Pope Francis and Other News

Following on from our previous post, which reported on a major new survey of Catholic opinion, today we summarize recent poll evidence about how Pope Francis is perceived to be getting on by the British public. We also include our usual miscellany of other religious statistical stories.

Pope Francis

Eight months into his pontificate, Pope Francis appears to be making some impression on the British public, according to an online poll by YouGov for The Sunday Times among 1,851 adults on 14-15 November 2013. Just over one-third (36%) think he is doing a good job, peaking at 45% of Liberal Democrats and 46% of Londoners; merely 3% believe he is doing a bad job, with 61% undecided. A similar proportion (31%) expect him to make the Catholic Church more liberal, including 45% of Liberal Democrats, 37% of Conservative voters, and 36% of both 18-24s and non-manual workers; 5% anticipate the Church becoming less liberal, while 23% forecast no change, and 42% are undecided. Pope Francis has made 17% regard the Catholic Church more positively (rising to 29% of Liberal Democrats and 27% of 18-24s), with 2% feeling more negative, and the remaining 80% having no opinion or an unaltered one on the subject.

However, the Pope is beaten into second place (on 12%), after the Archbishop of Canterbury (on 13%), as the religious leader respondents would most like to have at Christmas lunch. The majority (53%) want no religious leader sitting at their Christmas dining table, perhaps reflecting the relatively low importance which Britons attach to the religious component of Christmas. Asked about their favourite part of Christmas, its religious significance came in sixth equal of fourteen places (on 11%), with carols in eleventh position (on 7%). Spending time with family and friends (53%) and giving presents to others (37%) easily topped the list. There were substantial age differences, religious significance being highlighted by 5% of the parenting generation (25-39s) but 18% of the over-60s. The data tables are at:


Curiously, The Sunday Times made absolutely no use of these poll data it had commissioned in its (arguably) somewhat over-the-top coverage of Pope Francis in its print edition of 17 November 2013. This comprised no fewer than three articles in its main section, all suggesting that the Catholic Church might be turning a corner under the Pope’s leadership. On pp. 1-2 George Arbuthnott and Luke Garratt had a piece entitled ‘“Francis Effect” Pulls Crowds Back to Church’. On p. 25 Paul Vallely (biographer of Pope Francis) contributed a full-page article headed ‘Pope Idol’, asking whether the ‘Francis effect’ is the ‘miracle’ the Church needs to reverse years of decline. In his analysis, Vallely was supported by a reporting team of eight journalists. Finally, on p. 30 there was a second editorial asserting that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin ‘Welby Can Take Heart from the Francis Effect’, although it was less certain that he could emulate it in the Church of England.

The editorial pointed to ‘a significant rise’ in congregations at Catholic churches in Britain since the election of Francis as Pope. The basis for this claim was a survey conducted by the newspaper during the previous week among the twenty-two Catholic cathedrals in England and Wales, of which thirteen responded. Eleven of these reported a rise in average Sunday attendances in October 2013 compared with a year before. Nine cathedrals provided actual figures, with congregants this October up by an average of 21% (from 11,461 to 13,862), and by 35% in the case of Leeds and 23% in Sheffield. We still await evidence about statistical trends in Catholic parishes up and down the land. Until we have that, perhaps a degree of circumspection is called for with regard to the ‘Francis effect’. After all, similar claims of a ‘Benedict bounce’ were made following the previous Pope’s visit to Britain in 2010, and that phenomenon seems to have been more aspirational than real, at least in quantitative terms.

Media portrayals of religion

Mainstream newspapers and television remain key, albeit partial and often superficial, sources of popular information about religion in Britain, according to a new book published by Ashgate: Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole, and Teemu Taira, Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: Representation and Change (xvi + 233pp., £19.99 as paperback or e-book). At the core of the work is a replication (in 2008-09) of a content and discourse analysis first undertaken in 1982 of three newspapers (The Times, The Sun, and The Yorkshire Evening Post), studied over two months, and three terrestrial television channels (BBC1, BBC2, and ITV1), surveyed for one week. The extent and nature of the representation of religion in these media is quantitatively summarized in chapter 2 and then scrutinized with regard to treatments of Christianity (chapter 3), Islam and other minority faiths (chapter 4), atheism and secularism (chapter 5), and popular beliefs and ritual practices (chapter 6). A wider evidence base is drawn upon to support two case studies of media portrayal of religion: the banning of Geert Wilders, the anti-Islamic Dutch politician, from entering the country in 2009 (chapter 7) and the 1982 and 2010 papal visits to Britain (chapter 8). The conclusion uses six sets of paired propositions relating to religion and the media as a framework for summative evaluation of the research.

The main text of the work contains many statistics deriving from the content analysis, although relatively few (seven of each) tables and figures. However, appendices 2 and 3 do reproduce some of the most important data, which we partly digest in the table below. The overall number of references to religion and the secular sacred on television was broadly similar in 1982 and 2009, but it rose by 78% in the newspapers from 1982 to 2008, principally as a result of the substantially increased size of newspapers over the period. In both media types there was a marked shift away from coverage of conventional (organized and official) religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to common religion (supernatural beliefs and practices beyond religious organizations). Among non-Christian faiths, there was disproportionate treatment of Islam in 2008-09, much of it negative. The explanation for the greater coverage of common religion on television than in the newspapers at both dates is to be found in a plethora of television advertisements containing references to luck, gambling, magic, and the unexplained. Across all reporting of religion, there was a near doubling in the use of religious metaphors to describe otherwise non-religious subjects (from 14% to 25% in newspapers and from 12% to 20% on television).

