Church Growth Debated and Other News

An academic debate about church growth in Britain provides our lead story today, but we also find space for four new sources of religious statistics.

Church growth in Britain

Last year, in our post of 9 June 2012, BRIN featured Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the Present, a collection of case studies edited by David Goodhew and published by Ashgate. Our notice of the book, which took (relatively mild) exception to Goodhew’s ‘loose talk of resacralization’, fairly limited understanding of the British religious historical context, and oversights of some key primary sources, prompted a detailed response by Goodhew on the BRIN website on 6 July 2012. This exchange can still be viewed at:

Now, the arch-proponent of the secularization thesis, Steve Bruce, has provided an extended review of the collection, taking Goodhew and several of his contributors to task in the process. His ‘Secularization and Church Growth in the United Kingdom’ will appear in the next issue (Vol. 5, No. 3, 2013) of Journal of Religion in Europe. In particular, Bruce offers a robust defence of the ‘secularization paradigm’ and critiques the ‘church growth optimists’ for their caricature of social science and the weakness of their empirical evidence and interpretations. Bruce contends that pockets of church growth, as documented by Goodhew and his colleagues, within a picture of overall decline would only refute the secularization thesis if the latter required that declining interest in Churches be universal, even, and rapid, which the thesis does not stipulate.

The same journal issue will contain Goodhew’s ‘Church Growth in Britain: A Response to Steve Bruce’, reprising much of the ground covered in the 2012 book but elaborating certain of the examples. While acknowledging the existence of significant church decline in modern and contemporary Britain (indeed, Goodhew claims – overclaims, to my mind – that the book states ‘the secularisation thesis (explicit and implicit) is true – but it is not the whole truth’), Goodhew argues that there has also been ‘significant church growth – notably in London, amongst black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities, and amongst new churches.’ Goodhew’s claims for London have recently found independent validation in the results of the London Church Census, 2012, undertaken by Peter Brierley, which appeared too late for Goodhew to take into account in his article. Neither has he been able to accommodate the latest findings about York, a case study in the collection, by Robin Gill (in chapter 6 of his Theology Shaped by Society: Sociological Theology, Volume 2). The final substantive section of the article develops Goodhew’s previous caveats about national ‘net’ figures of religious change, albeit I found this particular discussion somewhat less than clear-cut.

Journal of Religion in Europe gives Bruce the last say in his ‘Further Thoughts on Church Growth and Secularization’. In this Bruce stands by his original conclusion that Goodhew ‘is quite happy for his purpose to be misunderstood in a way that falsely cheers the churches’. Bruce further counsels against the dangers of generalizing from case studies while accepting that there is much value in such studies of growing congregations. He also cites the BRIN post about Goodhew’s book as additional evidence of concerns about it.

The debate between Bruce and Goodhew is conducted in a perfectly civilized manner. However, it does not break significantly new ground, certainly not in the presentation of quantitative data. As is so often the case in academic controversy, the gap between the two parties is not as wide as it seems on the surface, in that both Bruce and Goodhew accept the coexistence of church growth and decline. The difference is essentially about the relative scale of each, how this ‘net’ picture should be interpreted and explained, and what its implications are for the long-term future of institutional religion in Britain. As Bruce has indicated in an email to me, his overriding problem with Goodhew’s book is that ‘the title, the introduction and the publisher’s spin all misrepresent what Goodhew’s contributors show: that in an overall context of decline there is also re-organization with some new outlets being created and some old ones attracting members from declining congregations’. From this perspective, I continue to side more with Bruce than Goodhew.

Community census

The UK’s religious organizations are estimated to employ 61,000 workers, with a yearly wage bill (including indirect costs) of £980 million, and to contribute £1 billion annually to the supply chain for goods and services. This is according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), which prepared The Community Census on behalf of Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG) between March and May 2013, the summary report being published by EIG on 17 July 2013. In addition to CEBR’s economic impact assessment of community organizations (comprising charities and voluntary groups, heritage buildings and sites, as well as religious bodies), EIG commissioned Opinium Research to survey public attitudes to them, 2,001 UK adults being interviewed online in April. This poll revealed that a majority (57% overall, 51% of men and 62% of women) believes that their local religious organizations form an important aspect of the community, even though 59% say they personally never attend or support them (with 11% claiming to attend at least once a week and 16% at least once a month). Somewhat implausibly, the youngest age cohort (18-34 years) claims to attend most assiduously on a monthly basis, followed by the over-55s, and – finally – those aged 35-54, while 8% of the 18-34s anticipate increasing their attendance at religious organizations over the next year (against 3% nationally). The Community Census, which EIG intends to be the first in a regular series, can be found at:

