Truth behind the "Godless" Norwich headlines

Special demographic factors help explain why Norwich was accorded the “Most Godless” tag in the 2011 Census, but churches cannot turn a blind eye to declining attendance rates country-wide, statistical expert Dr Peter Brierley told city church leaders yesterday (November 7). Keith Morris reports.

Addressing a meeting of church and Christian leaders, organized by Transforming Norwich, Peter was tasked with unpacking why Norwich had been given the “Most Godless” tag and also to look to the church’s response.
Norwich’s No Religion percentage of 42%, against a national average of 27%, can partly be explained because of the large percentage of young people in the city, many of them overseas students at the UEA. A higher percentage of Chinese and mixed ethnicity people also boost the no religion figures, explained Peter.
At the same time, Norwich still has 45% of people who said that they are Christians (59% for England), higher than a number of other urban locations across the country. But this Norwich figure has declined from 60% in 2001. The numbers of other religions including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs have each grown by up to 300%, although from small initial numbers.
Meanwhile, figures from the England Church Census give numbers attending church in Norwich as an estimated 5.6% of the population  in 2012 (7,300 people), explained Peter, which compares favourable with Norfolk’s 4.3% and the all England average of 5.7%. But it also represents a halving of the figure from 1989 of 11.6%.
“Numbers of Christians have declined simply because so many older Christians are dying,” said Peter. “Deaths outnumber conversions nationally by 4 to 1.”
A changing understanding of what it means to be a Christian has also had an effect on Census figures, said Peter. Christians have been broken down into Moral Christians - who live by Christian ethics, Faithful Christians - who attend church and red the Bible, Cradle Christians - who were baptised and brought up as Christians and Ethnic Christians - who say they are Christian because they are British.
Norwich has seen a decline in churchgoers, especially among those under 15 and those aged 45-64. The number of believers in their twenties has held up remarkable well, said Peter, as have those aged 65 and over. A decreasing proportion of the total churchgoers are young people (one in seven under 20 years of age).
“Thinking strategically about the clear importance of incorporating younger people and those with young families into the life of existing churches is a critical and formidable challenge,” said Peter. “The average age of a churchgoer in 1989 in Norwich was 43 and in 2012 it was 52. What does this say about the image of the church?”
Peter went on to look at figures for different denominations in Norfolk. The Roman Catholics have declined by two-thirds and Methodists by three-fifths. The Independent churches have declined by the least (12%).
MarkFTAudience450In terms of churchmanship, since 1989 Evangelicals and Charismatics have shown increased numbers while Catholics (including Anglo-Catholics) have shown the biggest decrease.
The final figures Peter used were for numbers of churches in Norfolk, drawn from the UK Church Statistics. From 1989 to estimated figures for 2020 the total number of churches will decline from 1,154 to 995. The predicted figures show large decreases in Catholic, Baptist and Methodist churches, all of which more than halve. Meanwhile Independent churches, New, Smaller Denominations and especially Pentecostal (a 200% increase from 10 to 30) all show sizeable increases.
“Some of the questions which church leaders need to address,” said Peter, “are; what are the best ways of reaching and keeping young people; how can more students be reached; how can family life be strengthened in terms of discipleship and transmission o f the faith; and in what ways can older people be enabled to effectively evangelism among their peers.
“Of crucial importance for leaders of Norwich churches,” said Peter, “is to know the trends and find time to plan strategically forwards not only in our own denominations but for the city as a whole.” 
Click here to download Peter’s full report on Norwich - The Most Godless City

Click here to listen to Peter Brierley's talk in full

TomRawls450Signs of hope for Norwich churches can be found and during the lunch, Tom Rawls (pictured right), lead pastor at Proclaimers in Norwichs, said that between 480-500 people attended his church’s three services on a Sunday (including a small satellite one in the centre of Ipswich).
“We have a thriving, healthy church which is very externally focused. Everything we do is directed towards non Christians which makes our services accessible and this year we have seen around 120 people make a faith commitment.”
Another sign of life in the Norfolk church was provided by Rob Tervert, who is part of the organizing team behind the Who Cares? Mission set for next summer across Norfolk. Rob described how 6,000 young people attending the NewDay Festival will work with over 50 Norfolk churches to ask thousands of people the question “What hurts the most?” The churches will then have a chance to respond to the survey findings in their own communities.
A prayer and vision night for the mission is being held at Norwich Cathedral on February 7 and Rev Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton will be in Norfolk next October to address the top issue coming out of the survey.


Pictured top is Dr Peter Brierley addressing Norwich church leaders and, above, Transforming Norwich chairman, Mark Fairweather-Tall addresses the meeting.
Church statistical expert Peter was the director of Christian Research from 1993 to 2007, and prior to that director of MARC Europe for 10 years. Now he runs Brierley Consultancy, which aims to strengthen church leadership by providing key data for strategic planning.

Published: 08/11/2013