Category Archives: Geography

Church growth or decline in the United Kingdom

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

Have you read the article from The Telegraph [UK] with the heading, ‘Former archbishop of Canterbury: We are a post-Christian nation‘?[1] It began:

Exclusive: Former archbishop of Canterbury [Lord Rowan Williams] says Britain is no longer a nation of believers, as Telegraph poll reveals Christians are reluctant to express their faith.

Britain is now a “post-Christian” country, the former archbishop of Canterbury has declared, as research suggests that the majority of Anglicans and Roman Catholics now feel afraid to express their beliefs.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Williams of Oystermouth says Britain is no longer “a nation of believersand that a further decline in the sway of the Church is likely in the years ahead.

While the country is not populated exclusively by atheists, the former archbishop warns that the era of regular and widespread worship is over (emphasis in original).

But do the statistics support such a negative view?

This article from The Telegraph states that Williams’ comments are a ‘stark assessment’ after Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, ‘urged Christians to be “more evangelical” about their faith’. Cameron dared to state that ‘Britain should be a more confidently Christian country’.

Well that’s sure to put the cat among the theological pigeons. And when did Cameron make such comments? Just prior to Easter 2014. As expected, according to this article, atheist and secular groups were furious about the Cameron comments. The leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Nick Clegg, even called for ‘the disestablishment of the Church of England’.

This is a summary of The Telegraph poll:



Source: The Telegraph [UK], 26 April 2014[2]

Is Rowan Williams giving an accurate picture of a post-Christian UK?

Williams was reported in The Telegraph as saying:

“But [Britain is] post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted,” he said. “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that.”

The former archbishop, who remains a member of the House of Lords, continued: “It’s a matter of defining terms. A Christian country as a nation of believers? No.

“A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Lord Williams suggested that there may be “a further shrinkage of awareness and commitment” as a result of a lack of knowledge about Britain’s Christian legacy among younger generations, under the age of 45.[3]

There is a different view: Widespread church growth

But there is a different response to Christianity in the UK that emerged in 2012 that provides a divergent perspective to that of Rowan Williams.

The Church of England Newspaper of 2 May 2014 (but it is a rolling date) had an article by David Goodhew of Cranmer Hall, Durham University, ‘Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain (originally reported in 2012).[4] This research states that:

An international team of leading researchers, based at Cranmer Hall, Durham, have just published a study entitled Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present. Here are just a few of the extraordinary statistics that have been unearthed:
– There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any
– At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher
– There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities
– The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.
Research Endorsed by Bishops and Leading Academics
This research has been endorsed by a range of senior academics and church leaders – from Justin Welby, the new Bishop of Durham, to Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Professor David Bebbington, the leading historian of evangelicalism comments: “This is excellent research. It is commonly supposed that the Christian church in Britain is moribund, but the essays in this volume all demonstrate, from different angles, that in the recent past there are signs of vitality and growth”.

I recommend a read of this second article online to see the results of this research. It is contrary to Rowan Williams opinion. Would that surprise you?

This newspaper story is only a grab of a few highlights from a church newspaper. If you want to find more complete details of the research at Durham University, I’ll leave it to you to search out the research document. But this newspaper source does state that:

An international team of leading researchers, based at Cranmer Hall, Durham, have just published a study entitled Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present. Here are just a few of the extraordinary statistics that have been unearthed:

So this is not research by some Mickey Mouse researchers trying to demonstrate something that is not there. I’m not here to defend what they found. That’s for other researchers to critique. I’m simply reporting what I found in a newspaper that provided some drop down examples of what was found:

Where you look affects what you find. The real picture for the last 30 years looks something like this:

– Roughly the same number of churches have closed as have opened

– Some denominations have seen serious decline – notably the ‘mainline’ denominations – Anglican, Methodist, URC, Catholic

– Some churches have seen major growth; especially churches rooted in ethnic minority communities and newer denominations

– Some parts of the mainline churches are seeing growth – Anglican growth centres on the Diocese of London (the one Anglican diocese which has consistently grown over the last 20 years) and new Anglican churches/fresh expressions.

