Comments: Religious attendance statistics in dispute

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 sometimes even belong)?

Hate to be a buzzkill, but the economic picture is not rosy at present and may soon erupt into a full-blown crisis. Not to mention "Peak Oil." How can anybody predict what societies will do in cases like this?

Posted by bls at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 4:23pm BST

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. . .

Posted by Richard at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 6:18pm BST

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

Posted by Göran Koch-Swahne at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 6:29pm BST

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.

Posted by BIGDAN at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 6:43pm BST

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

Posted by toujoursdan at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 6:54pm BST

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 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…"

Posted by ruidh at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 7:07pm BST

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 and do something about it.

Posted by Eric the Priest at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 7:33pm BST

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)

Posted by JCF at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 7:49pm BST

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)?"

The saddest part of your post is that you've shown how ingrained revisionist solipsism is. "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on tv. But as long as I *think* of myself as a doctor, I really am one! And if people refuse to be treated by me... they're just being mean, bigoted and afraid of contracting fake-doctor-cooties.". You don't "define" any other concept in the same cavalier fashion in which you define "Christian" or you'd be in jail within a week. Why don't you grow up?

Posted by JND at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 8:03pm BST

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 as to the Sunday ones, with maybe a few coming in the week because they had to miss Sunday, but certainly not in large enough numbers to make much statistical difference. Then, the Church hierarchy says, there is an increase in attendance among the immigrant communities in the UK, they being more inclined to church-going. However, give them a generation and they will surely fall away like everyone else.

The point is, that the institution of the Church is clearly on course to die out within my lifetime, probably throughout Europe, and it's time that the leadership looked seriously and honestly at why that is. (It's certainly not because we're too nice to gay people, before you leap in, Ben W and others!) Surely our total lack of credibility (e.g. as an organisation that tells people how to be ethical, but then discriminates overtly against women and gay people) is contributing to the death of European church-going?

Posted by Fr Mark at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 8:46pm BST

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."

Posted by John Richardson at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 9:39pm BST

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.

Posted by Pluralist at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 9:50pm BST

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...

Posted by David at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 10:06pm BST

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.

Posted by David Keen at Thursday, 8 May 2008 at 10:21pm BST

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

Posted by choirboyfromhell at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 2:54am BST

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 anybody else, but I'm already having problems paying my bills - and I don't see any end to this. In times like these, people change; the world changes. We're on an unpredictable cusp - and I do think these studies are being used in the media, as somebody said above, as "provocation."

Or else the media is totally out of touch. But people DO return to church in difficult times, so as Andrew Brown says above "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." Even if I'm wrong about economics, the world changes very quickly these days, and most people wouldn't pay much attention to predictions of what's going to happen in ANY arena in 2050.

So I'm not sure why I'm being told to "grow up" and Andrew Brown isn't; we're saying almost the same thing. Oh, well - when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess.

Posted by bls at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 3:17am BST

Another to add to the roundup,

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.

Posted by John B. Chilton at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 3:36am BST

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.

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 7:58am BST

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

Posted by Fr Mark at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 7:59am BST

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 ;=)

Posted by Göran Koch-Swahne at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 9:02am BST

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.

What's going on?

Posted by David Keen at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 9:33am BST

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 years, not all of these are signs of healthy life but I think some are, and they are mostly in the evangelical sector. They are creatively reflecting on faith, order, worship, and mission. Philip Jenkins who teaches at one of the great Universities in Pennsylvania has had a keen interest and has researched for years now in this area and written several volumes. He has a strong overall perspective (e.g. see his recent God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis).

Ben W

Posted by Ben W at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 2:04pm BST

'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 has for many years been the main gatherer of Christian statistics in the UK, and worldwide I know of only David Barrett 'World Christian Encyclopedia' to compare with it.

In other words, it is nothing to be snooty about. Produce anything a tenth as impressive and then the snootiness can commence.

Posted by Christopher Shell at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 2:12pm BST

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 or projections from data can reasonably be done and discussed.

Gledhill, gee what can a reader say at this point? She is so happy to hear bad news about neighbors different from her religiously conservative leanings that I always keep my salt shaker handy when I come across an item with her byline.

Conservative realignment blogs - if not conservative Anglican media generally? - are fairly dripping with glee at the notion that non-conservative believers are doomed to meaningless secularisms of this or that or another sort, or to dying out for lack of baby-making or money or commitment, or to some other projection of dire trends and ever worse consequences.

Two hot button points are usually implicit: One, we conservatives are the only safe place in town when it comes to sidestepping or avoiding or categorically redefining global changes as something else than they common sensically appear to be - and two, everybody else is in great trouble or serious danger or smelly.

Posted by drdanfee at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 4:15pm BST

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

Posted by David Keen at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 9:39pm BST

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 Chapel attest to this.

And let's not discount the idea of frequency of worship mentioned above (in John B. Chilton's letter). Evensong at the end of the harried workday, in the middle of the week (when you need it!) makes more sense than in dragging yourself out of bed on the one day you can sleep in on.

Posted by choirboyfromhell at Friday, 9 May 2008 at 10:42pm BST

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.

Posted by JND at Saturday, 10 May 2008 at 12:00am BST

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.

Posted by Christopher Shell at Saturday, 10 May 2008 at 9:06am BST

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 share and the clergy pensions time-bomb. But the Church will probably adapt by moving towards non-stipendiary ministry and parish amalgamation. There will undoubtedly be some closures too.

As Choirboy points out the Choral Evensong success story is a perfect example of how to buck the trend. In which continental European cathedrals can you experience Lotti, Victoria, Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, Purcell and Howells? The tragedy of Vatican 2 was the obliteration overnight of so much Catholic heritage. We kept it going, and added more of our own, and will reap the rewards for decades to come.

Posted by Hugh of Lincoln at Saturday, 10 May 2008 at 12:01pm BST
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