We have spent a little time compiling data on registered places of worship in England and Wales from 1999-2009 and are making a note here on the data, and the caveats you need to bear in mind before interpreting them.
The official data have been incorporated into three spreadsheets by Mark Littler, a young researcher at the University of Manchester with interests in religion and extremism, experimental methods and quantitative approaches more broadly. We have posted the spreadsheets here, including regional breakdowns.
The headline data suggest that ‘mainline’ established denominations are showing a reduction over time in numbers of places of worship, while other world religions, ‘other Christians’, and ‘other’ faith communities are exhibiting a gradual increase.
Note that the data do not cover the Church of England or Church in Wales, which are not required to register.
Taken at face value, these trends fit with a story of secularisation leading to a net reduction in longer-established Christian churches, together with increased ethnic and religious diversity leading to a growth in the number of places of worship for Christian communities outside the traditional categories (‘other Christian’) as well as other world religions and new religious movements, notably Muslim, Sikh and ‘other’.
The line graph above illustrates, using an index where 1999 is the base year (1999=100 for each faith community). By 2009, the figure for Catholics is 98.5, Methodists 94.2, Congregationalists 98.6, URC 93.3, Calvinistic Methodists 97.4, Brethren 99.6, Salvation Army 94.7, Unitarians 97.8, Society of Friends (Quakers) 99.7, Jehovah’s Witnesses 101.2, Other Christians 107.1, Jews 104.5, Muslims 146.5, Sikhs 118.9 and Others 131.7.
The lines for each group are not easy to see so the chart legend additionally ranks the denominations by net growth/loss in numbers in 2009 compared with 1999. The regional data are also of interest: in London, church numbers for ‘Other Christians’ increased by 16% over the 1999-2009 period, while numbers of mosques increased by 42% and ‘other’ places of worship by 91%.
However, these data can’t be used on their own as an indicator of community growth and decline, for a number of reasons. First, not all places of worship are registered, and not all redundant properties are de-registered. In some cases, a denomination may have a ‘clear out’ both in terms of adjusting their property portfolio and with regard to the Register. Secondly, the numbers do not adjust for capacity, so that where (for example) a church is sold or demolished to build a larger church, no net gain is shown in the numbers. A faith group which consolidates its properties – for example, following suburbanisation of its adherents – will show up as declining using numbers of places of worship as the sole indicator of vitality.
Thirdly, communal worship is not central to some belief systems, or worship may not primarily take place in public places of worship. Pagans, for example, do not have any public places of worship in the traditional sense, practising privately whether in- or outdoors, while moots are organised in cafes and pubs.
In 1689, nonconformists were required to register their meeting houses with the authorities in England and Wales – an obligation which never extended to Scotland. The process also conferred legal (and later, taxation) advantages, so organisations preferred to register even when the obligation to do so lessened after the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855.
Before the mid-nineteenth century licences were issued by county and borough quarter sessions, or episcopal and archidiaconal registries, but the Protestant Dissenters Act 1852 transferred the responsibility to the Registrar General – and the General Register Office still holds this responsibility.
Lists and tables of these registrations have been published occasionally as House of Commons Parliamentary Papers before the First World War (for instance, 1882,Vol. 50); or later (intermittently) in The Official List, Part III and Marriage and Divorce Statistics, in a series currently published by National Statistics as FM2 Table 3.42. Buildings registered for the solemnisation of marriages are identified separately as FM2 Table 3.43. Data for selected years from 1972 have been assembled in the various editions of P. Weller (ed.), Religions in the UK.
Why and How Places Register
Places of worship which have been registered officially are generally exempted from local business rates. Schedule 5 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 provides that the places of worship are exempted if they are Church of England or Church in Wales, or ‘any other recognised religion… and the premises must be used and available for public religious worship’. Church halls and administrative offices also qualify if required for the place of worship to operate. While being officially-registered does not prove that a building is a place of worship, registration is an additional piece of evidence that the property is actively used as a place of worship. It seems likely that non-registered places of worship usually manage to win exemption also, although I haven’t been able to find information about this.
Religious organisations are asked to fill in Form 76, provide a plan or sketch of the building identifying the spaces used for worship, and a timetable of when the building will be used. These are sent to the Superintendant General. The form provides that the faith group name is given in the space after the following: ‘XXXX will accordingly be forthwith used as a place of meeting for religious worship by a congregation or assembly of persons calling themselves XXXX’. Hence it is very simple and non-prescriptive with regard to identifying names.
A Freedom of Information Request made in March 2010 led to a complete list of the extant Register being published online, illustrating the issues at hand. For example, there is one place of worship listed as “Quaker”, 41 as “Quakers”, 314 as “Friends”, and 9 as “Society of Friends”. Most mosques are described as attended by “Muslims” but in some cases “Sunni Muslims” or “Shia” are specified. There are a number of mis-spellings; it is not clear when places of worship were added to the database; and addresses are not entered consistently (many specify the part of the building which is used as a place of worship – e.g. “two rooms on second floor” rather than the postal address).
I am gradually cleaning the file published online to categorise denominations and hope eventually to provide a comprehensible list by local authority.
The form does advise that ‘the description “Christians not otherwise designated” may be used. If the worshippers decline to describe themselves by any distinctive appellation, the words “calling themselves” may be erased and the words “who object to be designated by any distinctive religious appellation” inserted’. Accordingly, of the 29372 listed in March 2010, 1517 identify as Christians not otherwise designated and 53 churches “who object…”. Offering a list of standardised terms would help categorise the raw data and draw further information on the nature of the congregation.
Under- and Over-Registration
What is clear is that not all places of worship register – and equally, places of worship which are sold to residential property developers are not required to be de-registered. A casual check of the March 2010 threw up examples of churches which were for sale, and a number of organisations which may well have ceased to exist. Mehmood Naqshbandi at the excellent Muslims in Britain site and online directory has been running a project for several years to identify every active mosque (masjid) in England and Wales, and has reached a count of 1595 mosques – some way above the officially-registered total of 870.
He suggests that perhaps as many as 20% of the entries for mosques in the official Register are for mosques which no longer exist, while the running total does not capture about half of the actual Muslim places of worship. In some cases, this may be because they are prayer rooms within universities or similar, or exist as facilities within larger community and cultural centres, and therefore there is no financial benefit in registering.
‘There is negligible benefit in registering, it being ‘permissive’ since 1852. The process dates to a time when religious dissenters were excluded from many aspects of civil life. Furthermore, the Register is massively out of date, largely from neglecting to de-register congregations’ places of worship that have moved or disbanded. The state-established churches of Britain, e.g. Church of England churches, are exempt from registration, so would add considerably to the 40,000 listed…’.
He is currently working through his own files and the Register to categorise mosques in Britain in as much detail as possible: by administrative boundary, religious tradition, size, location and so forth. The project also aims to uncover where under- or over-registration is most prevalent. The most recent summary of his data is available here.
We will write more in due course on Naqshbandi’s fascinating data later, but provide the link to interested readers now.
Note that the 2008 and 2009 data have been made available to us ahead of National Statistics’ publication schedule (current data online for the FM2 series are only available up to 2007) following a Freedom of Information request. Thanks to National Statistics for providing data early, and to David Buckley and Selwyn Hughes at the General Register Office for enabling the data release.