by Jonathan Clatworthy
A commentary on the results of 2011 UK census, December 2012

The results of the 2011 census, now published, show that fewer people in England and Wales call themselves Christians.

We are still in a majority, 59%, but this is 13 percentage points down from the 72% of the 2001 census. The second largest group is those with no religion (up from 15% to 25%) and the third largest Muslims (up from 3% to 5%).

What does this tell us? Robert Pigott of the BBC pointed out that the census was asking a complex question but only allowing a one or two word answer.  'For several decades the boundaries between Christianity - as the mainstream, or default - religion  in England and Wales, and "no religion" have been blurring... By the time of the last census they were probably more porous than ever, reflecting fundamental change, as much as decline, in religion.'

Nick Spencer of Theos pointed out that the census measures 'religious identification, not beliefs or practice...  Digging deeper, we see that even those who say they have no religion often have a variety of spiritual beliefs but they don't want to associate these to religious institutions.'

I have more sympathy with these commentators than with the church leaders who dismissed the census arguing that the churches were doing well enough. Church attendance is a different matter altogether; after all, nobody is suggesting that 59% of the population are regular churchgoers.

But perhaps there is a connection between the two? There could even be a negative connection.

Anxiety about attendance rates has been endemic to church culture since the 1851 census revealed unexpectedly large numbers of non-attenders. At the time atheism was on the rise. By the end of the century Thomas Huxley and his allies had convinced many that Christianity was fundamentally opposed to science. Many church leaders agreed with him, thus making their churches more anti-establishment than they had been for many centuries.

Reacting against the establishment has often proved successful at attracting new members. Many churches now offer a distinctive identity based on rejecting some element of modern society: a six-day creation against evolution, faith healing against modern medicine, celibacy for gay and lesbian people, male-only headship. Recently we have seen the leaders of the main faiths in Britain repeatedly combine to oppose changes which society at large desired for moral reasons: civil partnerships, gay marriages, assisted dying, equal employment opportunities for gay people and women. General Synod's recent failure to approve women bishops makes clear that many of its representatives now see the Church of England as an anti-establishment minority, and the Government has returned the compliment with the bizarre decision to exclude it from the new provision for gay marriages - thus revealing that it too sees the Church of England as no longer part of the establishment.

Here lies the connection between the numbers of churchgoers and the numbers who describe themselves as Christians. Increasingly, church leaders have focused too much on church attendance at the expense of offering spiritual resources to society at large. Growing churches have often been the ones offering a strong sense of identity  against the big bad world outside: exclusive clubs with their own gnostic teachings, thus emphasising the difference between their members and non-members. However, the census reveals the price being paid. For every one person these churches attract, twenty get the message and are driven further from Christianity than ever. It turns out - in fact it has now been happening for a long time - that some of the policies producing the best statistics for short-term church growth are also doing most to discredit Christianity in the long term.

As a retired parish priest I understand all to well how this disastrous process has persisted for so long. Most of the work done by bishops and parish priests cannot be measured. The one thing that can be measured is attendance at services. Figures have to be counted for the endless forms needing to be filled in. Nationally, the long-term trend has been downward over the last century. I remember only too well the anxieties reflected in the 'church growth' projects emanating from diocesan committees; but there were also the personal anxieties of colleagues, and even if there there had been no external pressure I would still have been neurotic enough to pass judgement on my own efforts while writing the numbers in the Register of Services.

Modern Church was founded to defend an open-ended and enquiring approach to Christianity, more concerned with the search for truth about God and Jesus than with defining who is in and who is out. We preferred to play a constructive part in society's search for understanding, rather than react against it. Were we right? Yes. Our version of Christianity produces fewer churchgoers, but it makes Christianity more widely accessible, and credible, to society at large.

It is high time church leaders stopped worrying about where regular worshippers are on the spectrum between 2% and 3%, and paid more attention to the 13% who, after all that has happened in the last ten years, no longer wish to count themselves as Christians. After all, they have a point.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and was (at the time of writing) Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.