This is a brief preliminary, top-level review of the data from Census 2021 and what it shows, says, infers, or portends about the experience/relationship of “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean [and/] or Africans” to religion in England and Wales.
There is a rich seam of data contained within the census and this short paper aims to assist in surfacing and distilling some of the significant, interesting, and surprising facts contained within it.
Except through divine revelation, the future is unknow: however, with data, we can identify trends, and as such, this paper contains a smidgin of futurology which I hope will help to facilitate further ecumenical dialogue around religion and Black British Churches.
Finally, there are several assumptions and untested thoughts and hypothesis contained in this paper. My intention is firstly; not to offend the reader; secondly, the thoughts contained below do not represent a definitive or final position; and thirdly, I hope that this paper will be viewed as a valuable contribution to the dialogue which should/will inevitably ensue.
The census is undertaken by the Office for National Statistics every 10 years and provides estimates of the characteristics of all people and households in England and Wales. Census Day was 21st March 2021.
The response rate for Census 2021 was 97% of the resident population of England and Wales, and over 88% in all local authorities. The Office for National Statistics also published interactive content from Census 2021 first results.
- All faiths except Christianity saw a rise in adherents.
- Fewer than half of the participating population identify as Christian.
- “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question.
- Islam saw an increase of 1 million since 2011.
- The largest black ethnic group is Nigerian, the second is Ghanaian
- Knowsley had the highest percentage of people reporting their religion as “Christian”.
As an aggregate of the four constituent countries, the UK population mid-year 2021 was estimated to be 67,026,292 million. This was an increase of 3.7 million (5.9%) on the population in mid-2011.
Whilst the census does not directly address black churches, religion and black populations, we can extrapolate from the data and make inferences and interpretations about significant trends and occurrences which are pertinent for black churches in England and Wales and their primary constituents.
It is in the areas of household types, incomes, marriages, demographic changes and religious disposition where we find the most obvious and reachable touch points which resonate more directly with Black British Churches and their constituents in England and Wales.
The impact, effect and success of the Black British Church cannot easily be reviewed alongside the Census data. What we can however do, is extrapolate trends and direction of travel in terms of demographics, income, households and the effects of these on the life and the experiences of citizens in England and Wales and attempt to understand what it signals in terms of threats and opportunities for the black faith community.
Population by ethnic group
In 2021, “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African, African represented 4.2%, 2.4 million of the UK population. Bearing in mind that this is a religiously heterogenous group, one needs to delve deeper into the data to see how this group is represented across the belief systems of Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, No religion’ and those who preferred not to answer this census question.
What we do know, is that the census provided a new write-in response option for “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African: African” which has provided insights into specific African backgrounds. For example.
The largest ethnic groups specified within this write-in section were.
- “Nigerian” (271,000, 0.5%),
- “Somali” (151,000, 0.3%)
- “Ghanaian” (113,000, 0.2%).
According to Renewal Journal, whilst there has been a 5% national drop in UK church attendance, there has been an 18% increase in Black church membership. The Evangelical Alliance’s Census, ‘Ethnicity and Regular Church Going’, showed that between 2005-2012, 48% of all churchgoers in London were Black.
I must insert a note of caution about the above. Claims of the continued growth of Black/African churches must – in the face of national overall decline – be treated with caution particularly as most black churches are located in urban areas. Additionally, reduced immigration and lower birth rates, means that black British churches and churchgoers in England and Wales have, and will be experiencing moderate reductions in membership.
- In 2021, 81.7% (48.7 million) of usual residents in England and Wales identified their ethnic group as “White” category, a decrease from 86.0% (48.2 million) in the 2011 Census.
- The next most populous high-level ethnic group was “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” accounting for 9.3% (5.5 million) of the overall population, this ethnic group also saw the largest percentage point increase from 2011, up from 7.5% (4.2 million people).
