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Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales – Dr Stephen Bullivant

May 28, 2016

CCThe director of the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham gathered statistics on religious affiliation from the annual British Social Attitudes surveys. His report deals mainly with the Roman Catholic Church, but looks at other denominations for comparisons.

In preparing the study, Dr Bullivant analysed data collected through British Social Attitudes surveys over 30 years.

Only two per cent of Anglicans in England and Wales are converts. In a group of 100 Anglicans, 93 will have been brought up as such, five will have started life in another Christian denomination, and only two would have belonged to no religion. The Churches in England and Wales are attracting almost no one from outside their own ranks. The major factor underlying numer­ical change is that people never start attending in the first place”

A group of 100 Roman Catholics would look similar: 92 cradle RCs, six from another denomination, just one from another faith or with no religious background.

Taking 100 Methodists, 78 would be brought up in the denomination, 21 would have come from another denomination, and there would be just one non-Christian convert. Fig­ures for the Baptist Church are 67, 31, and two respectively.

The report also looks at levels of disaffiliation, and the increasing number of those who, brought up as Christians, now categorise them­selves as belonging to no religion. For every one convert who enters the Church of England or the Church in Wales, 12 who were brought up as Anglicans leave. The proportions are similar for the Roman Catholics (1:10), and better for the Methodists (1:7) and the Baptists (1:4).

Overall, 48.5 per cent of the popu­lation of England and Wales said that they did not belong to any par­ticular religion; 44 per cent identi­fied with some form of Christian denomination.

The largest denom­ination is Anglican, at 20 per cent, down from 44.5 per cent in 1983. The second largest is an undiffer­entiated “Christian”, selected by 12 per cent of the population. Roman Catholics were 8.3 regional variation. In the south-east, 25 per cent are Anglicans, and 48 per cent belong to no religion. In Wales, fewer than 14 per cent are Anglicans, while nearly 60 per cent belong to no religion. The most Christian regions are the south­west and the north-east. In London, one person in five belongs to a non-Christian religion. In the south­west, the figure is nearer one in 100.


Around four out of every five people report having been brought up within a religion; seven in every ten are ‘cradle Christians’ of one sort or another. Over a third of the English and Welsh population were raised as Anglicans – the largest single category. By contrast, around one in seven people in England and Wales – 13.7% – are cradle Catholics

The Catholic population is predominantly White, closely in line with the general population as a whole. That said, it is likely that the BSA’s non-variegated category masks significant diversity – quite possibly to a greater degree than in the general population – of national and ethnic background within the White Catholic population: Irish, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Lithuanian, etc. (Indeed, evidence from other national surveys confirms this supposition.)

Blacks account for a greater proportion of both the Catholic, and general Christian, populations than they do of the English and Welsh population as a whole. The situation is, however, reversed among Asians. One in fourteen of the general population defines himself or herself as Asian. Among Catholics, the proportion is one in thirty; among all Christians, it is over one in sixty.

Retention is slightly stronger among Catholics than Anglicans, although the differences are not large (equating to a difference of roughly one person in every twenty). Similar proportions of cradle Catholics and cradle Anglicans also now identify as other kinds of Christian, members of non-Christian religions, and as having no religion.

Retention levels among cradle Baptists and cradle Methodists are much lower, at around one in three. Importantly, however, both denominations produce much larger numbers of adult affiliates of other Christian denominations: one in five cradle Methodists, and almost two in five cradle Baptists (compared to a rate of just one in twenty among cradle Catholics or cradle Anglicans).

The cradle Baptist subsample is especially interesting, in fact. Cradle Baptists have the lowest retention rate out of our four groups (i.e., the lowest proportion of those born-and-raised in a denomination who identify as belonging to that denomination in adulthood).

Nevertheless, they also have the largest proportion of adult Christians (whether Baptist or another kind), and the lowest proportion of adult nones.

three out of every five cradle Catholics now never or practically never attend religious services. Meanwhile, somewhat under two in five attends religious services once a week or more.

women account for two-thirds, and therefore men only a third, of all weekly-or-more Mass-goers.

“The main driver is people who were brought up with some religion now saying they have no religion. What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box. The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”

The Catholic Herald commented:

Such statistics provide a stark illustration of what St John Paul II began pointing out a quarter of a century ago, in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “Entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church.”

Hard numbers do not simply explain why, as John Paul II said, a “new evangelisation of those peoples who have already heard Christ proclaimed” is needed; they also indicate the greatest barrier to it ever making any serious gains in secularised cultures like our own. Simply put, if we don’t address the crisis of transmission and retention, then the “new evangelisation” is doomed before it has really begun. What Benedict XVI referred to as the “creative minority” of Catholics will, by sheer force of numbers, just keep getting more and more minor.

We cannot start mending anything, however, until we gain at least a working knowledge of the nature and scope of the problem. Currently, it would be fair to say that much of our mission – including things into which the Church often pours vast amounts of time, effort and money – is not massively informed by what one might call evidence. That has to change, and fast. That will require paying special attention to what can be learned from the social sciences.

Lapsation and disaffiliation, the very hallmarks of our new mission fields, are a case in point. Everyone agreed with Pope Francis when he said, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that “it is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition”. But how many are there and who are they? Without accurate answers to these questions, we can have no realistic hope of actually lessening, still less reversing, this urgent pastoral problem.

Catholic “disaffiliates” dwarf Catholic converts by a factor of 10 to one. Just think at your next Easter Vigil: for every new person coming through the RCIA – over whom we are right to rejoice – 10 people have drifted so far away that they no longer even tick the “Catholic” box on surveys.

Received wisdom tends to think inactivity and disaffiliation is most prevalent among those in their twenties and thirties. The BSA says differently. Only 54 per cent of cradle Catholics in their forties, and 60 per cent of those in their fifties, still identify as Catholic. Compare those to 66 per cent of twenty-somethings, and 62 per cent of thirty-somethings. None of these proportions give particular cause for complacency, of course. But how many dioceses do you know with vibrant middle-age ministries?

The report is online here

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