Christian Research data defended, but church decline continues

By staff writers
May 9, 2008

The Christian Research organisation, whose latest statistical survey on the overall decline of church attendance in Britain has annoyed the Church of England, has defended its work against charges of being inaccurate and superficial.

It was reported yesterday that the latest edition of Religious Trends forecast that by 2050 the number of Sunday church attenders would drop from just under one million to around 899,000, whilst 4,000 churches could face closure by 2020 if present rates of decline continue. The number of active Muslims in the UK, predicted to grow to 2,960,000, was described as three times the number of predicted Sunday churchgoers for the same year.

The Church of England swiftly denounced the researchers' methodologies as "flawed", "simplistic" and "dangerously misleading", an accusation echoed today by the new Telegraph religious affairs correspondent, who is an Anglican clergyman.

However, Christian Research points out that the shortcomings are to be found in the sensationalist interpretation of their data by The Times newspaper and others, not in the work they have published.

Lynda Barley, the C of E's head of statistical research claims that the situation of the Established Church is much rosier than many say.

"There are more than 1.7 million people worshipping in a Church of England church or cathedral each month, a figure that is 30 per cent higher than the electoral roll figures and has remained stable since 2000,” she declared.

"The research does not compare like with like”, Ms Barley says. “The number of practising Muslims, for instance, is based on the number of people who said they were active in the 2001 census. If the same process was applied to Christians it would give a figure of 20 million active churchgoers”, claims Church House.

However, head of Christian Research Benita Hewitt has responded that critics are basing their own rebuttals on newspaper reports rather than the data.

“Religious Trends is a book of statistics with no real interpretation in there and no commentary on the numbers, but unfortunately the press have picked that up and put two sets of numbers together,” she explained.

Ms Hewitt told Christian Today e-zine: “The church statistics were looking at only Sunday attendance – and I completely agree with Lynda that it’s missing out those who attend less frequently than once a week, because increasing numbers are attending midweek and are attending less traditional forms of church. I agree all those things are missing.”

The statistics in the latest edition of Religious Trends were put together under the guidance of former head of Christian Research, Peter Brierley, before his departure from the organisation in late 2007.

Ms Hewitt said that Christian Research would not be making any more forecasts, but rather shifting the focus of its research into present attendance patterns. It hopes to use that to support those wishing to build bridges with non-churchgoers – but on the basis of a realistic assessment.

Ms Hewitt commented: “It’s always dangerous forecasting to 2050 and I don’t think you can reliably do it. Nobody can predict what the world is going to look like in 40 years time. It’s just that if present trends continue this is what we are facing. The church needs to change and look at where it is growing, and learn from best practice. And there are all sorts of signs of growth.”

New initiatives may be helping the Church of England to buck the trend of decline in some aspects, but the other denominations are “falling much, much faster”, she warned.

“There is no doubting that the church is declining. And as much as Lynda Barley will point to the positive news – Back to Church Sunday, Fresh Expressions – the overall picture is decline,” she said.

“The church needs to change and just adapt more to what’s going on and be more sensitive to what’s going on in the culture.”

The church “needs to evolve and where it is evolving it is growing”, she said. “If it doesn’t evolve then those trends that were predicted in the book of stats may well happen.”

Over 170 religious affiliations were noted in the 2001 Census. The range of research available indicated that the make-up of belief in the UK is diverse and complex, say analysts.

While around half of the British population believe in a God, some 72% told the 2001 census that they were Christian. Yet 65% of the population have no significant connection to any religion or church, it seems.

There has been a dramatic decline in regular churchgoing between 1979 and 2005, and organised religion in Britain has suffered an immense decline since the 1950s and 1960s.

"Arguing about the latest statistics misses the point," commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. "The overall trend for many years has been a falling away of active affiliation from inherited church institutions."

He continued: "This does not mean the death of Christianity. It signals, rather, the end of an illusion that Christians are in a majority and that their beliefs and convictions have some automatic right to a privileged place within society.

"Christendom - the identification of the interests of church and governing authority - is no longer sustainable (even if you think it is justifiable, which we do not), because most people in Britain are not actively Christian. But the idea that religion and spirituality is disappearing is also an illusion. We now live in a multi-conviction society, and believers as well as non-believers need to adjust to this."

"For the churches, the opportunity is to focus on demonstrating a Gospel of reconciliation, justice and peace in practice - rather than becoming defensive, hiding behind privilege and trying to lecture people from a false position of lofty superiority", concluded Barrow.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.