Anglican Themes – and Funeral Hymns

The cluster of news stories which have come to hand within the last four days mainly concern the Church of England, but a couple are also of wider interest:

Church of England Growth?

The Church of England launched a new website on 2 October 2012 as a showcase for its 18-month Church Growth Support Programme, which is exploring the factors relating to the spiritual and, particularly, numerical growth of the Church. A team from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, led by Professor David Voas (co-director of BRIN), has been appointed to undertake the data analysis and church-profiling strands of the research. In addition to being able to track the progress of these and the other two strands, the website incorporates several other valuable features, albeit still under development, including: key Anglican statistics; guide to church growth literature; case studies of growing churches; and an interactive discussion board on church growth issues. The site can be accessed at:

Or Church of England Decline?

A hitherto little-reported aspect of the Church of England’s General Synod in July 2012 was part of a speech by Andreas Whittam Smith, First Church Estates’ Commissioner, touching on the adverse demography of the Church of England. On the assumption that the ageing of Anglican congregations continues, he forecast that the number of worshippers could fall to as little as 125,000 in 2057, unless corrective action could be taken. The story has been picked up by Peter Brierley, in articles in FutureFirst, No. 23, October 2012, p. 5 and in The Church of England Newspaper, 14 October 2012, p. E1. Projecting Anglican attendance figures forward on the basis of what is known of the age profiles of Sunday worshippers from the various English church censuses, Brierley’s charts also point to what some might term a ‘doomsday scenario’, with attenders under 30 years of age likely to decline by 80% between 2000 and 2030, compared with just one-quarter for the over-65s. On present trends, Brierley’s best estimates are that 300,000 will attend Anglican Sunday services by 2030 and 500,000 in an average week (Sunday and weekday combined). Under such circumstances, he suggests, some cathedrals might need to be ‘decommissioned’ and 9,000 of the current 16,000 churches could close.

Church of England Cathedrals

Brierley’s gloomy long-term prognostications for English cathedrals are somewhat at variance with the upbeat tone of Spiritual Capital: the Present and Future of English Cathedrals, which was prepared and published (on 12 October 2012) by Theos and the Grubb Institute, and commissioned by the Foundation for Church Leadership and the Association of English Cathedrals. The report is empirically underpinned by an online survey carried out by ComRes on 10-12 August 2012 among 1,749 English adults aged 18 and over, supplemented by local case studies of Canterbury, Durham, Lichfield, Leicester, Manchester, and Wells Cathedrals (comprising 1,933 quantitative and 257 qualitative interviews).

The national poll revealed that 27% of resident adults (i.e. excluding overseas visitors) claimed to have visited a Church of England cathedral at least once during the previous 12 months. This equates to 11,300,000 people, 20% more than the Church of England’s own estimate for visitors to its cathedrals in 2010, with the trend clearly downward since 2000 (this discrepancy is not commented on in the report). The profile of these self-identifying visitors is shown to be fairly broad in terms of standard demographics and religious background. Specifically, they include significant numbers of non-churchgoers, non-Christians, and those of no religion, thereby confirming that ‘cathedrals have a particular capacity to connect spiritually with those who are on or beyond the Christian “periphery”’ – hence the ‘spiritual capital’ of the title.

Of course, a contrary interpretation is that visitors often relate to the heritage and cultural functions of cathedrals as much as, if not more so, to their role as places of worship, and some of the ComRes poll evidence points in this direction. For example, only 13% disagreed with the statement that cathedrals are more of historical than spiritual importance, and 15% that they would go to one for its history and architecture rather than for any religious or spiritual experience. Likewise, just 17% would go to a cathedral to learn more about Christianity, and 22% for spiritual support. These reservations notwithstanding, Spiritual Capital can be recommended as an excellent source of data, not simply about visitor numbers, but about visitor motivations, experiences, and attitudes, together with wider reflections on the role of cathedrals in the Church and society. The report is at:

and the full national polling data at:

Heritage Tourism

Despite the optimism of the Theos and Grubb Institute report, English cathedrals may actually have had a poor summer in terms of tourism, sharing in the general malaise of all leading visitor attractions caused by the prolonged wet weather and the disruptive effects of the Olympic Games. Figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) on 8 October 2012 indicated that the heritage and cathedrals group of attractions in London (among them, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey) reported a fall of visitor numbers of 20% comparing May-August 2012 with May-August 2011, while the decline in the rest of England was 6%. Retail spend at these attractions also decreased, by 20% in London and 9% elsewhere in the country. ALVA’s press release is at:

Additional information will doubtless become available when Visit England publishes, next year, Visitor Attractions Trends in England, 2012. The 2011 survey, released in July 2012, included returns from 102 places of worship, recording aggregate details of admissions, revenue, marketing, services, and employment. This 2011 report is at:

