THE Church of England's
mission strategies and investment of energy assume that churches
and churchgoers are its main resources. But a significant new
survey offers a broader answer. It suggests that non-churchgoing
Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future
than the dismissive word "nominals" implies.
I designed a survey to
support the current series of Westminster Faith Debates, and
devised its questions with the assistance of YouGov Plc, which
administered it. The fieldwork took place on 25-30 January this
year in England, Scotland, and Wales, and the sample size was 4437.
The figures have been weighted, and are representative of all
British adults aged over the age of 18. It was completed by 1261
self-identified Anglicans; so it provides a firm basis on which to
construct a reliable profile of Anglicans today.
The results suggest that
people who identify themselves as Anglican ("Church of England" was
not given as an option) make up one third of the adult population
of Great Britain. Adherents of all the other religions and
Christian denominations added together constitute the next third,
and those who say that they have "no religion" are the final slice
of the pie.
THE most obvious division
within the Anglicans as a whole is between those who say that they
participate in a church or Christian group, and those who say that
they do not. This gives us robust categories of churchgoers and
non-churchgoers, placing those who attend occasional events, such
as a wedding or a carol service, on the non-churchgoing side of the
line. This non-churchgoing constituency represents 83 per cent of
Anglicans, which dwarfs the 17 per cent who go to church.
This might, however, not
be bad news for the Church. It is easy to assume that the
churchgoers are the "real Anglicans", and the non-churchgoers are
backsliders whose diluted faith is one step away from atheism. The
survey reveals something more interesting. Many of the "nominals"
are more than purely nominal. Many believe and practise in similar
ways to churchgoers - who are themselves not a homogenous
We find that there are in
fact two different types of non-churchgoer, and two different types
of churchgoer. I have labelled the four types and arranged them by
I use the term
"Godfearer" to point to two distinguishing characteristics of this,
the smallest group of Anglicans. First, they are very certain in
their belief in God, and, second, they say that God is their main
source of authority. Both characteristics make them distinctive
among their fellow Anglicans.
Almost 90 per cent of
Godfearers say that there is "definitely" a God, compared with just
over half of the Churchgoing Mainstream group. They are more likely
to read the Bible (about half) and pray regularly (more than
They are unique among
Anglicans of all hues in taking their main authority and guidance
from religious sources: God, scripture, and religious teachings.
They are also the only group to take notice of religious leaders -
although only four per cent of them say this.
The Godfearers are also
distinct when it comes to their moral attitudes. As you would
expect, the Non-churchgoing Doubters are the most permissive, and
the Churchgoing Mainstream a little more conservative. But both are
in reasonably close agreement with the majority of the
In contrast, the
Godfearers have much more conservative views on many issues of
personal morality, particularly sexuality. For example, 65 per cent
of Godfearers are against allowing same-sex marriage, compared with
47 per cent of Churchgoing Believers, 43 per cent of Anglicans
overall, and 34 per cent of the general population.
Interestingly, the survey
shows that the attitudes of the Godfearers align more closely with
conservative Baptists and conservative Muslims than with other
Anglicans. Like these other groups, they are neo-Puritans who set
their face against what they regard as the loose morals of majority
TURNING to the
Churchgoing Mainstream, we meet a significantly different kind of
Anglican. They have much more in common with their fellow Anglican
Non-churchgoing Believers than with Godfearers. The difference,
apart from the fact that they participate in a Christian group or
congregation, is that they are a little more religious on a number
of measures, and a little more morally conservative.
More than 70 per cent
call themselves spiritual, or religious, or both, equal numbers
identifying with each term. Two-thirds say that they pray
regularly, one third regularly visit sacred places, and one third
read the Bible.
Like all other Anglicans
except the Godfearers, the Churchgoing Mainstream say that they
take their ultimate authority from their own reason, intuition, and
judgement, and a few also mention family and friends. This does not
mean that they do not consult the scriptures and other religious
sources, but, at the end of the day, they make up their own minds -
perhaps believing that God speaks through human life and
conscience. None takes guidance from religious leaders, national or
CROSSING now from
churchgoers to non-churchgoers, the survey finds that the
Non-churchgoing Believers have a great deal in common with the
Churchgoing Mainstream. Half describe themselves as "religious" or
"spiritual", compared with less than a quarter of the general
population. They all believe in God, although some prefer the word
Half say that they
practise religious or spiritual activities regularly, about a
quarter saying that they pray, and a quarter saying that they takes
regular time to meditate or still the mind. These "nominals" are
more than Anglican in name only: they believe, practise, and
identify with Anglicanism.