Content type (%)










Conventional religion –   Christian/general





Conventional religion – non-Christian





Common religion





Secular sacred





Inevitably, the choice of survey dates and specific media titles will have conditioned some of these research outcomes. In the case of newspapers, it is therefore worth comparing the findings with those of studies by Robin Gill and Paul Baker and colleagues which BRIN has reported at:




Restudies of religion

The latest in Professor Steve Bruce’s fascinating series of restudies of religion in Britain has just been published: ‘Religion in Ashworthy, 1958-2011: A Sociology Classic Revisited’, Rural Theology, Vol. 11, No. 2, November 2013, pp. 92-102. It is a re-examination of the religious scene (preponderantly Anglican and Methodist) in the West Devon village of ‘Ashworthy’ (in reality, Northlew), which was originally surveyed by Bill Williams in 1958 for his classic community study of A West Country Village (1963). Although time constraints have prevented Bruce from ‘achieving the degree or duration of immersion’ that Williams did, five conclusions are reached about changes in the village’s religious life between 1958 and 2011. Inevitably, one of them touches on statistical decline in church adherence, Anglican Easter communicants and Methodist members combined reducing from 29% to 13% of the adult population over the period, the contraction in Methodist numbers being especially severe. For a pay-per-view access option, see:


The previous issue of the same journal included another restudy by Bruce: ‘Religion in Gosforth, 1951-2011: A Sociology Classic Revisited’, Rural Theology, Vol. 11, No. 1, May 2013, pp. 39-49. This is based on a revisitation (in 2009-10) of the first community study by Bill Williams, of Gosforth, Cumbria, which was published as The Sociology of an English Village (1956). Here Bruce found that combined Anglican and Methodist membership as a proportion of the adult population declined from 20% to 12% over the 60 years. Pay-per-view access is available at:


For a discussion of methodological issues raised by the series of restudies, see Bruce’s article ‘Studying Religious Change through Replication: Some Methodological Issues’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2012, pp. 166-82. The pay-per-view site is:


Anglican faith schools

The Education Division of the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England issued a two-page statement outlining ‘The Church of England’s Contribution to Schools’ to coincide with the General Synod debate on these schools on 19 November 2013. It is clearly intended as a defence of the Anglican school sector which has come in for criticism of late, especially over admissions policies. There are currently 4,443 Anglican primary and 221 secondary schools in England, attended by approximately one million pupils. Ofsted inspections are said to show them as more effective than other schools in terms of overall effectiveness, pupil achievement, and quality of teaching, and at both primary and secondary levels. Church of England schools are also judged to be inclusive, with the same proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals as in non-Anglican schools, and almost the same proportion from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. The statement can be accessed through the link in:


The Church’s claims about inclusivity have already been challenged by the Fair Admissions Campaign, which accuses the Church of ‘a flawed approach’ to the use of statistics, at:



The practice of publishing articles in the online edition of peer-reviewed journals in advance of scheduling their inclusion in a conventional printed edition is becoming more widespread, especially in the social sciences (less so in the humanities at present). Two recent exemplars both deal with Islamophobia and will be of interest to BRIN readers.

Zan Strabac, Toril Aalberg, and Marko Valenta, ‘Attitudes towards Muslim Immigrants: Evidence from Survey Experiments across Four Countries’ was published in the online edition of Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on 30 September 2013. It examined whether differences exist between attitudes toward immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular. The data derived from online surveys by YouGov/Polimetrix of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over on 26-31 January 2009 in each of four countries: Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. One half of each national sample was asked four questions about immigrants and the other half the identical questions but about Muslim immigrants. The responses were used to generate two additive 0-100 scales, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. In Norway and Sweden there were basically no differences between the level of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant opinion, whereas in Britain and the United States (and contrary to expectation) anti-Muslim attitudes were actually found to be lower than anti-immigrant ones (with scores of 50.3 and 59.0 respectively in Britain’s case). Possible explanations for this discovery are explored. The article can be accessed at:


Christine Ogan, Lars Willnat, Rosemary Pennington, and Manaf Bashir, ‘The Rise of Anti-Muslim Prejudice: Media and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States’ was published in the online edition of International Communication Gazette on 10 October 2013. It is based on secondary analysis of the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project (for Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States) and the 2010 Pew News Interest Index (for the United States alone). Predictors of attitudes to Muslims are calculated. These appear less strongly defined in Britain’s case than for several other countries, although being highly educated or a woman were associated with a more positive opinion of Muslims. The article can be accessed at:


Gender, theology and higher education

Theology and religious studies departments in UK higher education institutions still have some way to go before achieving full gender equality, according to a report from Durham University published on 15 November 2013 (on behalf of Theology and Religious Studies UK): Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma, and Robert Song, Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies. The authors gathered a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data (for the academic year 2010-11), in the latter case from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and a survey of 41 of 58 departments. Whereas 60% of undergraduates in theology and religious studies were women, the proportion dropped to 42% of taught postgraduates in the subject and 33% of postgraduate research students. The average of female members of academic staff in theology and religious studies was 29% but only 16% of professors. However, for early career academics and lecturers the figure was 37%, suggesting that recruitment is beginning to make a difference to gender balance among staff. Although gender diversity remains an issue elsewhere in universities, the authors explore several factors which accentuate the problem in theology and religious studies. The report, which concludes with 11 recommendations, can be read at:



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