- Across the 19 ethnic groups, the largest percentage point increase was seen in the number of people identifying through the “White: Other White” category (6.2%, 3.7 million in 2021, up from 4.4%, 2.5 million in 2011). This response option allows people to specify their ethnic group through writing it in. The increase may therefore be partly explained by the new search-as-you-type functionality introduced for Census 2021, making it easier for people to self-define when completing the census online.
- In England and Wales, 10.1% (2.5 million) of households consisted of members with two or more different ethnic groups, an increase from 8.7% (2.0 million) in 2011.
Bearing in mind that large changes were also seen in the numbers of people identifying their ethnic group as “Other ethnic group: Any other ethnic group” (1.6%, 924,000 in 2021, up from 0.6%, 333,000 in 2011), and “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African: African” (2.5%, 1.5 million in 2021, up from 1.8%, 990,000 in 2011; both ethnic groups had the option to write in their response.
The percentage of the population who identified within:
- the “Asian, or Asian British” ethnic groups was 9.6% (5.4 million)
- “Black, Black British, Caribbean or African” was 4.2% (2.4 million)
- “Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups” was 3.0% (1.7 million)
- “White” ethnic groups were 81.0% (45.8 million)
- “Other ethnic groups” was 2.2% (1.2 million)
The percentage of the population who identified within:
- the “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” ethnic groups was 2.9% (89,000)
- “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African” was 0.9% (28,000)
- “Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups” was 1.6% (49,000)
- “White” ethnic groups were 93.8% (2.9 million)
- “Other ethnic groups” was 0.9% (26,000)
Religion & Cultural Identity
The religion question was voluntary. However, 94.0% (56.0 million) of usual residents answered the question which is an increase from 92.9% (52.1 million) in 2011.
Although “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question, for the first time, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011.
The largest changes since 2011 were for those describing their religion as “Christian” and those reporting “No religion”.
There was an increase from 25.2% in 2011 to 37.2% or 22.2 million in 2021 in the number of people reporting “No religion”.
There were increases in the number of people who described themselves as “Muslim” (3.9 million, 6.5% in 2021, up from 2.7 million, 4.9% in 2011),
Wales had a greater decrease in people reporting their religion as “Christian” (14.0 percentage point decrease, from 57.6% in 2011 to 43.6% in 2021) and an increase in “No religion” (14.5 percentage point increase, from 32.1% in 2011 to 46.5% in 2021) compared with England and Wales overall.
Given that the first Caribbean communities settled in Wales and that Wales has had a long and deep history of Christian faith and celebrated choirs; it is quite interesting that Wales is reporting the highest numbers of people reporting no religion.
London remains the most religiously diverse region of England in 2021, with over a quarter (25.3%) of all residents reporting a religion other than “Christian”;
Brighton and Hove had the highest percentage of the population reporting “No religion” (55.2%), and also saw a relatively large decrease in the percentage of people describing their religion as “Christian” (30.9%, from 42.9% in 2011).
Given that Brighton is the place where, for many years, two of the largest black British churches held their national conventions; is it possible that these churches were ahead of their time and had spiritual foresight as they attempted to raise a flag and claim Christianity in Brighton. Th e churches have long since left Brighton. Is Brighton an example of how spiritual zeal and Christian presence needs to be buttressed and supported by strategic, social, political, and physical presence?
North East & South West
The North East and South West are the least religiously diverse regions, with 4.2% and 3.2%, respectively, selecting a religion other than “Christian”.
As well as being the local authority with the highest percentage of people reporting their religion as “Christian”, Knowsley also experienced a large percentage increase in the number of those reporting “No religion”, from 12.6% (18,000) in 2011 to 27.2% (42,000) in 2021.
Religious groups by local authority
As in 2011, the area with the highest percentage of the population who described themselves as “Muslim” was Tower Hamlets (39.9%, up from 38.0% in 2011) [note 1]. Other areas with high percentages of people responding as “Muslim” included Blackburn with Darwen (35.0%) and Newham (34.8%).
