Thinking Anglicans

Religious attendance statistics in dispute

Updated again Friday evening

A body called Christian Research has made a number of claims that have been reported by newspapers:

The Times Ruth Gledhill Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour and also commentary at God-shaped hole will lead to loss of national sense of identity.

Daily Telegraph George Pitcher Practising Muslims ‘will outnumber Christians by 2035’

Daily Mail Ben Clerkin ‘More practising Muslims than Christians in Britain by 2035’

But are these claims true? And why are quotation marks used in the headlines?

The Church of England issued a statement Latest Religious Trends publication ‘flawed and dangerously misleading’. This says:

…Across Christian denominations and other faiths, the research does not compare like with like. The number of active Muslims, for example, is an estimated projection based on halving the number of people who said they were Muslim at the last national government census in 2001. The same process for those who said they were Christian at the last census would yield about 20 million active Christians of whom around 14 million are active Anglicans (based on recent national surveys).

Instead, this research estimates Christian ‘membership’ using, for example, the number of adults on the Church of England’s local parish based formal voting lists as the sole measure of its active ‘members’. Huge numbers of people worshipping every week and involved in their churches in all sorts of other ways are consequently missed…

David Keen has a blog post Why Christian Research is Wrong and Dave Walker has more at Is the church in decline?

Update Thursday evening

Andrew Brown has published an article on Comment is free titled Prayers for the fearful in which he criticises this research:

…These extrapolations are all based on present trends continuing, which tells us that they are certainly wrong. It is an absolutely safe bet that society will have changed drastically in the next 40 years and in ways that we can’t foresee. Present trends will not continue. They may get worse, of course, for Christianity, but I doubt it.

The real lesson of these figures is not that the Church of England may cease to exist, or even that Islam is on the rise. It is that religion does not exist as a distinct mode of thought or existence. Religious allegiance is not a matter of theology; it’s not even, really, a matter of spirituality.

What really drives it is its function of ritualising and dramatising moral values and stories about society. This means that any church, any mosque, and so on, serves as a focus for a particular community and is embedded with all sort of extra-religious cultural assumptions and practices. If the community disappears, so does the church. The community will disappear when it no longer has an economic or political function and when the cost of membership seems to exceed the benefits…

And now, the author of the original research is disputing the Ruth Gledhill article:

The Times has ran a double page feature from Ruth Gledhill on declining church attendance, and compares it to the rising number of Muslims and Hindus attending worship. Benita Hewitt is the new director of Christian Research Association, whose Religious Trends have been quoted, describes the article as very misleading. Church attendance once a week is compared to mosque attendance once a year, and no allowance has been made for once a month, once a year, midweek and FX church attendance…

Update Friday morning

David Keen has drawn attention in the comments to this sample article featured in the March 2008 issue of Quadrant, which contains data that doesn’t match the newspaper reports. See David’s own blog article about this here.

Update Friday evening

Ruth Gledhill has posted Latest religious trends which includes two tables taken from the report (click on the tables to enlarge them). See also the comments to this blog article for more information.

Letters to The Times can be found here.

Dave Walker has obtained more comment from Benita Hewitt which is available here.

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Hugh of LincolnChristopher ShellJNDchoirboyfromhellDavid Keen Recent comment authors
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bls
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Isn’t it somewhat ridiculous to project out 20 years about things like this in general anyway? How can anybody be certain that the decline will be constant over time? In the U.S., there have been several “great awakenings” of religion, and an ebb and flow membership and attendance. Some of this seems correlated with world events and crises as well. I looked at the Gledhill thing and saw the year 2050 mentioned and laughed out loud. As well, don’t people in England – as they do in America – still consider themselves Christian even though they don’t attend church (or… Read more »

Richard
Guest

I think even five-year projections are highly speculative, let alone 40+. Trend analysis is highly suspect as a discipline for garnering factual information. On the other hand, it’s great for provocation. . .

Not that we’ve seen it before from this particular source. . .

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

S:ta Statistica is the divinity worshipped in these collumns. Especially among those low church indiviuals into proving the “Secularisation” of the Church Apostate.

