Changes in Attendance at Religious Services in Britain

This BRIN post takes a historical perspective on religious attendance in Britain, looking at nationally-representative survey data covering the past three decades. Attendance is a common indicator of what sociologists of religion term ‘behaving’, often analysed alongside religious ‘belonging’ and ‘believing’. Of course, attendance data based on sample surveys need to be treated with caution given well-established concerns over the ‘aspirational’ reporting of attendance by respondents involving exaggeration of how often they actually visit places of worship. Valuable data on religious attendance are also provided via statistics produced by some religious denominations (the most obvious being the Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches) and by periodic church censuses (church attendance figures for England between 1979 and 2005 are available from BRIN here).

The analysis here is based on data from the two surveys which ‘book-end’ the British Social Attitudes (BSA) series – those conducted in 1983 and 2012 (the latter of which has already been the subject of analysis of religion and moral issues in a previous BRIN post). This post focuses on:

(1)   The extent of change over time in overall rates of attendance

(2)    An analysis of which social groups are more or less likely to report that they do not attend religious services.

Earlier studies of popular religion using sample survey data, such as Michael Argyle’s Religious Behaviour (1958, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), found differences in levels of weekly church attendance in Britain based on social factors such as sex and class. Women and those in higher social classes were more likely to attend church on a weekly basis.

The BSA surveys have used the same question wording over time to ask respondents about religious attendance. The wording is as follows:

Apart from such special occasions as weddings, funerals and baptisms, how often nowadays do you attend services or meetings connected with your religion?

Once a week or more

Less often but at least once in two weeks

Less often but at least once a month

Less often but at least twice a year

Less often but at least once a year

Less often than once a year

Never or practically never

Varies too much to say

Don’t know

The full set of response options shown above has been collapsed into three groups: attends frequently (defined as once a month or more); attends infrequently (less often); and never attends. This excludes ‘don’t know’ responses. Table 1 reports the respective percentage distributions for the 1983 and 2012 surveys.  To provide some wider context for religious change, Table 1 also reports the over-time data for religious affiliation (or ‘belonging’).

The proportion with a religious affiliation has decreased from just over two-thirds in 1983 to just over a half in 2012. The data for attendance also show change over time -  and in the direction of less religious engagement – with the proportion who report attending religious services (whether frequently or infrequently) falling from 44.1% in 1983 to 34.3% in 2012. More specifically, there has been decline over recent decades in the proportions of both frequent-attenders and infrequent-attenders. The proportion never attending services (except for those special occasions mentioned above) has risen from over half to around two-thirds. Overall, frequent attendance at services was very much a minority activity in both 1983 and 2012 and similar proportions were classified as infrequent attenders. Non-attenders comprised the majority group in both 1983 and 2012, but a much clearer majority in the latter survey. 

Table 1: Religious affiliation and attendance at religious services

1983 (%)

2012 (%)

Affiliation
Has a religious affiliation

68.6

52.3

No religious affiliation

31.4

47.7

Attendance
Attends frequently: At least once a month or more

21.3

17.0

Attends infrequently: Less often than once a month

22.8

17.3

Total attends

44.1

34.3

Never attends

55.9

65.7

Source: compiled by the author from BSA surveys.

The second aspect of the religious attendance data examined here is variation across social groups and over time, again presenting data from both the 1983 and 2012 surveys. Table 2 reports the proportions in various social groups who, in 1983 and 2012, said they never attended religious services. There are some interesting variations in non-attendance. Looking at men and women, we can see that the latter are much less likely to report that they never attend services in the 1983 survey. This is also the case in 2012, but the gap between men and women has closed considerably. In 1983, 48.5% of women did not attend services, which had risen to 63.8% by 2012. There was much less change for men over time, increasing from 64.6% to 69.5%.

What about variation based on age group? We can see that a similar pattern is evident in both 1983 and 2012 in terms of the older age groups being less likely to report not attending services. In 1983, 73% of 18-24 year olds said they did not attend religious services, compared to 44.3% of those aged 65-74 years. In 2012, the gap between the age groups least and most likely to say they never attended was considerably reduced: at 71.9% for those aged 18-24 and 58.8% for those aged 75 and older. While the two youngest age groups show relatively little change between 1983 and 2012 in the proportions who never attend, the older age groups – with the exception of those aged 75 and over – show substantial increases in their levels of non-attendance.

Next, there are clear differences in levels of non-attendance based on the region where a respondent lives. In 1983, the proportions who did not attend services were considerably lower in Scotland (41.5%) and Wales (46.5%) than in England (58.3%) as a whole. Within England, there was noticeable variation across the nine standard regions, lowest at 51.1% in Greater London and highest at 69.3% in Yorkshire and Humberside. In 2012, however, Scotland and Wales do not stand apart in comparison with England as a whole. In fact, in Wales the proportion who report they do not attend religious services is the highest recorded in any area (at 78.5%). Moreover, Scotland’s level of non-attendance (68.8%) ranks on a par with the highest recorded for England regions (68.7% in the South West and 68.3% in Yorkshire and Humberside). Between 1983 and 2012, the increase in non-attendance is much greater for Scotland and Wales than it is for England.

