Massive collapse in number of Anglicans in Britain, new survey shows

Peterborough Cathedral is well-attended on Sundays, but fewer people than ever before consider themselves Anglican.Michael Beckwith/Unsplash

The number of Anglicans in Britain has collapsed by 50 per cent in under two decades, according to figures released today.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey's data on religion show that the number of people in Britain who describe themselves as having no religion at all is also at its highest ever level.

More than half, 53 per cent, of the British public now describe themselves as having 'no religion'.

This is up from 48 per cent in 2015.

Figures released earlier from the same survey showed that  that religious people are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion.

This is in sharp contrast to the Church of England, where the conservative evangelicalism currently in the ascendancy   is resolutely committed to an interpretation of the Bible opposed to same-sex marriage. 

The proportion of non-believers has increased gradually since the survey began in 1983, when the proportion saying they had no religion stood at just 31 per cent.

The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard, according to the survey. Just 15 per cent of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican.

This is half the proportion who said they were Anglican in 2000.

A lot of this will be the result of deaths of members of the baby boomer generation. But this signals problems for the Church of England, which is clearly failing to replace this older generation with younger members.

Just three per cent of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40 per cent of those aged 75 and over. 

The figures in the survey contrast with the numbers claimed by the Anglican Communion, which claims membership of more than 85 million members. This is based on figures compiled by the World Council of Churches which puts membership of the Church of England at  25 million – even though far fewer than one million actually go to church each Sunday.

By contrast, the Roman Catholic church is remaining relatively stable.

The proportion of people describing themselves as Catholic has remained at around one in 10 over the past 30 years. Around one in 20 (six per cent) of people belong to non-Christian religions.

The fall in religious affiliation has been driven, at least in part, by young people. In 2016, seven in 10 of young people aged 18-24 said they had no religion, up from 62 in 2015 – a massive decline over just one year.

There has been a decline in religious affiliation among all age groups between 2015 and 2016, but among the oldest people, those with no religion are in the minority. Four in 10 people aged 65-74 say they have no religion and this drops to 27 per cent of those aged 75 and over.

Roger Harding, head of public attitudes at the National Centre for Social Research, said: 'This increase follows the long-term trend of more and more of us not being religious. The differences by age are stark and with so many younger people not having a religion it's hard to see this change abating any time soon. The falls in those belonging to the Church of England are the most notable, but these figures should cause all religious leaders to pause for thought.

'We know from the British Social Attitudes survey that religious people are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion. With falling numbers some faith leaders might wonder whether they should be doing more to take their congregation's lead on adapting to how society is changing.'

The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey consisted of 2,942 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain. Interviewing was carried out between 13 July and 30 October 2016.

The question asked to determine religious affiliation was: 'Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? IF YES: Which?' The respondents were not provided with a list of religions.

The Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, told Christian Today: 'In this modern world people are more willing to be honest and say they have "no religion" rather than casually saying they are "C of E".

'This honesty is welcome. Of course the latest BSA figures bring a continuing challenge to the Churches, to speak clearly of our faith into a sceptical and plural world. But saying "no religion" is not the same as a considered atheism. People's minds, and hearts, remain open.

'In the diocese of Liverpool we are asking God for a bigger Church to make a bigger difference. The "bigger difference" is crucial. People see the point of faith when they see the difference faith makes. So we seek to show that knowing Jesus makes a difference personally and makes a difference for society. I believe that by showing that difference more people will come to know God's love.

'God remains relevant. The Church remains relevant. We in the Church, and all who love the Church, need to keep finding ways to show and tell those who say they have "no religion" that faith – faith in the God who loves them still – can make that life-transforming difference for them and for the world.'

Humanists UK said the figures must raise fresh questions about the place of the Churches in the running of state schools and their other state-funded privileges.

Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 'How can it be right that 97 per cent of young people today are not Anglicans, but some 20 per cent of the state schools to which their children will go belong to the Church of England? More generally, how can the Church of England remain in any meaningful sense the national legally established Church, when it caters for such a small portion of the population?'

As of last year, for the first time in history, the Church of England has more children in its state schools worshipping every week day during term time than worshippers in its churches every week.

Copson said: 'It is clear that the Church of England is experiencing an ongoing and probably irreversible collapse in adherents. This should just be its private concern, but the fact that its response to this has been to seek ever more power and public money, even as the case for such state support evaporates, makes it a matter of public interest.

'It is long overdue that the Government woke up to the demographic reality of today's Britain and recognises that ever-increasing state funding for religion, and public emphasis on the activities of religious groups, is the reverse of what the public wants.'