Indeed, even the last
type of non-churchgoing Anglican, the Doubters, are more than
purely nominal. They identify themselves as Anglican, of course.
Only 15 per cent are outright atheists. Most are agnostic or unsure
about God - more than one third say that there is "probably not a
God", and about half say that they simply "don't know".
More than one fifth say
that they practise some sort of religious or spiritual activity in
private. Like other Anglicans, they say that their highest
authority is their own reason or intuition. But, when it comes to
church matters, they tend to be relatively indifferent.
WITH this profile of the
four main types of contemporary Anglican in mind, we can return to
the question who counts as a "real Anglican". There is a recent
tendency, both within and the Church and in the media, to represent
the Godfearers as the most real. This is a mistake.
It is not just that this
group is very small, but that it is unrepresentative of Anglicans
today and Anglicanism in the past. In historical and ecclesiastical
terms, the Church of England has care for every soul in England,
and demonstrates the latitude that this implies.
It has traditionally
tried to gather everyone into the family of God rather than call
out only rigorists to separate them from corruption. It is a Church
of the nation rather than a congregation of saints. If you follow
this logic into our contem- porary, multifaith, and partially
secular society, it surely means that everyone who identifies
themselves as Anglican makes up the Church.
The conclusion that both
churchgoing and non-churchgoing Anglicans are "real" is even
stronger when you take into account the enormous social changes
that have taken place since the 1980s, brought about by enhanced
mobility, communications, and migration.
Christians now might
participate daily in an online prayer group with members from
around the world, take part in annual festivals or retreats, make
pilgrimages to sacred places, and worship occasionally in a variety
of cathedrals and churches.
Another enormous change
has to do with vastly expanded access to knowledge and a greatly
expanded class of "cultural professionals". This has undermined the
monopoly on truth that clergy shared with dons until very
We live in a culture in
which we are encouraged to search for ourselves, make up our own
minds, and take responsibility for our choices. Religion is not
exempted. Sitting in a pew being preached at is no longer a normal
thing to do.
IRONICALLY, however, at
the same time as these developments have been unfolding, the Church
of England has been retrenching, or even moving in the opposite
direction. To me at least, it seems to have abandoned its sense of
itself as a lay Church governed by monarch and Parliament, and
responsible to the people, and has become both more clerical and
more congregationally based. This is bound up with a dismissal of
One consequence is that
it is hard for lay people, particularly non-churchgoers, to be
taken seriously. Despite their prominence at all levels of society,
they are not encouraged to think of themselves as real Anglicans.
They do not become spokespeople for their Church, or play an active
part in its governance.
There is an interesting
comparison here with the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, in which
laypeople have been becoming ever more important, as the number of
YET the survey suggests
that the "nominals" can easily be as important to the Church as the
churchgoers. They may not want to join a congregation, but this
does not mean that they are necessarily less Christian, or less
Anglican. Many are loyal to the Church, grateful for its place in
society, and committed to its welfare.
They try to live good,
godly lives, according to Anglican values of dignity, decency,
kindness, modesty, and care for others. They read and pray. Some
are "golden-rule Christians", who believe that faith should be
shown in love for neighbour. Others say that spirituality can be
cultivated without going to church.
It would surely be a
positive move for the Church to consider: first, that such
Anglicans have something important to offer; and, second, that they
might even have valuable contributions to make to strategy and
decision-making. They could share power. But this would require a
radical shift of perspective, in which it was accepted that there
is an integrity in this form of Anglicanism, which does not depend
The potential benefits to
all parties of taking non-churchgoing Anglicans seriously are huge.
Take influence and expertise: it extends from politics to banking
to theology to change-management. The Church needs this help. Or
take money: rather than depending on income from the squeezed 17
per cent of churchgoers, it would make sense to ask something of
the 83 per cent of non-churchgoers. Only a small amount from so
many could make a huge difference.
This can take place at a
local as much as a national level. Initiatives are more likely to
be effective when they represent some sort of direct action, with
tangible results. In one example I heard of recently, a vicar asked
non-churchgoers to contribute regularly to specific educational
projects in the parish, with great success.
It should not be a case
of either-or. The C of E needs both its churchgoers and
non-churchgoers. They can support and influence one another. The
survey suggests that the majority of Anglicans are not "merely"
nominal. They believe, they practise, and - because they still
identify themselves as Anglican, even though there is no longer any
social pressure to do so - they belong. There is every reason to
take them more seriously.
With thanks to the
Revd Professor Bernard Silverman for invaluable help with analysis
of the statistics.
Linda Woodhead is the Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and
Society Programme. She is Professor of the Sociology of Religion at