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Why is the Christian population of England and Wales declining?

<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

England and Wales are now minority Christian countries for the first time since census data collection began, with less than half the population describing themselves as Christian, and a big increase in the proportion of people saying they have no religion.

The changes are significant in a country with an established church. The Church of England is afforded influence and privileges that some argue are out of kilter with a falling proportion of the population identifying as Christian.

For example, 4,632 state schools in England are run by the C of E. Anglican bishops sit and vote in the House of Lords (the only other country that reserves seats in its legislature for clerics is Iran). A significant share of public broadcasting is devoted to Christian programmes. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, will preside over next year’s coronation of King Charles III.

According to the most recent census data, taken in 2021 and published this year, 46.2% of the English and Welsh population say they are Christian, a decline of 13.1 percentage points since the last census in 2011. Even so, Christian remained the most common response to the religion question.

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12 percentage points to 37.2% since 2011.

London was the most religious city, mainly because of its diversity, while the least religious places were all in Wales – Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf. In England, the least religious places were Brighton and Hove, Norwich and Bristol. All six places were majority “no religion”

Some of the decline in Christian identification was due to age, said Prof Linda Woodhead of King’s College, London. “The Christian population is quite an aged population, and therefore the death rate affects it. People are simply dying,” she told a briefing organised by the Religion Media Centre.

She added: “But it’s also about not passing on religion to your children.” In Christianity, faith was not being passed down generations, she said, whereas “it’s happening much more effectively in Islam and Hinduism”.

This was echoed by Abby Day, a professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Baby boomers lost their religion in the 1960s and raised their millennial children to be non-religious. That’s why the number ticking ‘Christian’ on the census has dropped as older people die out and younger people select the category of ‘non religion’.”

Some people argue that the proportion of people ticking “no religion” would have been higher with a different question. The census asked in an optional section, “What is your religion?”, a question that could lead people to choose a religion rather than no religion.

In 2020, the year before the census was taken, the British Social Attitudes Survey asked: ”Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?” It found that 53% of British adults said they had no religion, while 37% identified as Christian.

Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, said the census results “confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last 10 years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious. They mean the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.

“One of the most striking things about these census results is how at odds the population is from the state itself. No state in Europe has such a religious setup as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population.”

The National Secular Society, which has long campaigned for religion to be separated from the state, said the census data depicted a population that has moved away from Christianity.

“These figures illustrate that Anglican establishment, C of E clerics in the legislature, state-funded faith schools, daily prayers and worship in parliament and schools are all inappropriate, hopelessly outdated and fail to reflect the country we actually live in,” said Stephen Evans, its chief executive.

“The current status quo, in which the C of E is deeply embedded in the UK constitution, is unfair and undemocratic – and looking increasingly absurd and unsustainable.”

Philip North, the bishop of Burnley, described the decline in Christian numbers as sad. “At the same time, I would not want for a second to undermine the energy of the church in local communities, where clergy are still beavering away in parishes, still serving 35,000 social projects, [with a] huge community impact.

“I think that still needs to be celebrated. The church still has a great deal to contribute to national life.”