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The Desecularisation of the City

By David Goodhew

In 1895 Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the future Bishop of London, remarked: “It is not that the Church of God has lost the great towns; it has never had them.” From the great urban centres of western Europe to the suave cities of East and West Coast America, from Marx and Engels to a raft of Anglican bishops in the United States and Britain, the city has long been assumed to be the centre of secularisation.

But a truth may be universally assumed when it is not actually true. New York is home to proliferating congregations. Parallel studies of Chicago and Washington depict cities that are anything but secular.

New research by an international team of scholars allows us to dig deep into these shifts in a book that I had the pleasure to edit with Anthony-Paul Cooper: The Desecularisation of the City: London’s Churches, 1980 to the Present. It was launched recently at an event hosted by Westminster Abbey.

Desecularisation of the City shows that the number of churches (of all denominations) in London has dramatically grown, not shrunk, in recent decades. For most of the 20th century, London was a case study of secularisation. It is so no longer. London matters in its own right. But it also matters as a globalising city, which is a guide to what is and may soon happen in other globalising cities in Britain, the United States, and further afield.

Data from veteran researcher Peter Brierley shows the magnitude of the change.

Number of churches (of all denominations) in Greater London

YearNumber of Churches

In fact these figures are an undercount. Case studies show that the number of Christian congregations has risen significantly more than Brierley states. By 2012, there were 50 percent more Christian congregations in London than there were in 1979. We do not have figures for 2018, but there are certainly even more now.

London’s population rose from 6.6 million in 1981 to 8.2 million in 2011. The number of congregations has risen faster than the population overall. Population growth is fuelling the increased number of congregations. But this is not the only cause.

This does not fit the dominant narrative of secularisation, according to which Christianity should be shrinking, most of all in urban areas.

What Exactly Is Going on?

Alongside the number of congregations, actual church attendance has also risen, although this is harder to plot with certainty. It is easier to understand by looking at case studies. For example, over 240 new black-majority churches have arisen in a single London borough (Southwark) in recent decades, with an estimated attendance of over 20,000 — that is equivalent to a medium-sized Church of England diocese.

There are marked denominational shifts. Not all denominations are growing. Methodism has been markedly shrinking in London, meaning that there are now more Orthodox than Methodists in Sunday worship. Newer denominations and independent congregations in particular have proliferated.

In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, churches were weakest in working poorer areas and stronger in the suburbs. This has reversed. Poorer inner London boroughs have grown much faster than richer suburbs, where churchgoing has shrunk or been stable in recent decades.

Perhaps the biggest change is in the ethnicity of London’s churchgoers. Black or Asian people make up 31 percent of the population, but 40 percent of London’s churchgoers. The proportion of London’s churchgoers who would tick white British in a census is less than 40 percent of the capital’s churchgoing population. Many non-Anglican churches are a long way ahead of Anglicanism in connecting with London’s hyper-diverse population.

The proliferating congregations of London are mostly notholy huddles. They do not cut themselves off from the wider community. Research shows that they seek to serve the wider community in myriad ways.

What about Anglicanism?

The dioceses that cover London have outperformed other Church of England dioceses in recent years, after decades in which they performed worse. The Diocese of London (covering most of London north of the Thames) has consistently grown since 1990. Equally, non-Anglican churches have outperformed Anglican churches in London overall.

There are socioeconomic drivers. Areas seeing greatest decline tend to have less population growth or ethnic diversity than London and its environs. But, and it is a huge but, pleading social change as causation can be a cop-out. A research report, New Churches in the North East, found 125 churches founded since 1980 in a region as unlike London demographically as it could be. Most of these new churches were not Anglican. The ecclesial dynamism in London is not found to the same degree elsewhere, but it is present elsewhere.

What about Cities Worldwide?

Professor Grace Davie said that London should be seen as a global rather than a European city. The ecclesial vitality visible in London is apparent in cities like Sydney, New York, Lagos, and Singapore. Other “European cities” — like Rotterdam, Paris, or Berlin — are increasingly global cities too. In each there is significant congregational vigour. There is secularity in these cities, of course, but vibrant Christian faith too.

One key thing to note is how, whilst white elite culture is often secularising, urban life at street level is often infused with faith, not infrequently Christian faith. A survey by Reuters found that British journalists are twice as likely to espouse atheism as the wider population. There may be secularisation “from above” in a city’s universities and media, but resacralisation “from below” is going on.


Migration is crucial. London’s indigenous white British population is less devout than the many migrants from across the world who are moving there. But this doesn’t work as a blanket explanation. The demographics are the same for the dioceses of London and Southwark, which have had markedly different trajectories.

Here is a chart comparing the dioceses of London and Southwark for three different measures (electoral roll, usual Sunday attendance, and average weekly attendance from 1992 to 2014 — taken from Bob Jackson’s chapter in Desecularisation of the City. The measures record varying shifts, but the trend is consistent. Although the two dioceses are equally diverse ethnically, London has grown markedly more than Southwark. This may be uncomfortable to point out, but it cannot be ignored.

Some of London’s denominations are shrinking, others growing fast. Some parts of its denominations are growing and others declining. This shows that churches and denominations have agency. What we do or don’t do affects whether we grow or shrink.

Beyond this, there is a sense that people in late modern cities are asking God-shaped questions about meaning, hope, and the possibility of human community — and find the answers of the secular order distinctly thin on these subjects. Into such a vacuum, Christ speaks.

The Desecularisation of the City

Desecularisation of the City undermines the school of ecclesial analysis that assumes a religious countryside and godless urban world.

For most of the 20th century, the shrinking churches of London worked well as an illustration of secularisation. But the city has ceased to fit that theory. London’s churches have proliferated in number and attendance in the last 40 years. This trend is visible in many other cities worldwide. In terms of Christianity, London is the most observant part of the England. Many rural areas have seen marked congregational decline.

Anglicanism needs to adjust its understanding of the city. It was once at the forefront of the spread of secularity. London shows that it is so no longer. Instead, many late-modern cities are places where there is a hunger for the God of Jesus Christ.

The Desecularisation of the City: London’s Churches, 1980 to the Present is published by Routledge. A paperback edition is available here.


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