Today the figures for religious identity were released for the 2011 census in England and Wales. The headline figure is that the percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian has dropped from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011. As many are saying, the country is becoming less Christian. “Countries” to be precise, there are two!
Let us try and unravel this a bit. Firstly the drop in Christian identity hardly comes as a surprise. Church attendance has been dropping relentlessly since the Second World War. Despite the charismatic revival from 1960s onwards and the resulting growth in this form of Christianity in mainline church and some independent church streams, church attendance on mass continues to decline. Indeed most mainstream denominations are under the extinction threshold of the Limited Enthusiasm model, and with their age profile, the extinction of some is only a generation away.
Secondly, although the percentage drop looks large, the 2011 percentage is measured next to a larger population in 2011, than that in 2001. As a substantial amount of the increase in population is immigration, and mainly non-Christian, then the percentage drop is artificially large. The percentage should be about 64% compared to the 2001 figure. That is an example of how numbers can be used to make a story sound worse than it is. To spell it out there were 37,338,486 people in England and Wales who identified themselves as Christians on the 2001 census. In 2011 the figure was 33,243,175, a drop of 4,095,311.
Thirdly, compare these figures with a church attendance figure of about 3 million. In other words over 10 times as many people identify themselves as Christian compared with the number who turn up to services. Thus the bulk of the 33 million “Christians” have identified themselves as this for cultural and heritage reasons rather than a commitment to attend worship. When a religion declines this is what you expect to see. The living faith of one generation, where belief is central to the person’s way of life, becomes for many a less enthusiastic church attendance and involvement in the second generation. Faith is there but more intellectual rather than experiential. By the third generation many have stopped attending, except at festivals. They identify as Christians, but beliefs are in the background compared with the rest of life, just enough to tick a form. By the fourth generation most have even stopped identifying themselves with the religion. Thus the census is measuring a decline in the culture of Christianity. The extent of the decline of believing Christianity is the massive gap between attendance and cultural adherence. But that is also a great opportunity as unlike other religions Christianity still has a massive pool of people who identify with the religion and be called to faith and commitment. An opportunity to be seized.
Fourthly, the main reason for church and religious decline is the failure to pass the faith on the next generation. The decline then comes from aging. Had there have been no transmission of Christianity to the next generation then the decline in 10 years should have been around 6 million, the Christians who died during that period. That the drop is less than this number shows that some cultural transmission of Christianity is taking place.  Little of this transmission is conversion, as that would be reflected in church attendance. But at least some children of cultural Christians must still be identifying as Christian. Given the lack of practical engagement with the religion, and the secular nature of society in the UK, that is at least some crumb of comfort.
It is interesting that the figure for Christianity dominated the media today. Also of significance is the rise in those identifying themselves as Muslim from 1,546,626 in 2001 (England and Wales) to 2,706,066 in 2011. Last year a student of mine did a model of the growth of Islam in England and Wales and today’s figure was very much in line with the model’s prediction. However unlike the figure for Christians it is estimated that about half of these Muslims are active in their faith – practicing Muslims. (It was 10% for Christians!) Thus the number of practicing Muslims is much closer church attendance than the census figures suggest, about 50% of church attendance at present. Also unlike the Christian church, when the Limited Enthusiasm model is applied to Islam in England and Wales, the evidence is that it is well over the tipping point for revival in both the heritage Muslim community, as well as among the white community. So although by the next census there will still be far more “Christians” than “Muslims” on the census return, unless there is a dramatic change within the Christian church then the number of practicingMuslims will exceed church attendance, in England and Wales. I would like to think that would inspire more Christians to pray and work for outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps ask what we are doing wrong that another religion may be getting right.

Before the anti-Islam people pick up on these thoughts I must stress that the number of Muslims, will remain well short of the number with no religion and still be a small minority compared with the total population in England and Wales. Predictions of future Islamification in the UK lacks numerical credibility; Britain is heading to be a secular and non-religious nation, more out of apathy than conviction.  That the number of practicing Muslims will end up exceeding their counterpart in Christianity is less about the strength of Islam and far more about the weakness of the Christian churches, few of whom have sought the path to reverse that decline, despite over 50 years of evidence of a problem!

Finally I wonder if history will record that the day the headline was that “Britain was less Christian”, was the same day the UK government published its bill to re-define marriage and change 2000 years of Christian history? Coincidence, prophetic, planned? On the same day two pieces of evidence of the secularisation of the UK hit the news. The question is: are churches declining because society is becoming more secular, as some sociologists suggest, or is it becoming more secular because church is declining? Evidence of a feedback loop I think!

In amongst all the figures, models and social upheaval I hang on to the fact that this is God’s world and he is always in control! The near future may be hard for Christians, but it will be still be God’s.

2001 Census
2011 Census

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,