Harrow remained the local authority with the highest percentage of the population responding to the religion question as “Hindu” (25.8%, up from 25.3% in 2011), but Leicester, the second highest percentage, had a greater increase of 2.7 percentage points (17.9%, up from 15.2% in 2011).
The areas with both the highest percentage overall and the largest percentage increase of people describing their religion as “Sikh” was Wolverhampton (12.0%, up from 9.1% in 2011) and Sandwell (11.5%, up from 8.7%).
The areas with the highest proportions of people describing their religion as “Jewish” were Hertsmere (17.0%) and Barnet (14.5%).
The area with the highest proportion of “Buddhists” was Rushmoor (Hamshire) (4.7%).
In the same way that some Christians do not believe in the trinity, the virgin birth or in heaven and hell; it is equally reasonable to assume, that the ‘No Religion’ cohort is not an homogenous group. This ‘No Religion’ cohort is likely to be made up of those who don’t believe in God; those who believe in a God; agnostics; believers in an afterlife; non-believers in an afterlife; others may be spiritual but not religious.
The results from Knowsley – which recorded the highest percentage of people reporting as “Christian and an equally corresponding decrease in the percentage of people identifying as “Christian” (from 80.9% in 2011 to 66.6% in 2021) – could be worrying in the context of the recent attack on migrants in a hotel in Knowsley. Does this attack suggest that the form of Christianity that is emerging is not only politically aligned to the (far) right of politics, but that the signature cornerstones of Christianity as being about the ‘Good News’, compassion and being our brother’s keeper may be as contested as Christian views on the creation, the virgin birth, heaven and hell, alcohol, abortion etc…
There will, however, be some inconsistencies in the results. For example, the religion question isn’t asking about belief or about religious practice. I have however spoken to individuals who completed this question believing that ticking the box Christian required a personal examination of whether they were good or bad Christians. Some believed that ticking the box was a statement of belief, religious practice, as opposed to being a wider description which included an acknowledgement of their disposition to Christianity, their family heritage or general predisposition and leaning. As a result, these individuals either ticked “No religion” or – because the question wasn’t compulsory – they didn’t answer it at all.
How do we square the – seemingly contradictory – circle that even though 46% of the population identify as Christian, church attendance in the UK is low and continues to dwindle. In part, the answer is that church attendance is clearly not a barometer or a binary representation or reflection of Christian faith and religiosity. This should give some comfort to black churches that their congregants are still out there; but they need to be engaged with in a new way.
In addition to patterns of ageing, fertility, mortality, migration, changing family structures, income, class etc. there are numerous factors which may be contributing to the ‘apparent’ decline in Christian religiosity, and the growth of other religions in England and Wales.
The census itself, via the new ‘write-in’ questions may – in a small way – also account for some variation in the response as individuals adjusted to answering the religion question between censuses.
Census 2021 data shows that the numbers of those from other faiths (Islam and Hinduism) and those with no faith, have increased markedly since the 2011 census. In contrast, those identifying as having a religion has decreased across the UK. One could argue that over the years, the precipitous fall in church attendance and roll membership in the black Caribbean community (one which has only been reversed in black African churches) may have been an early indication of where the country was heading. Was the black church, the early canary in the coalmine?
Wales with its history of male voice choirs and the aged old centrality of faith in Welsh mining communities, seems to be experiencing the opposite of a revival. Is Wales on a fast-track lane towards Christian obsolescence and is religion less relevant in people’s lives?
What does the census tell us about the future of faith and religion for the Black British Church in England and Wales? What action does it elicit or require from black churches and thirdly, how, when and where.
Liberalism & illiberalism in faith
- What we do know is that of the Abrahamic faiths, 21st century Christianity is more liberal, and its adherents are freer to move in and out of faith communion at will. In contrast, other faiths like Islam, Judaism Sikhism, Hinduism etc are stickier and appear to have more rigid strictures around entry, participation and exist requirements. In addition, these faiths are guarded and protected through strong social, familial and economic ties.
Of course, Black British Churches cannot, by decree, dictate an increase in stickability. There are, however, several approaches which black churches could explore in order to increase stickability.