This research from 2012 has been resurrected to gain fresh publicity at about the same time as this statement from Rowan Williams, ‘Former archbishop of Canterbury [Lord Rowan Williams] says Britain is no longer a nation of believers, as Telegraph poll reveals Christians are reluctant to express their faith’. It shows that some churches saw major growth while mainline churches showed serious decline. Overall, there is another picture to provide a divergent view to that of Rowan Williams.

What do the online critics say?

I put some of the above information on a Christian forum[5] and received these kinds of sceptical comments:

  • ‘Can’t speak for the entire country, but at least locally, church attendance has been on the decline’ (Britain).[6]
  • ‘Those data points look a bit all over the place and cherry picked to me’ (Germany).[7]
  • ‘Rowan Williams is an incredibly intelligent man and has nothing to gain by lying about Christianity in Britain to portray it negatively’ (Britain).[8]
  • ‘The established Churches such as CoE expect its members to accept the whole package, if you will, the good and the tough ones. Whereas people in liberal democracies are tough consumers who prefer choice and freedom to choose, instant gratification, convenience, reinforcement and echo chambers for their personal world views and values.
    Then there’s the “entertainment” factor, for instance, “low church” churches vs. solemn or “boring” same old same old liturgy of “old” Churches. Handsome English cathedrals are a selling point: 41% said the cathedral building was the attraction’ (Finland).[9]
  • ‘The link you gave is really vague and doesn’t seem to tell me whether the number of people at church has gone up or down overall. eg: The same number of churches shutting as opening doesn’t show anything. The new churches could be half the size.
    In many polls, most British people consider themselves to be non-religious, and only a small percentage (~10%) go to church regularly. In the census an abnormally high number say they are Christian (compared to other polls); I’m guessing because they just want to put something down, and they feel that Christian is the default. I put that I was Christian on the last census, though I wouldn’t now.
    Looking at how people act in society, and how few people go to church regularly, I’d say Britain isn’t a Christian country’ (Britain).[10]

Here are some of my edited responses:

  • Here in Queensland, wherever theological liberalism has affected lots of Anglican churches, I observe decline. But there is a flourishing Anglican church locally that is very evangelical and has an outreach focus. But most of the Anglicans in Qld are infected with liberalism, whether that is modernism or postmodernism.
    I have a close friend who is a recently retired evangelical Anglican clergyman in Qld and he tells me of the demise of churches across the state under liberalism and their acceptance or promotion of homosexuality. That’s what is happening locally for me.
    But I was quoting research from the UK that was released today, 2 May 2014 (I’ve since found it was from June 2012).[11]
  • Have you investigated the research methodology and conclusions from the research? I haven’t. The CoE Newspaper is giving a summary of the research and is not giving the research document.[12]
  • But he’s also liberal in his theological views. Intelligence doesn’t exclude liberalism. George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was an evangelical. Was he intelligent or not?[13]

My investigation for an assessment of the Australian 2011 census found these details regarding the Anglican Church: It is

the main protestant religion in Australia, most Anglicans naturally have their ancestry in England. This group declined significantly over the past 20 years. Traditionally dominant in the more affluent suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, these are the main areas where Anglicans have lost adherents to “No Religion”.  Anglican remains a dominant religion in many rural areas, particularly northern NSW and regional Queensland, the WA wheatbelt, most of Tasmania and parts of Perth with large UK-born populations. At a state level, Tasmania has by far the highest proportion, with 26.0%, followed by NSW with 19.9%.[15]

ABC News, religion and ethics, reported that ‘the number of Australian Anglicans has decreased sharply by 5.2% over the last twenty years from 23.9% of the population in 1986 to 18.7% in 2006’.[16]

Liberalism and decline of church attendance

That is not surprising to me. The history of theological liberalism has led to decline in church attendance. The president of the Uniting Church in Australia has admitted this in an article in the Eternity magazine in 2012 :

clip_image003The new President of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), Reverend Professor Andrew Dutney says that liberal theology is in decline.