English Religious Beliefs

The Theos and Grubb Institute research into English cathedrals, discussed above, also collected a range of religious data about the respondents in the ComRes national survey, seemingly in an attempt to link cathedrals with what the report describes as ‘emergent spiritualities’. These data naturally have independent value. The number of adults claiming to ‘belong’ to a religion was 64%, 39% being Anglicans (two-thirds of them over 45), 16% other Christians, and 9% non-Christians; this left 34% professing no religion (rising to 46% of the 18-24s). Claimed attendance at religious services once a month or more was 15%, almost certainly an exaggeration. Firm belief in God (‘I know God exists and I have no doubts about it’) stood at just 19%, with 42% classified as atheists or agnostics; the remaining 39% fell into three categories in the ‘middle ground’ (including those believing in a higher power but not God). Belief in God as a universal life force was 40%, compared with belief in a human soul (60%), life after death (41%), angels (35%), the Resurrection of Jesus (31%), and reincarnation (26%). The number holding all six beliefs was just 12%, peaking at 20% in London. These figures have reduced somewhat over time. For instance, in Gallup’s Television and Religion survey in England in December 1963-January 1964 atheists and agnostics numbered 14% and 50% then believed in life after death. Even the number believing in a soul has dropped from the high of around 70% which was reached in several polls in the 2000s. BRIN has some time series on religious beliefs at:

Funeral Music

Hymns are gradually being squeezed out of the musicological repertoire at funerals, according to research published by Co-Operative Funeralcare on 15 October 2012, and based on a study of 30,000 funerals conducted by the company (the UK’s largest funeral director) during the past year. In 2005 hymns accounted for 41% of all funeral music requests, but the proportion in 2012 has been reduced to 30%, less than half that of pop music requests. The imbalance might have been even worse, were it not for the fact that one-quarter of funeral homes have had to refuse to play a piece of music on the grounds of taste, usually because clergy conducting the ceremony felt the choice inappropriate. The most popular hymns, in order of frequency of requests, are currently Abide with Me, The Lord is My Shepherd, and All Things Bright and Beautiful. Co-Operative’s press release is at:


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The Ways We Say Goodbye

Even for those not overtly religious in their everyday lives, the three rites of passage (birth/baptism, marriage and death – or, colloquially put, hatching, matching and dispatching) have traditionally been a point of contact with institutional religion.

Church of England and other religious statistics have long charted a decline in infant baptisms, while Government data (separately recorded for England and Wales and Scotland) have shown a decrease in weddings solemnized according to religious rites.

Now there are signs that the most long-standing ecclesiastical near-monopoly, over death, may also be eroding, partly in the face of a shift of focus in funerals away from an act of mourning mediated by a religious professional to a more participatory time of celebration and commemoration.

The established Church of England has experienced a fall of 19% in eight years in the number of funerals its clergy conduct, from 232,550 in 2000 to 188,100 in 2008. Expressed in terms of total deaths, the 2008 figure translated into a 39% market share.

The latest evidence about funeral customs and practices comes in a report today from Co-operative Funeralcare, the UK’s largest provider (100,000 funerals a year).

Entitled The Ways We Say Goodbye: a Study of 21st Century Funeral Customs in the UK, the document is mostly based on data gathered from funeral directors at 559 of Co-operative Funeralcare’s network of 850 funeral homes.

67% of Co-operative’s funerals still take a traditional form, in accordance with the rites of a particular religion, and generally including a service led by a recognized minister, followed by burial or cremation.

However, 21% are characterized as contemporary, where the emphasis is on celebration of an individual’s life and personalization of the funeral service, albeit an element of religion (such as a hymn or prayer) may still be retained.

12% of funerals arranged by Co-operative Funeralcare are classified by them as ‘humanist’, entirely without a religious component. They may be led by a humanist official, or by family and friends of the deceased.

In the words of one funeral director: ‘People don’t just want religion spoken about – they want the person spoken about. They’re making more of a day of it … more of an occasion.’

But the report highlighted that, such is the pace of personalization of ceremonies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these somewhat arbitrary distinctions between funeral types.

Following this trend, only 36% of funerals now have purely religious music, the remaining 64% using contemporary music, classical music or a mixture of styles. So, in this and other respects, even religious ceremonies are being modernized and ‘secularized’.  

The top three funeral songs in 2009, according to a separate Co-operative study, were My Way (Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey), Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Midler, Celine Dion) and Time to Say Goodbye (Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli).

Additional information came from an online poll conducted by ICM Research on behalf of Co-operative Funeralcare among a representative sample of 2,002 Britons aged 18 and over interviewed on 22-24 September 2010.

This revealed that 54% of respondents would prefer their funeral to be a personalized celebration of their life, with just 27% opting for a traditional funeral such as a church service with hymns. The latter figure ranged from 20% in the case of the 18-24s to 40% of the over-65s.

In a separate question, 49% wanted their funeral to be individualized in a specific way, most commonly in terms of their favourite music but, for some, even to reflect their favourite hobby, colour or football team.

The Ways We Say Goodbye can be downloaded from:

There is also a Co-operative press release, containing topline findings from the ICM poll, at:

This is by no means the first piece of research by Co-operative Funeralcare in this area. For instance, in October 2001 its forerunner produced a report Taking Fear out of Funerals, informed by a survey from BMRB the preceding March.

This showed that, even at that point, Britons sought funerals which were more cheerful, colourful and personal, with seven-tenths saying that non-religious ceremonies were perfectly acceptable.

One of the last major studies of attitudes to death more generally was by ComRes for Theos in April 2009 in the wake of the early death from cancer of Jade Goody, the ex-Big Brother contestant. The tables from this study are still available at:

37% then expressed a wish for a Christian funeral, 4% for another form of religious funeral, 17% for a non-religious funeral, with the remaining 43% having no clear preference.

30% of the ComRes sample agreed that their religious faith helped them to deal with the death of a loved-one or to prepare for their own death, but 38% disagreed, with 32% undecided or refusing to answer.

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