Is London more religious now than it was in the days of Margaret Thatcher?

07 December 2018

Contributors to a new book state their case to audience at St Margaret’s, Westminster

THE idea that London is bound to become more secular is now an “article of faith” confounded by the evidence, an audience at St Margaret’s, Westminster, heard last week.

Three contributors to a new book, The Desecularisation of the City: London’s churches, 1980 to the
present (Routledge), sought to build a case that London was now more religious than it was when Margaret Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street.

“This matters for the UK more widely, and for the West,” said the Revd Dr David Goodhew, director of the Centre for Church Growth Research at Cranmer Hall, Durham, and editor of the book. “Those who would argue from London that the world is bound to get more secular must argue against the evidence. . . Believing in secularisation is an article of faith.”

The evidence base is built on a study of congregations. Figures collected by Dr Peter Brierley, a statistician, suggest that there was a 43-per-cent rise in the number of churches (of all denominations) in Greater London between 1979 and 2012, from 3350 to 4791.

Dr Goodhew believes that this is an “undercount”, and that the true figure is 50 per cent. He pointed to a study of new (founded since the 1950s) black-majority churches in Southwark, by Dr Andrew Rogers, of the University of Roehampton, who counted 240 (News, 28 June 2013).

In his chapter, Dr Rogers notes that the borough has the highest number of Africans and African Christians in England and Wales, and argues that: “Seeing signs of resurrection has never been easy for disciples, but it is a salutary reminder that it is all too easy for the Church to absorb the predominant church-decline narrative.”

In another chapter, the Revd Dr Colin Marchant, a Baptist minister, outlines his study of Newham, which concludes that 350 new churches have been founded since 1975. This is followed by a study in which social media were used to track churches, again counting more than Dr Brierley’s figure, which was conducted by Dr Goodhew’s co-editor Anthony-Paul Cooper.

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While acknowledging that Sunday attendance was “significantly harder to measure” than congregation numbers, Dr Goodhew reported that it had risen by ten per cent — a figure calculated from data submitted by church leaders.

London’s changing ethnic make-up was a key theme of the presentation. Dr Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, notes that the white British population now made up less than half the London total. The big decline in religious identity was “almost entirely a white British phenomenon. . . To the extent that the white British share is declining, secularisation slows down.”

He noted, for example, that while the increase in “no religion” identification among white British respondents had risen from 15.4 per cent to 28 per cent between 2001 and 2011, among black Africans it had risen from 2.3 per cent to 2.9 per cent.

“We can speak about London as being very secular and very religious…it just depends on who you are looking at,” he said. “Some of the most secular boroughs in the country are in London. . . but if you look at the entire population. . . you see some of the most religious country in the UK.”

Mr Cooper reported that fewer than 40 per cent of the capital’s churchgoers were white British. The “most prolific” denominations were Pentecostal and independent churches, he said, and Orthodox congregations had expanded quickly. New Frontiers was now larger than the United Reformed Church in the capital, and Methodists had “markedly declined” since 1980.

He noted that the number of worshippers in the diocese of London had “dropped deeply” in the 1970s and ’80s, but had risen by more than 70 per cent since 1990. In 1990, the diocese ranked 11th by electoral roll; it was now first. The number of worshippers in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Westminster had risen by more than 25 per cent between 1998 and 2012.

It was “a mistake to assume that London is just another planet”, he suggested, pointing to research that had counted 125 new churches founded in the north-east since 1980.

“We need to let go of a Miss Marple-esque picture of British Christianity as a devout countryside and secularising cities,” he said. “The late-modern city is anything but secular.”

Dr Goodhew urged the audience to “beware the glib claim that congregational dynamism is just due to migration,” arguing that “congregations and denominations have agency. They are not prisoners of socio-economic forces. The fact that some are growing and some are shrinking tells us that what individual congregations and diocese and denominations do has an impact for good or ill.” He also pointed to a “striking historical contrast” with 19th-century London: it was now the poorer inner-city boroughs which reported the most church growth.

He acknowledged that: “We focused on congregations because congregations are enormously important in the Christian tradition, but if you focus it on tick-box affiliation, you are going to get a different numbers. . . You could use some other metrics to argue that it is secularising.”

Concerning how people answered survey forms, he remained “slightly sceptical about what ‘no religion’ means. . . What people do is for me more interesting than what people say in a survey.”

The national census reveals that London has the highest proportion of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews in the country, and the lowest percentage of Christians (48.4 per cent compared with 59.3 nationally). Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of people identifying as “no religion” increased by the smallest amount of any region (five per cent), and it recorded both the smallest drop in Christian affiliation (9.8 per cent) and the largest in Muslim identification (3.9 per cent).

Dr Rogers reported that, if trends continue, there will be more black than white Christians in London by 2037.

Statistics for the diocese of London suggest that all-age average Sunday attendance was 59,000 in 2008 and 56,800 in 2017. All-age average weekly attendance fell over the period from 77,800 to 69,800. All-age usual Sunday attendance fell from 57,600 to 56,200. The diocese recently reported that there were fewer than 2000 11- to 18-year-olds in its churches (News, 7 July 2017).

This week, the Rector of Nantwich, the Revd Dr Mark Hart, queried the argument “that London’s growing churches have been agents of their own success and not just beneficiaries of migration, implying that London diocese’s strategic leadership is the key to desecularisation. Far more digging is needed to give this claim a foundation, and it is undermined by the diocese’s lack of growth over the last decade.”

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, said that counting congregations was “a simple and helpful way of gauging what is happening to Christianity over time, so long as the methodology is clear and consistent over several decades.

“London is a unique city that has become a microcosm of the world,” she said. “As these findings help to show, it now reflects the globe as a whole in its luxuriant mix of religion and ‘no religion’. But the growth of Christianity in London hasn’t offset the overall decline in the country as a whole, or in the Church of England.

“It would be a mistake to conclude that London is a model that can be applied to the rest of the country. Different kinds of churches do well in different situations, including the countryside. Miss Marple should never be underestimated.”

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