The family & community cohesion.
- Black churches need to be at the helm of national, regional and local initiatives which directly, and indirectly support, nurture, strengthen and rebuild mothers, fathers and the family.
Passivity or assertiveness
- There may also be a view, that Christianity and the black church specifically is passive, supportive of the social & political status quo, and on social justice it is characterised by inaction. In comparison Islam, for example may be attractive to younger people as it may be seen as somewhat counter-cultural, as offering an assertive alternative way of life. Black British churches may need to develop and relocate its spirit and history of activism and spreading the good news by deed and actions.
- Proselytising is an important part of spreading the good news. How black churches do this isn’t new, but in an era of technological innovation, black British churches need to internalise and use new communication tools innovatively and consistently to engage and to change the narrative.
- A strategy of political engagement is inadequate and insufficient. Black churches need a strategy of social and technological engagement.
- A church-wide collective approach is required. Rather than leading with faith first, black churches could lead by being relevant and seeking to consistently meet the needs of their fellow men and women at home and abroad.
Population & demography
- In contrast to the smaller family size and lower birth rate of ‘White’ communities – as defined in the census., the huge growth in Islam and faiths like Hinduism and Sikhism can in part be explained by increased immigration, larger family sizes, an increased birth rate and the role that their extended family has historically played in the rearing of children.
- We know that people of African heritage have historically had a higher incidence of religiosity and religious observance. With this in mind, it is fair to assert that those of African heritage are less likely to select ‘No religion’ unless – as I discussed above -, respondents equated the question on religion as being related to whether they were good or bad Christians, or they saw ticking the box as a statement of belief, or religious practice.
- Anecdotally, for economic and social reasons, Black and white British families in the UK tend to be smaller than some ethnic communities and new communities arriving in England and Wales. Could Black Churches in England and Wales approach population growth from an anti- Malthusian perspective which sees an increase in family size as a desirable rather than an undesirable goal. Is this desirable? Is there a way that the church can reshape and recast the narrative on this?
- Further research would be welcomed to assess the direct affect that birth rates is having on those identifying as Christian.
- There has been a growth of Syrian, Albanian, Chinese, and other Christians locating themselves in urban communities. Black British churches need to be truly multicultural, bringing other communities into leadership in their churches and redefining the definition of ‘black’, as ‘black’ in the political sense, not just in terms of race.
- Imagine if the census added social justice issues such as the environment, equality, feminism, criminal justice, equality etc. under the question of religion. This is relevant because, in 21st century UK, people proselytise and gather more consistently and vehemently on cause issues than on anything else. For many people, social justice has taken the place of religion. The impact of this for Black British Churches could be profound. In part, it suggests that the church needs to carve out additional territories on these bell weather emblematic issues.
Commercialism & the Free market
- The key distinguishing element which I think accounts for Christianity diminishing is the conflation of Christianity with commercialism and the sales cycles of Christmas, Easter and Valentines. The sacredness of Christianity has been undermined and usurped by the co-option of Christianity with a market based economic system. The symbols of Christianity have been indelibly integrated into our society. This clearly has pros and cons. Amongst the pros is that Christianity is not noticed as it has seeped into every part of our lives. The cons being that Christianity loses its sacredness and as a result becomes assailed by secularists and adherents of other faiths.
Even if the census is too blunt an instrument to aid us gaining an informed insight into religion and faith, it does provide – at least at some level – a firm, consistent and an empirically sound launch pad from which black churches can seek to undertake introspection about its current and future relevance and ask whether another week of revival is really the answer to the exam question of what is the role of the black British church in England and Wales.
Dr Floyd Millen is a political scientist, and a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in Privacy. Dr Millen was mentored by the former Home Secretary, The Rt Hon Charles Clarke and studied under the Conservative Peer, Professor, the Lord Norton of Louth.
For more see www.floydmillen.co.uk
© Dr Floyd Millen Feb 2023
 The National Records of Scotland and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency run their own censuses.