figures obtained from several of England’s main Christian denominations suggest that the numbers of worshippers in the pews each Sunday are either stable or increasing,’ wrote Beckford. ‘The data run counter to the widely-held views that the country is becoming more secular.’ This article can be accessed at:

The source of Beckford’s report was an exclusive guest post by Benita Hewitt (Director of Christian Research) on the influential Church Mouse blogsite. It was headlined ‘Church attendance in the UK no longer in decline’ and was described as ‘rather earth shattering’ news by the Mouse in the introduction to Hewitt’s post.

Hewitt herself was clear that, in the light of the Anglican, Catholic and Baptist statistics analysed to date, ‘the previous forecasts made showing continued decline have been superseded’ and that the Church is ‘no longer a dying institution but a living movement’. Her post appears at:

In the case of the Church of England, Hewitt demonstrated fairly steady attendance over several years on the basis of average monthly and average weekly congregations. But these are only two of a basket of measures now used by the Church of England to enumerate religious practice.

Hewitt failed to mention that the most long-standing indicator of Anglican churchgoing, usual Sunday attendance, fell by 8% between 2002 and 2008. Similarly, while she observed that her statistics exclude Christmas and Easter churchgoing, she does not note that both Easter congregations and Easter communicants fell by 4% between 2002 and 2008. Christmas communicants also dropped by 11% during the same period, although Christmas attendances rose slightly.

Moreover, Church of England baptisms were down by 8% between 2002 and 2008, confirmations by 19%, marriages and blessings by 6%, funerals by 16% and electoral roll membership by 3%. The overall picture is, therefore, more mixed than the one Hewitt paints.

For English and Welsh Roman Catholics, Hewitt observed that the decline in mass attendance was halted in 2005 and the figure has been steady since then. She does not offer any explanation for this.

Most commentators would attribute this trend, not to the religious practice of indigenous Catholics (which is probably still declining), but to the positive impact of immigration, from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, of devout Catholics.

With the economic recession, the net inflow of Eastern European Catholics (for example, from Poland) now seems to be turning into a net outflow, so this immigrant brake on the decline in mass-going may be purely temporary.

An even cheerier assessment is given by Hewitt of the state of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, whose church attendance rose between 2007 and 2008. It is certainly the case that, on a number of measures, the Baptists can be shown to have bucked the secularizing trend, including being more successful than most mainstream Christian denominations in reaching ethnic minorities.

Here again, however, Hewitt only tells part of the story. Overall, the Baptist data for 2002-08 are mixed. For more information, see the earlier BRIN news post at:

The Methodist Church is a fourth denomination to collect church attendance statistics, but they publish them only triennially, with the next data not due until summer 2011. The most recent figures showed an average decline of 14% in all age whole week attendance between 2005 and 2007, with even greater decreases for children (32%) and young people (30%).

The problem with using denominational data for calculating church attendance is that, because differing methodologies and periodicities are employed, the information is not truly comparable. Also, of course, many denominations do not count their churchgoers.

Only a national census of church attendance would provide a definitive answer, and none has been held in England since 2005. Nevertheless, it is significant that Peter Brierley, the architect of that census and a former Director of Christian Research, is forecasting continuing decline. See our earlier news post at:

Another potential difficulty with Hewitt’s analysis is that she is dealing in absolute numbers, and not relative to the population, which is known to be increasing significantly through birth and immigration. So, church attendance figures which appear flat may actually still conceal relative contraction.

One way of detecting these relative movements is from sample surveys of the national population. Although they are known to exaggerate the actual extent of churchgoing, since (for various reasons) people tend to over-claim their religious beliefs and practices, they can still provide a guide to the direction of travel.

The medium-term trend from the British Election and BSA Surveys is decidedly downwards. However, in support of Hewitt’s thesis, it is interesting that, among those professing a religion, those claiming to attend religious services at least monthly were stable comparing 2005 and 2008.

The lessons of church history are also worth bearing in mind. Religious change can be an extremely slow and long-term process. This is not necessarily inconsistent with short-term (year-on-year) volatility in particular measures of religiosity. This is best illustrated historically in church membership statistics, originally tabulated by Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert and Lee Horsley, and now republished by BRIN at:

In sum, there are lots of caveats to be considered when reading Hewitt’s blog. It is far from certain that a modern-day revival is just around the corner. The dragon of secularization is still not slain.

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