Religious Statistics of Great Britain: An Historical Introduction


Article contents


1. Statistics Collected by the State

1.1         Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

1.2         Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

1.3         Recent Developments

Notes to Section 1

2. Statistics Collected by Faith Communities

2.1         Established Churches: Church of England

2.2         Established Churches: Wales and Scotland

2.3         Free Churches: General

2.4         Free Churches: Methodists

2.5         Free Churches: Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers

2.6         Free Churches: Other Denominations

2.7         Roman Catholic Church: Before the Second World War

2.8         Roman Catholic Church: After the Second World War

2.9         Ecumenical Initiatives: National

2.10       Ecumenical Initiatives: International

2.11       Non-Christian Faiths: General

2.12       Non-Christian Faiths: Judaism

2.13       Irreligion

Notes to Section 2

3. Statistics Collected by Other Agencies

3.1         Social Investigators

3.2         Opinion Pollsters

3.3         Academic Researchers

3.4         Print and Broadcast Media

Notes to Section 3

4. Future Needs and Prospects for Religious Statistics

Notes to Section 4

Appendix 1

Select Bibliography of the Religious History of Modern Britain


Church of England

Free Churches

Roman Catholicism




New Religious Movements




Appendix 2

Recent Publications on the 1851 Religious Census of England and Wales

General Commentaries

Local Studies

Appendix 3

Contemporary Regional Studies of Religion as Social Capital in England and Wales

Appendix 4

Church of England Clergy Visitation Returns of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Primary Sources: Editions of Returns

Primary Sources: Editions of Specula

Secondary Sources: Visitation Process

Secondary Sources: Use of Returns

Appendix 5

Abraham Hume’s Contribution to Religious Statistics and Sociology

Appendix 6

Local Censuses of Church Attendance in Great Britain, 1881-82

Appendix 7

Newman Demographic Survey and Pastoral Research Centre

Appendix 8

John Highet’s Contribution to Scottish Religious Statistics 

Appendix 9

Local Censuses of Church Attendance in Great Britain, 1901-12



4. Future Needs and Prospects for Religious Statistics

Each of the four contributors to Reviews of United Kingdom Statistical Sources, Vol. 20 (1987) provided a concluding chapter, reflecting upon the state and prospects of the religious statistics which they had surveyed. More than twenty years later, it seems appropriate to see how far quantitative data on religion have progressed, and where the gaps and deficiencies currently lie.


In terms of collection agencies, it is pleasing to record a positive shift in Government’s attitudes toward religious statistics. The inclusion of religion questions in the 2001 and 2011 censuses and in the Labour Force Survey and Citizenship Survey represents a major advance (although their absence from the General Household Survey is curious). Unfortunately, Government’s refusal to distinguish denominations within the Christian category (to which 72 per cent of Britons subscribed at the 2001 census) is a major limitation in the data. More generally, one is left with the distinct impression that Government interest in religious statistics is disproportionately driven by its concerns for better intelligence about non-Christian faiths, especially Islam. This reflects the demands of diversity and equality agendas on the one hand and the need to combat socio-political alienation and terrorism on the other.


Given that the effectiveness of the decennial census as a means of gathering population information is increasingly in doubt, in Britain and other Western countries, a major imperative will be the need to strengthen Government’s serial sample survey data on religion and to augment them with appropriate non-recurrent investigations into the interface between faith and public policy. A cross-cutting review, with independent expert input, of all data appertaining to religion regularly collected by, or on behalf of, Government or Non-Departmental Public Bodies would seem desirable. This should transcend the incremental development of the Integrated Household Survey by the Office for National Statistics, as a replacement for the five separate investigations (including the General Household Survey and the Labour Force Survey), for which it has been responsible. The Integrated Household Survey, which has been under planning since 2004, with its first module in the field from 2008, currently proposes to use the religion question from the Labour Force Survey.


