Christian population in England and Wales falls below half for first time

(Photo: Unsplash/François Genon)

The results of the latest Census of England and Wales have been published today, showing a drop in the number of people identifying as Christian. 

In 2011, 33.2 million people identified as Christian. Today that number is 27.5 million - 46.2 per cent. 

Responding to the findings, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said the numbers presented a challenge to the Church.

"It's not a great surprise that the Census shows fewer people in this country identifying as Christian than in the past, but it still throws down a challenge to us not only to trust that God will build his kingdom on Earth but also to play our part in making Christ known," he said.

"We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian but other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by."

In spite of the drop in Christian identity, the Archbishop said that the Church would continue to be there for the nation in times of need.

"This winter - perhaps more so than for a long time – people right across the country, some in desperate need, will be turning to their local church, not only for spiritual hope but practical help," he said.

"We will be there for them, in many cases, providing food and warmth. And at Christmas millions of people will still come to our services.

"At the same time, we will be looking beyond our immediate surroundings, remembering we are part of a global faith, the largest movement on Earth and its greatest hope for a peaceful, sustainable future."

The percentage of people saying they had no religion has jumped in the last decade from around a quarter of the population (25.2 per cent) to over a third in 2021 (37.2 per cent).

The proportion of people identifying as Muslim rose from 4.9 per cent to 6.5 per cent last year.

It was widely expected that the 2021 Census would show a continued decline in Christian affiliation but Bible Society's Head of Research, Dr Rhiannon McAleer, said the data shows that religious identity in England and Wales is still "mainstream" and "notably high".

"The Census definitely does not show that we are living in a society that has turned its back on religion. However, it does appear to show that religious identity is changing. This reflects other data and is not a surprise," she said.

"It may be that people are less willing to wear a label that doesn't accurately describe them. It's not necessarily that they have lost a genuine and heart-felt faith.

"There's also far more permission for people to admit that they don't identify as Christians; they don't have to claim a faith they don't actively hold in order to win social approval."

She pointed to research by Bible Society after Queen Elizabeth II's death earlier this year showing widespread acceptance of a national Christian identity. 

According to the survey, only 15 per cent of the population thought state royal events such as weddings and funerals should be wholly secular in future, and nearly three quarters (72%) felt Christian language and imagery was appropriate at the funeral.

More research by Bible Society surveying religious belief between 2018 and 2022 did not find that a decline in Christian faith had translated into an increase in atheism. 

The research project, carried out in partnership with YouGov, found a decline in people identifying as atheist while levels of belief in God stayed the same. 

Dr McAleer said: "Our data challenges the idea that religion in general and Christianity in particular is in inexorable decline in England and Wales.

"The picture is much more nuanced than that. In some areas of our society, and in some sections of the Church, decline is very marked. However, this is offset by growth in other areas.

"The fact that churchgoing appears to be stable runs against the accepted narrative of decline. The Census results should be seen in the light of this."

She continued, "After many years during which the forthcoming extinction of Christianity has been confidently predicted, this is a notably high proportion which ought to provoke us to think more deeply about what is actually happening to faith in England and Wales.

"Religious practice and identity – both Christian and non-Christian – is mainstream, and policy-makers cannot assume that religious voices should be absent from the public square."

The Census also found a decline in the number of people in England and Wales identifying as white, down from 86 per cent 10 years ago, to 81.7 per cent last year.

Census deputy director Jon Wroth-Smith said: "Today's data highlights the increasingly multi-cultural society we live in.

"The percentage of people identifying their ethnic group as 'White: English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or British', continues to decrease. Whilst this remains the most common response to the ethnic group question, the number of people identifying with another ethnic group continues to increase.

"However, the picture varies depending on where you live. London remains the most ethnically diverse region of England, where just under two-thirds identify with an ethnic minority group, whereas under 1 in 10 identify this way in the North East.

"But despite the ethnically diverse nature of society, 9 in 10 people across England and Wales still identify with a UK national identity, with nearly 8 in 10 doing so in London."