Church Attendance in England, 1980-2005

English church attendance by denomination as proportion of all attendances, 1980-2005

Church Attendance in England, 1980-2005, absolute numbers

As stated elsewhere, I am selecting some interesting data tables from the seven print editions of Religious Trends, published 1998-2008 by Christian Research and compiled and edited by Peter Brierley, for republishing on BRIN with some additional charts. We’re very grateful to Christian Research and Peter Brierley for allowing selective republishing. Some editions are out of print and so reproduction is especially valuable.

The seven editions of Religious Trends were crucial contemporary compendia both for those running religious organisations and researchers interested in religious statistics, particularly denominational statistics.

Each edition was intended to be self-contained and original, with summaries of interesting surveys, selections of official and other data, and brief articles on a dazzling array of subjects: Religious Trends 7, for example, includes a page on Faroese Christianity. Religious Trends 6 (2006/2007) focused in particular on the English Church Census of 2005, while Religious Trends 4 (2003/2004) covered the Scottish Church Census of 2002.

The core of each edition, however, is the summary estimates of church membership, church numbers and ministry for significant Christian denominations. These are both individually and within the broader faith tradition of each (Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholic, Free Church and so forth).

Brierley also provided short- and medium-term projections of future numbers, using damped linear projections. Here we are less concerned with trying to predict the future compared with assembling the data available on the present and the past, so the projected figures are not reproduced, although the horizon-scanning and ‘foresight’ pieces in the seven editions of Religious Trends are fascinating reads in themselves.

The diversity and breadth of coverage which each edition offered, however, required selectivity so that data series are not often strictly comparable between editions (one edition might provide data for Britain as a whole, and the next breakdowns by home country; one would provide data for certain years and the next might drop some observations in order to include years previously omitted).

Of perennial interest are data on trends in church attendance in England, and so here I have compiled a table from data reported in Religious Trends 3 and Religious Trends 7.

[table “9” not found /]

I have also provided area charts showing the change in absolute numbers as well as changing composition of attendances by denomination, to illustrate the data table above.

The 1980, 1990 and 2005 figures come from the English Church Censuses conducted in 1979, 1989 and 2005 respectively, and the 2000 figures are extrapolated from the 1998 English Church Attendance Survey.

Attendance data based on counts tend to be more valuable than self-reports of attendance: people often exaggerate or otherwise misremember their actual attendance, and in any case survey measures report frequency of individual attendance rather than the number in church on a typical Sunday.

The exaggeration in surveys is thought to be less due to wanting to appear more religious in order to impress the survey interviewer (social desirability bias), and more due to respondents attempting to illustrate that they have a connection with churches and that this is an important part of their identity, even though they did not attend in the past week or month. The American researchers Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler have suggested that the ‘church attendance’ question forces respondents to choose an identity – why people choose a more religious identity than their behaviour suggests is an open question.

For more on these data and issues, see:

Peter Brierley, Pulling Out of the Nosedive. A Contemporary Picture of Churchgoing: What the 2005 English Church Census Reveals (Christian Research, 2006)

C. K. Hadaway and P. L. Marler, ‘How many Americans attend worship each week? An alternative approach to measurement’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44/3 (2005), pp. 307-322.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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