Less progress is visible with the statistics collected by the faith communities themselves. The Christian Churches continue to gather them on an individual denominational basis and have taken no real steps towards harmonization and standardization, either with each other or with secular planning regions and administrative units. Christian Research has provided a semblance of editorial unity for figures of churches, clergy and members, but, in practice, this involves a significant degree of shoe-horning of data to fit the tabulations and of estimation (perhaps even guesswork on occasion). With the merger of Christian Research and the Bible Society, it also remains to be seen how far the new organization will be able to maintain the volume of research and publishing which was established under the directorship of Peter Brierley.


Most Churches still devote relatively little effort, and attach limited importance, to the collection, analysis and reporting of quantitative data. Of the major bodies, the Church of England perhaps has the best track-record and the Roman Catholic Church the worst. Among the non-Christian faiths, Judaism is most statistically aware, but Islam (with an estimated 2,422,000 adherents in Britain in 2008) generates few figures of its own and, paradoxically, seems happy to look to the state for information about the Muslim community and the wider religious landscape.


The other agencies we have considered – including pollsters, academics and the media – make an important contribution to the collection of quantitative data about religion, but it is mostly of a non-recurrent nature and also somewhat fragmented and unpredictable, with important matters often being neglected (sometimes because they are not deemed newsworthy). As a genre, opinion polls are useful for capturing public reactions to specific events and issues, but sample sizes (rarely more than 2,000 and often less) inhibit the extent to which results can be disaggregated by standard demographics and other factors, leading to rather superficial analyses and conclusions. Serial surveys from academic sources often possess greater methodological rigour, and can be a little larger in the number of respondents, but there is still scope for a more holistic overview being taken of their content, to minimize overlap (between them and with Government surveys) and optimize the use of scarce resources.


In particular, as funders of the Religion and Society Programme (which has supported this website), and of many of the major British datasets, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council could have a major role in identifying the gaps in British religious statistics, and in helping to fill them through core questions and periodic specialist modules in the sample surveys which they help to sponsor. There is also a need for the research councils and the Joint Information Systems Committee to audit the collecting policy of the (distributed) Economic and Social Data Service in respect of religious and related data, since (as can be seen from the database on this website) comparatively little of direct relevance is yet deposited with the Service’s constituent datacentres. In undertaking these reviews, there should naturally be appropriate input from the user community, including through the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group and (for older data) the Ecclesiastical History Society.


An associated generic weakness, which it is hoped that the British Religion in Numbers project will help to rectify, is that, even when quantitative data on religion are available, they are often insufficiently well-known and utilized, especially if they have not been written up for formal publication. For example, it is remarkable how few statistics and surveys inform the recent debate involving Callum Brown, Hugh McLeod and others about the extent to which the 1960s were a critical decade for religious change.[1] This may be because, apart from Churches and Churchgoers by Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert and Lee Horsley, there has been no single reference guide to the statistics, and this is quite selective in its coverage (being mainly confined to membership) and terminates in 1970.[2] Even Christian Research’s Religious Trends is far from comprehensive and can on occasion be idiosyncratic.


For the rest, the extant figures have to be unearthed from a plethora of relatively obscure serials, monographs and reports which are not widely held in public or research libraries, and often not sent to (or requested by) the copyright libraries. Indeed, the archiving of religious statistics in both print and electronic media is, overall, quite inadequate in Great Britain. The Religious Archives Group is striving to improve the national infrastructure through the first ever comprehensive survey of religious archives in the United Kingdom, to enhance their representation in the National Register of Archives. It is also liaising with the British Library on the archiving of key religion-related websites, although delays in the reform of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and the slow progress to a web archiving regulation under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 remain major legislative constraints.


The problem is compounded by the fact that religious archives and records are privately owned, even in the case of the two established Churches, leaving discretion about disclosure and access entirely in their hands. The same is true of many of the secular agencies which have been involved in the collection of religious statistics. Some transfers of material to public repositories have occurred, without any loss in ownership, and this trend is to be encouraged. However, creating a culture of openness and transparency can be difficult when organizations fear that promulgation of data may lead, at best, to invidious comparisons with ‘competitors’ or, at worst, be used to attack and undermine them.



Notes to Section 4

[1] Callum Brown, Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain, Harlow: Pearson, 2006, pp. 224-77; Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000, second edition, London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 170-92; David Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[2] Robert Currie, Alan David Gilbert and Lee Horsley, Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.




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