The 2011 Census – data and the Church


Some thoughts on the significant fall on the number of people identifying themselves as Christian

The decline over a decade is stark:

“Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent)”

The key statistics are here, with some more details here. The final paragraph in the latter hyperlink is striking too:

“All in all, these data point to a society in which religion is increasingly in retreat and nominal. With the principal exception of the older age groups, many of those who claim some religious allegiance fail to underpin it by a belief in God or to translate it into regular prayer or attendance at a place of worship. People in general are more inclined to see the negative than the positive aspects of religion, and they certainly want to keep it well out of the political arena.”

Looking at that analysis, it makes me ponder over a number of things. The first is the existing influence both the established church and institutionalised religions have over politics and some public services. In particular on the numbers attending church services, shouldn’t the Church of England be disestablished so as to take up no more parliamentary time? Every month, an MP appointed to represent the Church of England answers questions in the Commons – currently Sir Tony Baldry as Second Church Commissioner.

On political apathy

Does our society’s party-political apathy give those active organisations a greater influence than their numbers justify? If it’s a case of “go where the people are”, then in one sense it’s a no-brainer. A number of politicians active on social media regularly tweet from community events held at places of worship. In an era where perhaps we live more separate, fragmented lives, I guess it’s hard to blame what few party political activists there are for wanting to concentrate their efforts in those areas that are most likely to bear fruit. If turnout is so very low, then the impact persuading a groups of people at a handful of places of worship could be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. This is even more so if policy-wise there’s little to differentiate between the parties (and if power-wise, it’s all held in Whitehall anyway).

Faith schools

I’ve made my position on this clear in a previous blogpost. Going by an FoI release from the Department for Education, around a third of all schools in England are Church of England or Roman Catholic. Which then makes you wonder about the ‘conversion rate’ – how many people who have gone through such schools go onto becoming regular attendees of church? Because the 2011 Census seems to indicate that from an institutional faith perspective, such faith schools are failing badly. The sheep are leaving the flock. If the difference in between the 2001 & 2011 censuses were for any other institution – fall in profits/sales, fall in membership or fall in attendance, wouldn’t interested parties be calling for some really radical surgery?

How accurate is the data on faith?

How many were having a laugh, and how many were serious? Putting fake names and responses to petitions and censuses is not new – in 1848 the Chartists were recorded as having a few. The full detailed breakdown of the 2011 census is fascinating – not least because of the huge fall in people listing themselves as “Jedi Knights”. Yeah – and you thought the Church of England had problems! One thing the British Humanist Association did was to launch a campaign in the run up to the 2011 Census encouraging people with no religion to list themselves as such, rather than going for a default ‘Well, I’m C of E aren’t I?’

In any case, this could be the last census we have. The Government is looking to scrap the next one due in 2021 – though not without opposition. It remains to be seen as to whether it will go through with such plans.

The changing architecture of churches as buildings in response to changing communities

Locally and anecdotally, some churches are doing that. They have to in order to survive as voluntary contributions at masses inevitably dry up, along with previous sources of income such as rites-of-passage ceremonies. Despite some of the positive ‘spin’ some interviewees from various religious institutions tried to put on the census figures, the bottom line has not been lying. If not enough people are attending worship and donating money for things like the basic upkeep of premises, alternative sources of income need to be found to keep them open.

Two places local to me – St Philips and St Pauls have re-invented themselves as community centres, with new purpose-built interiors now available for use throughout the day. This has had the effect of halving the previous space that would otherwise have been used for religious services in the days when congregations were larger. Another example I saw during my civil service days was St James’ in Great Yarmouth.

Personally I don’t see the renovations as a bad thing. It opens up otherwise under-used community buildings to the community for wider uses – and not just to people of one faith group. What I’ve not seen an example of is the conversion of part of an existing church for cheap ‘footloose’ office space for freelancers like myself – somewhere comfortable, based within the community but a little quieter/with fewer disturbances than in a coffee bar – similar to that in Great Yarmouth.

On a personal level, I prefer the architecture of older buildings to mainstream modern buildings – especially the monstrosities going up in my neighbourhood. Little more than glorified featureless boxes. I like it when nice buildings are brought back to life – especially if that life involves making them accessible to the wider public.



2 thoughts on “The 2011 Census – data and the Church

  1. Belief in supernatural forces, asserting that there are aspects of the world that we cannot understand, is tantamount to a surrender of the very capacities that make us human – namely, our intellectual abilities.

    If the real word genuinely is too complicated for us to understand, then there probably isn’t to much hope for our future. We will never learn how to control the diseases that strike us down, and we will never be able to save the planet from the fate that two dozen centuries of human mismanagement have left it heir to. And if that’s the case, then we might as well go out with a bang rather than a whimper and have a real party on what little remains of the world’s resources. In short, holism (belief in supernatural forces) is a naive recipe for an unmitigated disaster, and we follow it at our peril. Our only real hope for the future lies in the belief that our intellectual abilities are good enough to unravel the complexity of natural processes and allow us to forestall the inevitable fate that awaits us if we don’t. It is a race against time, and we cannot afford the luxury of allowing mystical nonsense to distract us from reality, however comforting that nonsense might be.

    In countless cases, people have believed so passionately in a particular proposition that they have been willing to put to death those with whom they disagree. It is the staggering facility with which we humans seem willing to surrender ourselves to others rather than think for ourselves that is probably the most frightening aspect of our own behaviour.

    Robin Dunbar. The Trouble With Science

  2. Serving the local community is just what Christians ought to be doing, so opening their doors and becoming community centres is a great way of doing that.

    And this works both ways: In Blinco Grove, just down the road from C of E St John’s, an ‘overflow’ group of Christians from The Rock Baptist Church meets in Morley Memorial School, making use of facilities that would normally be empty on a Sunday.

    This Saturday night, St John’s goes to the pub – our curate Julie is working with The Rock Public House to arrange community carol singing. Last Orders to Holy Orders! Do come along for a few verses of God rest ye merry gentlemen, provided Puffles is old enough to visit a pub.

    Amanda (both a Christian and a Census Refusenik)

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