BIGDAN
Guest
BIGDAN

We’ve surely all known that there has been enormous decline in church attendance in England over the last fifty years, and increasing numbers of Muslims (more through immigration than conversion, as far as I can tell). Where’s the sense in saying that that will keep going? There may well be a subsequent rise. I can’t see the Church suddenly going extinct, however much it may be struggling.

toujoursdan
Guest

Sounds like more anti-Islamic hysteria, which, sadly has become par for the course in the British media.

ruidh
Guest
ruidh

I do long term financial projections professionally. No one believes that any projection actually forecasts what will happen in the future. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. it shows you what direction we’re going in and lets you test different environments and assumptions. Sure lots of things can and will change by the time we get there. It will be either better or worse than projected. But it will certainly be worse if no one considers the potential result of current trends continuing. This is the most insightful quote up above: “any church, any mosque, and so on, serves… Read more »

Eric the Priest
Guest
Eric the Priest

Seems to me a lot of people are wanting to kill the messenger rather than really looking at the message. Studies like this are based on projection if everything continues as is. Here in American in the Episcopal Church parish health is viewed in terms of the record of the average attendance at all services on Sundays over a period of years. It is much more accurate than how many claim to be members or how many are on the rolls. Let us not kill the messenger or talk about what should be – but examine what is happening now… Read more »

JCF
Guest
JCF

Whether the projections are correct or not is ultimately immaterial, IMO.

The Irish School of Ecumenics (an institution I considered attending, back in the late 80s), in its motto, has it right: “We flourish in order to perish”.

Or, as Our Lord said, “unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

JND
Guest
JND

bls, that makes as much sense as saying “Since Jonah’s prophecy didn’t come true, he shouldn’t have bothered.” Has it ever occurred to you that the extrapolation is only valid all things remaining as they are and that this does not necessarily have to be? And of course revisionistas never ever engage in wacky, unfounded extrapolations, such as regards global warming/cooling/climate change. Or even predicting mass revivals because the price of oil is going up… “don’t people in England – as they do in America – still consider themselves Christian even though they don’t attend church (or sometimes even belong)?”… Read more »

Fr Mark
Guest
Fr Mark

I don’t know anything about the particular ways of arriving at these figures, but I do know that there is a huge culture of denial from the Church authorities generally of what is evidently an enormous and sustained falling away of active church attendance in the UK. This goes across all long-standing denominations, and hard-line Evangelicals haven’t made any inroads upon it. The Church authorities often come out with the slightly silly defensive line that people going on weekdays actually raise attendance levels: in my experience of saying Mass on weekdays, pretty much the same people come to weekday Masses… Read more »

John Richardson
Guest
John Richardson

Before anyone criticizes Christian Research, please note the following from Evangelism UK: “The Times has ran (sic) a double page feature from Ruth Gledhill on declining church attendance, and compares it to the rising number of Muslims and Hindus attending worship. Benita Hewitt is the new director of Christian Research Association, whose Religious Trends have been quoted, describes the article as very misleading.”

Pluralist
Guest

A research body with the aim:

“To encourage change in Christian culture so that by 2010 more churches are growing”

is already compromised as credible.

As for structures: On the ground already institutions are creaking, and rather than just project trends one should ask what the point of a denomination is – e.g. why now be Methodist as opposed to Anglican, say. There are many ‘lost denominations’ the arguments of which are now long gone, their invisibility approaching. I would suppose it is a reasonable prediction that Methodism and URC will fail structurally as the loss of each generation demands radical pruning.

David
Guest
David

A couple of months ago, I read a recent history of TEC – “The Episcopalians (2004). Church Publishing, New York – and I’ve glanced at it again. It is relevant because it points out that by 1790 in the U.S., Anglicans were reduced to about ten thousand people, and rapidly declining. It was so bad that in 1801, Samuel Provoost, one of the first three TEC bishops, resigned his position completely convinced that TEC would soon die out. And, yet, within 50 years, TEC had become one of the dominant churches in the U.S. Hmmmm, interesting…

David Keen
Guest

Has anyone actually seen this report? All we have to go on is the quotes in the Times etc., but there’s no record of it on the Christian Research website, or at any Christian booksellers. It’s quite hard to check the facts when they aren’t even available.

choirboyfromhell
Guest
choirboyfromhell

What is truly unsettling in all of this is the fact that “extremist” religions are indeed flourishing, at least here in the U.S.

bls
Guest

Wow, now I’m going to jail for posting a comment on Thinking Anglicans! I knew it would happen eventually. (JND, thanks anyway, but I’m not playing the culture wars games anymore; it’s just such a bore to me these days.) Anyway, my point, really, is that I think that studies don’t have much meaning when considered against the rather tough economic times I believe we are in for. Oil is getting scarce and expensive; food prices rise weekly (there are starting to be food riots all over the world now); environmental problems are becoming more serious. I don’t know about… Read more »

John B. Chilton
Guest

Another to add to the roundup,

http://evangelismuk.typepad.com/evangelismuknet/2008/05/church-attendan.html

Benita Hewitt is the new director of Christian Research Association, whose Religious Trends have been quoted, describes the article [Gledhill’s] as very misleading. Church attendance once a week is compared to mosque attendance once a year, and no allowance has been made for once a month, once a year, midweek and FX church attendance.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

I’m not sure that “why don’t you grow up” is a very mature way of discussing what Christianity means.
But there is clearly a difference between being a doctor vs playing on one tv, and being a Christian vs… vs what? Not being sure what that means? Learning to grow into faith? Grappling with big questions in life and finding some kind of answer in the Jesus story?

