LORD CAREY, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, made headlines
last November by telling the world that the Church of England was
on the brink of extinction. There are reasons to take him
seriously, and reasons to be seriously sceptical.
The props to Lord Carey's prognostication are sagging charts and
drooping graphs, which extrapolate to a point when the Church
disappears in a puff of smoke.
Yet trends do not always continue. Other factors usually come
into play which render the future different from the past. Indeed,
decline itself is one such a factor: once it reaches a certain
point, it triggers new choices and actions which alter the course
Extrapolations to a religious zero point often rely on a dubious
account of secularisation which sees religious decline as an
inevitable outcome of modernisation. As more societies modernise,
it becomes clearer that this outcome is far from inevitable. Think
of religion in the "BRIC" [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries,
for example, or Korea and the Philippines in recent decades.
Nevertheless, Lord Carey is right to express concern. He presses
us to look steadily, and honestly, at what research reveals about
the Church of England in the UK today.
Here is an overview, drawing on large surveys I carried out with
YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates last year, analysed with
Bernard Silverman, and supplemented by other data.
WHAT is immediately clear is that Anglicanism is still a
significant part of British society. About one third of the
population identify as "C of E" or "Anglican", when asked what
their religion is. If we average over all age-groups, theC of E
remains thesingle largest religion or denomination in the
It still has advantages of which other religions can only dream:
the history and heritage of a national Church; huge wealth and
resources; a stake in about one third of schools; and deep
insertion into the élite institutions of England - the monarchy,
Parliament, the judiciary, public schools, Oxbridge, the armed
forces, and so on.
BUT it is equally clear that Anglicans are dying out. The third
of the population who say that they are Anglican is heavily
concentrated in older age-groups. Almost half of those over 60 are
Anglicans, but by the time you get to people in their twenties, it
is more like one in ten. Again, this is not inevitable. Not all
religions are declining in Britain. The number of people
identifying as Roman Catholic, for example, is fairly steady
(probably boosted by migration), and most minority religions are
doing a good job of transmission to younger generations.
As for actual church attendance, of those who say they are C of
E, about 83 per cent say that they do not go to church other than
very occasionally - perhaps for a funeral. The remaining 17 per
cent are the churchgoers. Of these, about half attend weekly (those
who go unless something stops them), and half attend less regularly
(those who go if nothing stops them).
The accumulated evidence shows that attendance has now been
declining for more than a century; became much steeper after the
1970s; and has not yet slowed down significantly.
WHAT we also see is that Anglican identity is not being
transmitted from one generation to the next, and that this has been
true for many decades. It is as true for older age groups as
younger ones. But the decline - starkly demonstrated by the rise in
people who said that they had "no religion" between the 2001 and
2011 Censuses - is so rapid that it cannot be accounted for simply
by young people's not becoming Anglican like their parents. There
must also be older people who disidentify with the C of E at some
stage in life.
Belief in God is also declining, but not as fast as belonging.
It is interesting to compare the graph below, which shows Anglicans
by age, with the one on page 24, which shows belief by age. What is
clear is that numbers of people cease to belong, or identify with,
the Church, but do not cease to believe. Atheism has been growing,
but only a little - about one in five people are atheists. The rest
of us believe in God with various degrees of certainty, or are not
A TOXIC BRAND
THE important point is that younger people are still open to
faith, but increasingly closed to the Churches, and indeed to
"religion" in general. Religion has become a toxic brand. The most
common response among the young to the census question "What is
your religion?" is now "None". Nearly half of young adults under 30
years of age say this. But less than half of "Nones" (43 per cent)
say that they are atheists. What they reject more decisively than
God is "religion".
Attitudes towards the Church of England are not encouraging.
When asked if they view the Church as a positive force in society,
only 18 per cent say "Yes", and only 14 per cent say "No". The
majority (58 per cent) say "Neither", and the rest "Don't know". In
other words, most people are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the
Church rather than hostile.
As for the reasons for disapproval, older people are most likely
to say that the Church is "boring and stuffy", but younger people
now state a strong moral objection: "The Church is prejudiced - it
discriminates against women and gay people."
THIS disconnect between wider social values and the Church's
official teachings is striking. There has been a values revolution
since the 1980s in Britain over the status and treatment of women,
gay people, and children. The change has been swift, each
generation being more likely than the one before to insist on equal
treatment for the first two groups, and greater protection for
Among Christians under 45 years of age, for example, less than
30 per cent think that same-sex marriage is wrong, and an absolute
majority think it is positively right (the rest "Don't know").
This results in a gulf in values between over-60s and under-50s.
The Church is officially on the side of the former, and set against
a moral shift as significant as that which took place earlier in
the 20th century in relation to race.
There is also a gap in values between Church and people on
socio-political issues. Most people in Britain are now
centre-right, and Anglicans are even further to the right than the
majority. For example, nearly 70 per cent of "Anglicans" believe
that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency -
almost ten percentage points higher than the general population.
But official church teaching is positioned much further to the left
of both the population and, even more so, Anglicans.
This leaves the Church out of step with most of its supporters,
as well as its detractors. It is both more left-wing in politics
and more conservative in morals, and both more paternalist and more
This values gap is certainly a reason for decline, but so is
distance and indifference, given that each generation is
increasingly unchurched. Only half the population say that they
have had any contact with the Church in the past year, and the most
common reason (given by 20 per cent) is for a funeral. Thus many
people only know of the Church indirectly -through entertainment
and news media, for example.
AREAS OF GROWTH
DESPITE overall decline, there are some parts of the Church that
are regarded positively. Reasons given are that it is "integral to
English culture", "an ethical voice in society", and "part of our
Areas of wider Anglican success include chaplaincy (school
chaplains are being actively recruited by many new academies, for
example); some voluntary bodies with Anglican input; Christian Aid,
the Children's Society and other charities; cathedrals; and
In the congregational realm, there are also some areas of
growth, as Peter Brierley (below) and Madeleine Davies
(page 26) point out. There is clearly no single magic
bullet. Formulaic solutions will not fit an organisation as broad
as theC of E. What works for the majority of Anglicans who are
irregular attenders is not what attracts enthusiasts.
The recent rapid decline in Anglican baptisms, weddings, and,
increasingly, funerals, is therefore particularly serious, since
this is the Church's core business, and of enormous importance to
what has traditionally been a Church for the whole of society
rather than just for the most committed churchgoers.
The Church's greatest failure in our lifetime has been its
refusal to take decline seriously. The situation is now so grave
that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow
again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe,
and creative and courageous decisions need to be made.
Dr Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion
at Lancaster University.
The full data tables and further analysis of the research
discussed here can be found at http://faithdebates.org.uk/research