Churchgoing in York and Other News

Herewith three news items which have come to hand during the final week of October:

Churchgoing in York

The churchgoing history of York from 1764 to the present day is recounted, statistically, in part II (chapter 6, pp. 113-56) of Robin Gill’s new book, Theology Shaped by Society: Sociological Theology, Volume 2 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4094-2597-7, £19.99, paperback – also available as a hardback and an e-book). This is both an update and a re-evaluation of the case study of York which featured in chapter 9 of Gill’s earlier works, The Myth of the Empty Church (1993) and The ‘Empty’ Church Revisited (2003). It is based upon church censuses (local, except for 1851), Anglican visitation returns, and original fieldwork by Gill, in co-operation with individual places of worship. It does not utilize Christian Research’s English church census data for the York unitary authority, available for 1989, 1998, and 2005.

Table 6.1 on p. 151 summarizes adult church attendance in York for six years between 1901 and 2010. This would perhaps have been more meaningful had estimates of the adult population of York been included, together with a footnote about any boundary changes which may have impacted the figures. In absolute terms, churchgoing is continuing to decline in the city, down by (what many would consider) a modest 5.3% between 2001 and 2010. Catholicism has experienced the sharpest contraction (14.2%), with the Church of England falling by just 2.4% during this decade and the Free Churches by 0.4%.

The good fortunes of the Free Churches reflect the vibrancy of newer churches and Christian fellowships, some of which were overlooked by Gill in his previous surveys, and which are heavily dependent upon immigrants and/or students. By contrast, the ‘historic’ Free Churches, notably the Methodists, are still struggling, as they mostly are everywhere. Similarly, the Anglicans benefit disproportionately from the pull of York Minster and the evangelical ministry of St Michael-le-Belfrey, the subject of an ethnographic study by Mathew Guest, Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture (2007).

In conceptual terms, the data are less related to historical and sociological debates about secularization than to contemporary challenges and strategies of mission and church growth. Drawing upon the influential Anglican report on Mission-Shaped Church (2009), the metaphor of needing to defuse the ‘ticking time-bomb’ of church decline (related to failures in the intergenerational transmission of faith from parents to children) is invoked by Gill several times. Notwithstanding the current vibrancy of the newer manifestations of ‘Free Churchism’ – charted further by David Goodhew’s chapter on New Churches in York in Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the Present (2012) – Gill concludes that the churchgoing situation in York remains ‘fragile’.

The BIG Welcome

The BIG Welcome was launched by British Baptists in 2010 to encourage Christians to invite the unchurched to a service or event at their church. From 2012 the Methodist and Elim Pentecostal Churches have also become involved, making this a sort of Free Church equivalent to Back to Church Sunday (covered in previous BRIN posts), which was started in 2004 within the Church of England and has become progressively more ecumenical, albeit (in quantitative terms) still essentially Anglican (in 2011 58,000 of the 77,000 additional churchgoers were at Anglican places of worship).

By comparison with Back to Church Sunday, the BIG Welcome is a relatively modest affair. In 2011 280 Baptist churches participated, out of 3,215 in England, Wales and Scotland in 2010, just 9%. About 3,000 people came to a church event for the first time in September 2011, 10.7 per participating church. In 2012 the number of churches involved has been 330 out of a combined total of 9,330 Baptist, Methodist and Elim congregations, or 4%. New individuals coming to a BIG Welcome service on Sunday, 23 September this year amounted to 3,660, 11.1 per participating church. Although 87% of participating churches have already indicated they will get involved in the initiative again in 2013 (the other 13% saying they might do so), the future of the BIG Welcome is actually in some doubt on account of impending restructuring at the Baptist Union headquarters in Didcot.

Source: Number of churches (in 2010) from Peter Brierley’s UK Church Statistics, 2005-2015. BIG Welcome data mainly from a report published on Baptist Times Online on 31 October 2012, available at:

Religious Discrimination

In several respects, Britain has become more tolerant and less prejudiced during the past four decades, according to a recent poll of adults. Compared with the 1970s, 81% now feel that there is less discrimination against homosexuals than there used to be, 79% less against black people, 78% less against women, and 64% less against Asians. Of secular groups, only ageism bucks the trend, with 33% saying that discrimination against the elderly has got worse over the years (albeit 6% fewer than those thinking it has decreased).

On the religion front, anti-Semitism is perceived to have abated, with 58% claiming there is less discrimination against Jews than in the 1970s, 7% more, and 25% about the same. However, Muslims, who had a relatively low public profile and were significantly less numerous four decades ago, have not been so fortunate, with 48% of all adults contending that they experience more discrimination, 33% less, and 11% a similar amount as before. Three-tenths also feel that discrimination against Christians has grown, and this is especially so among men (35%) and Conservative voters (41%). Equivalent proportions believe that discrimination against Christians has lessened (32%) or remained static (29%).

Source: Online survey by YouGov among 1,637 adult Britons aged 18 and over on 22-23 October 2012. Full data tables published on 26 October and available at:


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