Finally, levels of non-attendance are shown for several groups based on religious affiliation: Anglicans, Catholics, other Christian, and other religion. All three Christian groups show an increase in the proportion reporting that they do not attend services, but the same pattern is evident in both surveys. That is, Catholics are least likely to report not attending services, followed by other Christians, with Anglicans most likely to report they do not attend (which constitutes a bare majority of them in 2012). Interestingly, the proportion of other Christians who do not attend services nearly doubles between 1983 and 2012, but this group does include a greater proportion reporting no specific denominational affiliation in 2012, who may be less likely to take part in communal activity. Other survey-based research on churchgoing in the United Kingdom, conducted by Tearfund in 2007 showed that – compared to other Christian denominations – Anglicans were least likely to attend services, on either a weekly or monthly basis. The figures for the other religion group (which comprises adherents of non-Christian faiths) actually show a decrease in the level of non-attendance, but caution should be exercised here given that this group comprised a very small proportion of the samples in 1983 and 2012 (albeit one that has increased over time, from 2.0% to 6.0%).

Table 2: Per cent reporting that they never attend religious services, various socio-demographic factors

 

1983 (%)

2012 (%)

Sex Men

64.6

69.5

  Women

48.5

63.8

 
Age group 18-24

73.0

71.9

  25-34

65.9

68.8

  35-44

55.5

68.8

  45-54

48.9

66.3

  55-64

47.2

67.5

  65-74

44.3

59.4

  75+

55.7

58.8

 
Region England

58.3

65.6

      North East

56.4

72.7

      North West

61.5

65.6

      Yorkshire and       Humberside

69.3

68.3

      West Midlands

54.8

66.9

      East Midlands

65.1

70.7

      East Anglia / Eastern England

54.2

66.7

      South West

59.3

68.7

      South East

54.5

63.4

      Greater London

51.1

57.6

  Scotland

41.5

68.8

  Wales

46.5

78.5

 
Affiliation Anglican

43.3

50.8

  Catholic

25.0

35.0

  Other Christian

23.3

43.7

  Other religion

37.1

25.9

 

Source: Compiled by the author from BSA surveys.

Next, variations in attendance are examined based on two indicators of socio-economic status, education (Table 3) and social class (Table 4 and Table 5). A consistent measure of education is available for both surveys, based on a question asking at what age respondents completed their full-time education (also labelled terminal education age) or whether they were still in some form of education (for example, college or university). Table 3 shows that, in 1983, those who finished full-time education aged 19 or over were less likely to report never attending services (about two-fifths said this) compared to all other groups (highest for those who left aged 17 – at 61.1%). In 2012, there is a similar pattern of non-attendance – those who left-education aged 19 years or older are less likely to report not attending services (at 57.1%), closely followed by those still in education (55.6%). Even so, the proportion of those aged 19 and over who never-attended had clearly risen over the intervening three decades, as had the proportions in the other groups (with the exception of those still in education). Another way of measuring educational background is to look at the highest qualification held by respondents. Such a measure was not included on the 1983 survey, but the data from the 2012 survey show that those holding degree-level (or above) qualifications were less likely to report never attending services (55.7%) compared to those with lower-level qualifications (such as A-Levels or GCSEs)  or none at all (69.4%).

Table 3: Per cent reporting that they never attend religious services by age completed full-time education

 

1983 (%)

2012 (%)

15 or under

55.8

70.1

16

59.8

75.0

17

61.1

67.7

18

56.8

65.8

19 and over

41.5

57.1

Still in education

55.9

55.6

Source: Compiled by the author from BSA surveys.

Table 4 (1983) and Table 5 (2012) show levels of non-attendance based on measures of social class. The measures are not identical, reflecting changes in the way the BSA series has adapted to changes in official classifications in this area. In 1983, we can see that those within the higher grades (professional or intermediate) are less likely to report not attending religious services (46.3% and 50.9%, respectively). In 1983, the highest levels of non-attendance are found amongst those in partly-skilled or unskilled occupations (at 61.5% and 62.4%). In 2012, the differences are narrower across categories, with all groups reporting higher levels of non-attendance. Those within the salariat (i.e. in higher-level ‘white-collar’ occupations) are slightly less likely to report that they do not attend services (63.3%), with non-attendance highest amongst those in the foreman / technicians category (at 73.1%).

Table 4: Per cent reporting that they never attend religious services by social class, 1983 (Registrar General’s Social Class)

               

%

Professional

46.3

Intermediate

50.9

Skilled

61.5

Partly skilled

62.4

Unskilled

57.5

Look after home

46.5

Source: Compiled by the author from the BSA 1983 survey.

Table 5 Per cent reporting that they never attend religious services by social class, 2012 (NS-SEC analytic class)

               

%

Salariat

63.3

Clerical

69.2

Petty Bourgeois

69.0

Foreman / Technicians

73.1

Working class

67.9

Source: Compiled by the author from the BSA 2012 survey.

Summary

The evidence reviewed here from the BSA surveys has shown that sex, age, religious affiliation and, to a lesser extent, socio-economic status – particularly educational background – have been and still are sources of variation in religious attendance in Britain. That is, women and older age groups – traditionally groups more likely to exhibit religious identity and involvement – are less likely to report that they do not attend services. Catholics, other Christians and adherents of non-Christian faiths are less likely to not attend compared to Anglicans. The broader picture, however, shows that, even if these historical gaps are still evident, they have often narrowed in recent decades, as a greater proportion of the adult population reports that it does not attend services in 2012 compared with 1983. Based on the evidence shown here, religious ‘behaving’ – measured as attendance at services – has clearly declined alongside religious ‘belonging’ in recent decades.


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2 Responses to Changes in Attendance at Religious Services in Britain

  1. Brian says:

    Could anyone suggest why there is such a small difference in the non-attendance of 18–24 and 25 -35 yr olds between the two surveys? Is the increase in non-attendance leveling out or might this be an effect of features specific to these age groups?

  2. Pingback: The Church of England needs to stand back from civil society | Peter Cleasby

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