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:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/10/religion-typical-briton-fuzzy-believer

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:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/7992616/Churchgoing-stabilises-after-years-of-decline-research-shows.html

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Catholic and Baptist statistics analysed to date, ‘the previous forecasts made showing continued decline have been superseded’ and that the Church is ‘no longer a dying institution but a living movement’.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:

http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.com/2010/09/christian-research-church-attendance-in.html

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:

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/?p=69.

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:

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/?p=319.

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:

http://www.brin.ac.uk/figures/#ChurchesandChurchgoers.

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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6 Responses to Christian Research and Churchgoing

  1. Excellent analysis as always. Mouse adds a few points:

    1. Its easy to adjust for population growth. For the CofE the 2001 attendance was 1.7m and 2008 was 1.67. ONS quote mid-year population figures as 59.1m for 2001 and 61.4m for 2008, so the % attending CofE churches is 2.876% in 2001 and 2.72% in 2008. That is decline, but not sure how significant.

    2. Average Sunday Attendance is increasingly irrelevant as a statistic, as patterns of worship change in the direction of more mid-week church attendance. Benita explains that in one of the articles (can’t remember which), and that is the reason why average monthly and weekly are used instead.

    3. Christmas and Easter attendance numbers are useless indicators, as they are hugely dependent on the weather and the day of the week on which those festivals actually fall.

    4. The falls in the number of marriages and baptisms performed in the CofE quoted above are absolute numbers. More relevant statistics would be proportional measures. The number of marriages in the UK has been falling for many years, for example, so we would expect to see drops in the number of Church marriages. More relevant is the proportion of all marriages which take place in the Church of England. Similarly the number of baptisms needs to be put in the context of birth rates. I don’t have these numbers so can’t comment on whether the decline is real or not.

    5. Benita has just commented on the point about Polish immigration over at the Guardian

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/10/religion-christianity?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments

    She points out that there was a significant outflow of Polish immigrants in 2008 (according to ONS figures), so that doesn’t account for the increase that year. Nevertheless, the impact of Eastern European immigration should be investigated further, as that surely has impacted on these numbers somewhere. Whether it is to a significant degree or not is pretty much guess work at this point.

    6. Regardless of all of this, the real point to be made here is that throughout the 1990s the church shrunk in absolute and relative terms quite dramatically. Now we can see that this decline has levelled off. Perhaps there has still been a small decline, or perhaps a small increase when we factor in Fresh Expressions and other denominations, through the 2000s. But that is not the point. We are no longer in a nose dive. That is hugely important.

  2. Thank you Church Mouse. Your last point is the main finding I am trying to communicate – the church is no longer declining at a dramatic rate to the point where it might cease to exit. Peter Brierley’s book following the last Christian Research census in 2005 was titled ‘Pulling out of the Nosedive’ and we are continuing to see those trends. We believe the church is pulling out of the nosedive now. It is too early to declare growth, but the situation certainly looks stable.

    Usual Sunday attendance is a measure which the Church of England itself sees as no longer relevant. To quote their ‘Church Statistics’ publication: ‘It would be wrong to make direct comparisons between the number counted in church services across October and the figures that churches have traditionally estimated as their “usual Sunday attendance”‘.

    As Church Mouse, and the Church of England confirm, Christmas attendance is significantly affected by the day of week in which Christmas Eve and Day fall. Another factor to take into account is that you have quoted the numbers of communicants. Whilst the number of Christmas communicants fell from 1.21m in 2002 to 1.08m in 2008, the number of attenders rose from 2.61m to 2.65m.

    The Church of England has conducted some very impressive and significant research with the Henley Centre to look at church weddings, and I believe this is having a real impact on the proportion of church weddings – although, of course, it will be some time before we can confirm this with statistics and trends.

    I totally agree with your point about not being able to compare across denominations, which is why we have only looked at trends within denominations.

    Sample surveys of the population are a good way of looking at trends. The most consistent of these was the Tearfund twice-yearly study and the most recent data did showed ‘growth around the edges’ of church. It did not show continued decline. We took this into account when making our statement about the end of church decline. Christian Research is planning to continue with such a measure of the population.

    I agree that a national census of church attendance will give a more consistent and definitive answer. Christian Research is planning to conduct a census in 2011. This census will be much more comprehensive then any church census conducted by Christian Research in the past. We need to ‘count’ the church in all that it does.

    You must be aware, as are we, that churchgoing is changing in this country as the church slowly adapts to changes in society. These changes make monitoring of the situation more complex than before, and present challenges to us researchers. We at Christian Research, and my counterpart at Church of England, are adapting what and how we count. We are also conducting more qualitative research to help understand in more depth what is on hearts on minds of the people we are counting. This will help the church to anticipate and adapt to change.

    At Christian Research we could look at the traditional statistics and continue to declare that the church is in decline. But we are looking at the bigger picture, in the context of a changing church and society. We cannot continue to just count ‘membership’ and ‘numbers on pews on a Sunday morning’. The church is changing, and the way people are worshiping is changing. And given the numbers we are looking at, from a variety of sources, it is time to change the narrative from one of decline to one of stability. The church is indeed ‘Pulling out of the Nosedive’.

  3. Clive Field says:

    Since my original BRIN post I have seen Benita Hewitt’s post from Saturday morning on the Comment is Free (CiF) website. This is entitled ‘Church attendance has bottomed out’ and covers similar ground to her Church Mouse post. See:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/10/religion-christianity?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments

    The CiF post has triggered some debate. In one of her replies to the comments, Hewitt announces that Christian Research is planning a new national census of church attendance for 2011. This is excellent news (assuming that the funding can be secured).

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