It may not be your way but to dismiss it out of hand as totally ridiculous is, to me, one of the biggest reason the churches are so empty.

Fr Mark
Guest
Fr Mark

Pluralist: exactly. Whither Strict and Particular Baptists? Or, indeed, Bitter and Twisted Anglo-Catholics?

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

I am not sure you all understand that those who do these games generally are out to “prove” Secualirisation, by which they mean the imminent demise of the Church as such. They are anti Moderns and generally into some sort of sect, be it “church” (“classical Christianity” or not).

One of them at Lund University had had his own sect in a near-by town, called The House of Joy”, not “House of Joy” in Swedish has a somewhat atavistic meaning, it means Brothel.

That’s all you need to know ;=)

David Keen
Guest
David Keen

Curiouser and curiouser. Christian Research’s own journal, Quadrant, has nothing like the figures reported in the press yesterday. The link below has an article summarising some of the findings in the new Religious Trends, and the churchgoing figure is at least 1 million higher than the Times and Telegraph were reporting.

http://www.christian-research.org.uk/quad.htm

What’s going on?

Ben W
Guest
Ben W

Fr Mark, No cause for alarm, you go and repeat the expected line. Actually I agree with much of what you say here. It is true, there “is evidently an enormous and sustained falling away of active church attendance in the UK” and Europe and in parts of N America. In the midst of decline there are signs of renewed vitality, and most of those I think come in places where there is renewed connection with the gospel (does not mean confined or “legalistic” forms). Amazing growth of some large churches has happened just in the last 20 to 30… Read more »

Christopher Shell
Guest
Christopher Shell

‘A body called Christian Research’: to speak in this way suggests the subtext – ‘I am sure you have never heard of them; if you have, pretend you haven’t; they are obviously so fringe as to be laughed off’. Christian Research, as a good proportion of users of this site must already know, is a long-standing company that has for many years produced (whether in book-form or online) the UK Christian Handbook, which is the largest, most comprehensive Christian directory in the UK. It also produced a magnificent multi-colour global statistical/graph-based summary of World Christianity to greet the millennium. It… Read more »

drdanfee
Guest
drdanfee

Any research effort aimed at increasing church attendance before it has framed its hypotheses or planned its research design is already suspect – surely it must be applied in its research methods, and as the tool kit advises us, that application will qualify the hypothesis testing size or strength of its efforts. Any research effort may indeed be agenda driven in small or large ways that must be taken into account when interpreting or extrapolating from its results. So one looks at how the hypothesis is framed for testing, how the data is gathered, how analyzed, and then what inferences… Read more »

David Keen
Guest
David Keen

Ruth Gledhill has posted the tables in the report which all the debate is centred on:

http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/2008/05/latest-religiou.html

choirboyfromhell
Guest
choirboyfromhell

Somebody please try to find what the attendance figures for cathedral evensongs have been in the UK for the past sixty+ years. I think that they will be quite contrary to the trends being claimed here. Corporate America tried in the late 1990’s to some benefit, something dubbed “Total Quality”. Ford, CSX (a large railway in the US), Eaton, LTV and others saw increases in their sales through the individual efforts at improving what they did in the organization. I look at the music-making in most UK cathedrals as a parallel example. The lines that form daily outside King’s College… Read more »

JND
Guest
JND

DDF, your comment doesn’t even make sense: “Gledhill seems to be right, but I’ll bet she’s happy! The wretch!”

I think your just sulking because you’re wrong, and projecting this immature frame of mind onto her. But this isn’t a game to conservatives the way religion is a game to reappraisers. It’s tragic.

“‘The Gloaters’? Percy, you really are a pratt.” -Edmund Blackadder.

Christopher Shell
Guest
Christopher Shell

Trends never continue in straight lines. History is not like that. Unpredictable things will happen in the future. Statisticians know that better than anyone. The purpose of extrapolations like this is to point out what will happen *if* current trends continue. And, let’s face it, whatever happens in the future, it may well not be that many percentage points different from what is happening in the present. Present trends may indeed be an inadequate predictor of the future – but they are the best predictor we currently have.

Hugh of Lincoln
Guest
Hugh of Lincoln

These crude extrapolations are like trying to predict interest rates or inflation in 2050 – pure guess work. The core membership may be predominantly elderly, but who’s to say that they won’t be replaced by the baby-boomers when they reach retirement? The important thing is that the Church offers a degree of familiarity so that the returners-to-the-fold don’t feel completely alienated: the current trend towards modern worship styles is misguided for this reason. There’s a certain amount of resilience built in. Of course there will be the burden of funding building repairs and rising fuel bills, let alone the parish… Read more »