The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

England and Wales no longer majority Christian nations, census reveals

Archbishop Rowan Williams leads interfaith leaders up Parliament Hill for a climate repentance ceremony on Nov. 13 in London. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
5 min

LONDON — For the first time, less than half of the population of England and Wales now consider themselves Christians, new government figures reveal, in a profound demographic shift that is producing a much more secular, diverse Britain.

The plunging number of Christians follows a long downward trend across Europe, but the most recent census in Britain shows the steepest drop yet, alongside a parallel surge in the number of people telling census-takers they have “no religion.”

The new portrait of a much less Christian population may have profound consequences in Britain, as the Church of England is deeply entwined in British traditions and government.

King Charles III may bring new approach to ‘Defender of the Faith’

The British monarch, now King Charles III, is the “Defender of the Faith” and “Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” and 26 church bishops sit in Parliament’s House of Lords, where they pass laws.

Tens of thousands of Anglican churches still dot the landscape in Britain, where “pub and parish” have traditionally been the heart of village life. But many of these churches are struggling.

The government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed Tuesday that 46 percent of the population in England and Wales (27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian” in 2021, down from 59 percent (33.3 million people) in 2011.

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing to 37 percent (22.2 million people) from 25 percent (14.1 million) in 2011. Numbers for Scotland will come later.

“We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian,” said the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, reacting to the census in a statement.

Cottrell saw the numbers not as defeat but definitely as challenge, adding that “other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by.”

He went on to say that “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.”

In its report on the census, the ONS researchers wrote that there were many factors that may be contributing to the changing religious composition of Britain, “such as differing patterns of ageing, fertility, mortality, and migration.”

Answering the census was voluntary and the question, too, was broad: “what is your religion?” Experts cautioned that many respondents might have religious views or spiritual beliefs not captured by the survey.

The census findings, however, are visible to any who attend a Sunday service in England. The number of congregants in many settings are down and the attendees skew elderly. And in big cities, many church buildings have been converted to community and arts centers, concert halls and even condos.

Analysis of Church of England data by the Telegraph newspaper found that 423 churches closed between 2010 and 2019.

The same data reveals that 940 churches closed between 1987 and 2019. The total number of churches left standing was around 15,500, the newspaper reported.

The census revealed more changes.

There were increases in the proportion of people describing themselves as Muslim (up from 4.9 percent to 6.5 percent) and as Hindu (from 1.5 percent to 1.7 percent). Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is a Hindu. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim.

Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, said in a statement: “These results confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last ten 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.”

Copson’s group advocates decoupling religion in Britain, from the House of Lords to the classrooms, where a third of state schools in England are Christian.

“No state in Europe has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population,” Copson said, adding that the numbers should be “a wake-up call which prompts fresh reconsiderations of the role of religion in society.”

Why some of Europe’s least religious countries are shaped by politicians’ Christian faith

Reflecting those changes, upon his ascension to the throne, Charles reaffirmed his role as supreme governor of the Church of England, but also said, “I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.”

The declining numbers of people in England and Wales who say they are Christian follows broad surveys of religious practice in Western Europe, where the Vatican in Rome has served as the heart of the Catholic faith and Germany was the original font of Protestant Christianity.

In a landmark review, polling by the Pew Research Center in 2018 found that although the vast majority of adults in Western Europe say they were baptized, today 71 percent describe themselves as Christians and 22 percent attend services monthly.