Lies, Damned Lies and Christian Statistics
I’m a science teacher. When talking about the characteristics of sound in my lessons, I encourage students to give detail. It’s not enough to say that a change causes ‘more vibrations’. If the sound is a higher pitch, the vibrations of the ear drum will be faster, or more frequent. If the sound is louder, the displacement of the ear drum is bigger; we say the vibrations have greater amplitude or more energy. So it’s not that the ‘more vibrations’ answer is wrong – just incomplete. If we don’t give a full answer it can be misunderstood.
So I was catching up with news and read an article on the BBC about the continued arguments about institutionalized discrimination and hate speech in the Anglican church. Now, this isn’t about Welby being sorry for the discrimination – just not sorry enough to stand against it – or the hypocrisy of them sending out advice to schools on homophobic bullying. Instead, it’s simply about a number in the report.
I teach my students to do a ‘common sense check’ as part of any calculation and I was bemused that the BBC didn’t appear to have thought this through. Since when was a third of the UK Anglican? Now, I understand that calculating exactly how many (Anglican) Christians in the UK might be tricky, but 26 million seemed too far off to be reasonable. So I did some digging myself, and asked the organisation behind the ‘World Christian Database’ for the source of this number. It’s important to note that on Twitter they were very definite it was an aggregate figure and they used many sources of data.
— Global Christianity (@CSGC) January 15, 2016
So how should we find out how many (Anglican) Christians there are in the UK?
Simple, isn’t it? Pop into your local church on Sunday morning and count heads. But which Sunday? What about parishioners who are too ill to make it in, or are shift-workers? Would a Christmas or Easter service be more meaningful? And surely some believers prefer to worship in other ways. So church attendance figures, although useful, can probably be considered a lower limit. The Statistics for Mission 2014 (pdf) figures are just under a million for average Sunday attendance during October, with significantly higher numbers for Easter and Christmas services.
Church Attendance: 0.98m (980000)
Christmas Services: 2.4m
The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practice or belief.
According to the last Census figures, England and Wales has 33m Christians, but this isn’t broken down into denominations. Most data I’ve found suggests around half of UK Christians consider themselves Anglican, so we can get a reasonable estimate.
Census Anglicans: 17m (approx)
Might it be reasonable, I wonder, to suggest that claiming 26m Anglicans in the UK is bearing false witness?
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