Community life

People who actively practice a religion are more likely to volunteer, either formally or informally, and donate to charity than those who profess no religion or who have a religion but do not practice it. For example, among the religious practitioners, 40% undertake formal volunteering on a regular basis (at least once a month), compared with only 25% of the nones and non-practitioners of religion. Those who actively practice their religion are also more likely to volunteer formally (as part of a group) than informally (in an individual capacity). Much of this formal volunteering and charitable giving benefits religious organizations. The findings come from the first Community Life Survey, undertaken by TNS BMRB on behalf of the Cabinet Office as a successor to the discontinued Citizenship Survey. Initial results, based on face-to-face interviews with 6,915 adults aged 16 and over in England between August 2012 and April 2013, were published on 18 July 2013 at:

A Level results, June 2013

At 23,354, the number of students in the UK (excluding Scotland) sitting A Level Religious Studies (RS) in June 2013 was 1.4% more than in the previous year, notwithstanding a decrease of 1.3% in entries for all A Level subjects. It was also virtually twice the figure of 12,671 of ten years before (June 2003). The increase in RS candidates for 2013 over 2012 was somewhat greater among females (1.7%) than males (0.6%), and RS remains a disproportionately feminine choice at A Level, with 68.5% of its students being female this summer, against 54.2% for all subjects. The rise in RS entries was lower in England (1.2%) than in Northern Ireland (4.3%), while Wales actually recorded a decline of 0.7%. The pass rate for A Level RS was 98.8% this year, 0.2% more than in 2012 and 0.7% greater than the average for all subjects. The proportion achieving A* or A grades in RS was unchanged from 2012, at 25.5%, somewhat below the mean for all subjects (26.3%), females (26.6%) being more likely than males (23.2%) to achieve A* or A grades for A Level RS. The much larger number sitting AS Level RS (34,679) also grew between June 2012 and June 2013, by 3.0% in the UK, even though AS entries as a whole were down by 0.4%. For the Joint Council for Qualifications’ full analysis of the June 2013 A, AS, and AEA Level results, published on 15 August 2013, go to:

Anglican cathedral statistics

Cathedral Statistics, 2012, published on 12 August 2013, documents ongoing growth in several aspects of the work of the Church of England’s 42 Cathedrals and the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey. In particular, all week service attendances (Sunday and mid-week combined) at the cathedrals were 3.2% higher in 2012 than 2011 and 35.1% above the 2002 level (mostly as a result of mid-week improvement). Congregations during Holy Week were 1.9% up in 2012 over 2011 and on Easter Day by 14.2%, with the Easter Day figure 10.5% greater than in 2002. Attendances during Advent, by contrast, were down by 3.9% in 2012 against 2011 and on Christmas Day by 9.2%, largely, it seems, because 25 December fell on a Sunday in 2011 but on a Tuesday in 2012. However, both Advent and Christmas attendance statistics were still higher in 2012 than in 2002, by 4.7% and 10.0% respectively, albeit communicants, both at Christmas and Easter, showed no real expansion over the decade. At 9.7 million, visitors were 1.6% more than in 2011, although much reduced from 11.1 million in 2002; to these totals must be added visitors to Westminster Abbey (1.8 million in 2012). The number of volunteers, supporting these visitors, rose by 7.1% between 2011 and 2012 and by 30.5% from 2002.

As in previous years, the report does not attempt to relate the generally improved performance of cathedrals to the wider quantitative environment of the Church of England. To quote the leader in the current issue (16 August 2013, p. 10) of the Church Times: ‘Growth [in cathedrals] … has to be seen in the context of decline in parishes. How many in the cathedral’s community have arrived there disillusioned with parish life? While a cathedral booms, churchwardens and other volunteers not far away will be stretched.’ The newspaper’s separate news coverage of the data (p. 3) highlights strengthening links between cathedrals and their local communities as an explanation for the former’s successes, and the question posed in the open-to-all poll on the Church Times website is ‘Are cathedrals good models for parish churches?’ Cathedral Statistics, 2012 is at:


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