Andrew Dutney speaks to Eternity on the decline of liberal theology, and an update from UCA’s national assembly

“There is no question that the liberalism with which the Uniting Church and its predecessors were associated with in the past is very much in decline,” Dutney told the ABC’s Andrew West.

“As horizons have been broadened by the contact that different kinds of Christians are having with each other, people who might formerly have been liberal are discovering that there are other ways of reading the Bible that are not liberal. That you don’t try to explain away all the difficult stuff, but you can sit with some of the paradoxes and read the Bible more directly into your own life and your own situation.”

Dutney became President of the UCA at a meeting of its national assembly in Adelaide last month.[17]

What are other assessments?

The negative of the mainstream media: Or is it the truth?

  • The UK newspaper, Daily Mail Australia (online), had these headlines:

clip_image005 Just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday

clip_image005[1] Numbers in the pews have fallen to less than half the levels of the 1960s

clip_image005[2] Census evidence shows a widespread fall in allegiance to Christianity

clip_image005[3] Numbers of Christians has fallen more than four million in a decade (Daily Mail, 22 March 2014).

  • Calum Brown has written a provocative assessment of what has been happening in, The death of Christian Britain: Understanding secularisation, 1800-2000 (Brown 2009). At the conclusion of this study he wrote:

The death of Christian British culture, or the rupture in Christianity as McLeod puts it, was a real and – I would argue – a cataclysmic event of the 1960s. Sweeping as it may seem, the conclusion of the first edition of this book still stands. I wrote … that the churches will not die, but would continue to exist in some skeletal form (which is what seems to be suggested by most British Christian sociologists). What I did write is that ‘the culture of Christianity has gone in the Britain of new millennium. Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die’. The emphasis here is upon ‘religion as we have known it’, and should not be taken as a statement that the rest of the world will follow Britain or that religion itself is ending. From what even my most strident critics are saying, based on the present evidence, mutation is precisely the best the Christian faith can hope for in the circumstances of British secularisation (Brown 2009: 232-233).

Thus, for me as a committed evangelical Christian, the only hope for the UK is for it to get back to the core of the Gospel which it once spread to much of the rest of the world. There is no cure to the decline of Christianity, other than this God-sent conviction returning: ‘This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12 ESV).

But you won’t get that message from theologically liberal pulpits where the preachers do not believe the Bible or the Gospel.

Works consulted

Brown, C G 2009. The death of Christian Britain: Understanding secularisation, 1800-2000, 2nd ed (online). Abingdon, Oxon/New York NY: Routledge. Available at: (Accessed 10 July 2014).


[1] This article was written by Tim Ross, Cole Moreton and James Kirkup, 26 Apr 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] However, this research was originally reported in this newspaper on 7 June 2012 and is available online at Anglican Mainstream, 7 June 2012, available at: (Accessed 3 May 2014).

[5] OzSpen#1, Christian Forums, News & Current Events, ‘Rowan Williams ignorant of church growth in the UK’, available at: (Accessed 3 May 2014).

[6] Ibid., PyGame#2.

[7] Ibid., Nithavela#3.

[8] Ibid., PyGame#4.

[9] Ibid., Kalevalatar#8. This woman gave a more detailed exposition of her views compared to the others.

[10] Ibid., Paradoxum#9.

[11] Ibid., OzSpen#5.

[12] Ibid., OzSpen#6.

[13] Ibid., OzSpen#7.

[14] Ibid., OzSpen#11.

[15] Glenn – the census expert 2012. ‘Census 2011 – The geographic distribution of religion’, September 13. Available at: (Accessed 12 June 2014).

[16] Peter Kurti 2011. It’s Anglicanism, Jim, but not as we know it, ABC, Religion and ethics, 2 September. Available at: (Accessed 12 June 2014).

[17] John Sandeman 2012. Liberal theology in decline says new UCA president, Bible Society Live Light. Available at: (Accessed 12 June 2014).


Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 18 November 2015.