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…
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.