The latest results from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey provide an encouraging note on religious adherence in the UK, but the devil is in the detail.
The BSA survey is an annual statistical exercise where 3,000 people are questioned about their lives, beliefs and opinions. There are a number of core questions which are asked each year and then each annual survey also looks at key issues of the moment. The current report, for example, has a large section on Brexit issues.
The latest BSA survey suggests that the decline in religious belief has bottomed out, with the number of people claiming to be Christian growing from 42% to 43% of the population. At first sight this is encouraging, but such a move (up 1%) is well within the margin of error of the sample and may not be a true representation of what is happening in the population at large. Statisticians tend to rely on trends over time and if you look at the long run direction of the numbers over the last decade, the pattern is still moving downwards.
If you look at the long run direction of the numbers over the last decade, the pattern is still moving downwards
This ties in with some of the analysis undertaken by leading denominations in the country. The Church of England publishes its attendance figures every year and these have seen sometimes catastrophic declines for the past two decades. While some dioceses are now reversing that trend (most notably London with its proactive church planting agenda which stands in stark comparison to Southwark south of the river where the continued decline in attendance has been accompanied by an historical less open attitude to cross parish evangelism) the general outlook is still one of falling numbers and aging congregations.
One of the major problems for mainstream denominations is that their congregations are skewed towards the older members of the UK population and those members are, literally, dying off. There are many Church of England parishes where it’s rare to find someone under the age of 50 and increasingly in rural environments clergy are looking after ten or more churches with little time to do more than tread liturgical water. While there are some brilliant examples of rural mission, on the whole there is a sense of unstoppable long term decline, accompanied often with the financial pressures that declining income brings.
There are though some promising signs amongst the gloom. There is increasing evidence across a number of denominations that we are seeing material growth in the number of young adults participating on a regular basis in Christian religious communities. Some of this is driven by the large waves of Eastern European migration the UK has seen since the former Communist Bloc countries have joined the EU. In particular many Roman Catholic parishes have been revived by the influx of Polish workers. There is also some evidence that in the Church of England (and potentially other mainstream denominations) attendance at key festivals (Easter and Christmas) is now stable and shows signs of growth. Cathedrals have also seen increasing numbers attending services, both on Sundays and mid-week.
Younger adults are starting to become more attracted to certainty than their Gen X predecessors
Outside of the mainstream denominations, the charismatic and Pentecostal churches continue to show signs of healthy activity. These churches tend to attract younger congregations and those younger congregations tend to stay around (as opposed to the mainstream denominations where they drift away). Interestingly, evangelical Church of England congregations also are much better at holding on to their younger members than 'broad church' parishes, and this combined with the evidence of Roman Catholic congregations being boosted by young migrant parishioners seems to suggest that no one particular worship style is the key to stemming the decline in church attendance. Rather, younger adults (the so called 'Gen Y' or 'Millennials') are starting to become more attracted to certainty than their Gen X predecessors at the same time as they start to contribute actively to society as tax payers and power wielders. This itself is an interesting sociological observation that is transforming our understanding of the shape of the Gen Y generation as it grows older and has clear missiological implications.
It will probably take until the end of the decade to confirm or deny whether we are seeing a resurgence in Christian belief and adherence in the UK. The media will happily use year to year movements to generate headlines, but statisticians are more interested in the long term trends. If studies like the BSA continue over the next few years to evidence changes in behaviour similar to those identified in the latest report, that should fill the Church with more confidence that the long slow decline in church attendance since the end of the Second World War is finally coming to an end. If that is so then the shape of the Church in the UK in the 21st Century might be remarkably different to that of the 20th Century, and that will bring its own management and mission challenges.
The Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest resident in Canterbury and a Banking Statistics Consultant. He writes on issues of statistics and religion.