Census 2001

Rod Badams Rod Badams is retiring on 11 November after 13 years as administrator of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (FIEC). He previously worked for Christians at Work for 22 years, after 11 years in jour
01 April, 2003 5 min read

In spite of secularism, the ‘multi-faith’ society, and the decline of biblical standards of morality and decency, more than 37 million people in England and Wales still claim Christianity as their religion. The figures come from the 2001 Census, the results of which were published on 13 February.

This was the first time since 1851 that a ‘religious allegiance’ question had appeared in Britain’s ten-yearly official census, and like its predecessor of 150 years ago, the ‘religion’ question attracted its fair share of controversy.

Even before Census Day in April 2001, 3,000 pagans ceremonially burned their census forms in protest against the government’s refusal to accept paganism as a religion for the purposes of the question.

Among those who did not burn their Census forms were 390,000 who stated in the ‘other religions’ box that they were Jedi Knights. They were separately counted, but not classed as belonging to a specific religion.

Various evangelical groups objected to the simplistic nature of the way the religious question was devised.

In England and Wales, for instance, it failed to distinguish between Protestant and Roman Catholic. It simply asked people to tick one of a number of boxes – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Other, or None. Moreover, the Christianity claimed is certainly nominal in many cases.

But however flawed the question, its results are fascinating, illuminating and important. They will provide a much more accurate picture of religion in England than has been available in living memory, and this will inform public debate and influence government decisions for the next ten years.

The figures will also prevent any religion making wild assertions about the size of its following in the UK.

Multi-faith myth?

Although the religious question was voluntary, nearly 93% answered it, leaving just over four million who kept their silence. The response level was high for a voluntary question, and validates the accuracy of the resulting analyses.

That 71.75% of households claim to be Christian completely wrecks the often-stated notion that Britain is a ‘multi-faith’ society. More of this in a moment. Here we simply note how convincingly the Census reveals the religious character of our nation.

The figures are courtesy of the ONS (Analysis of the 2001 Census returns, ONS).

One surprise is that the number of Muslims is only three-quarters of what it was thought to be. For some years both Muslims and Christians have been quoting two million as the number of Muslims in the UK.


There are two hugely significant responses which evangelical Christians can make to the ‘religion’ figures. They will be able to use them in representations to government departments and public agencies to urge the adoption of Christian standards, approaches and principles across the whole spectrum of public life and legislation.

Whatever people meant when they ticked the ‘Christian’ box on the Census form – and they clearly meant a wide range of different things – they identified with Christianity more than with any other religion (even one they could have written in the ‘other religion’ box themselves). They also felt more affinity with Christianity than with ‘No religion’.

Even more intriguing is that because the question was voluntary, those who gave Christianity as their religion display a commitment of a kind – they did not need to answer it at all.

Governments should listen to the force of this argument, and Christians should become practised in voicing it. Every letter, delegation, public meeting and campaign-leaflet should focus on it.

This can be done in many cases without being negative about other religions. The pre-eminent position of Christianity in England and Wales is so self-evident that putting the positive makes the whole of the point.


The figures will also influence our approach to evangelism, and our perception of the people around us. Perhaps we have accepted too easily the idea of a ‘multi-cultural’ Britain, and viewed the population around us as a variety of ‘minorities’ – needing special understanding and specialist Christian workers to reach them.

The Census figures may be telling us that this is not the case. More than 37 million people in our land claim to be Christian. More than 33 million of them do not go to church, but still believe Christianity to be their religion.

Can we not try to understand what sort of Christianity they think they have, and take them on from there?

Ethnic hotspots

If the 2001 Census evaporated the myth of multi-cultural Britain, how did it arise in the first place?

The answer is that the Census is a tale of two countries. There is a multi-faith, multi-cultural Britain, but it exists in geographical pockets, while the remaining 95% of the country remains very much as it has always been.

In fact the Census shows that only a few areas with substantial Asian communities are truly multi-cultural.

Hounslow is one, with 18,261 Sikhs (8.6%), 19,387 Muslims (9.13%) and 16,074 Hindus (7.57%). Even there, more than 52% of the population claims to be Christian. Ealing is another, with 31,028 Muslims (10.31%), 23,384 Hindus (7.77%) and 25,611 Sikhs (8.51%).

But mostly the ethnic, religious and cultural picture reveals a huge imbalance. The Census tells us that 54% of the Hindus and 40% of the Muslims in England and Wales live in London.

More than half the Muslims in the UK live in ten Midland and Northern cities and nine of the 32 London boroughs. One in four Muslims lives in Birmingham, Bradford, or London boroughs Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest.

Hindus and Sikhs

More Hindus live in the London Borough of Brent than in the whole of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and Cumbria put together. And this is an area which includes the major cities of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford.

In the local authority district of Pendle in North-West England there are 71 Hindus and 11,986 Muslims. Blackburn has a similar single-religion concentration, with 26,669 Muslims and only 426 Hindus.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has 71,383 Muslims, but only 1,549 Hindus. Birmingham has 140,000 Muslims, but fewer than 20,000 Hindus. In the London Borough of Harrow there are 40,556 Hindus, but only 14,911 Muslims.

Leicester is the largest city which can justify a ‘multi-cultural’ description. It has 41,260 Hindus, 30,875 Muslims, and 11,785 Sikhs. Although these are substantial ‘communities within a community’, they have varying impacts on the character and culture of the city.

The Sikh population is mostly concentrated in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester; Wolverhampton and Coventry; Bedford and Slough; and Gravesend and Dartford. In London the Sikhs are mostly in the boroughs of Ealing, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Redbridge.

Local strategies

Even in Tower Hamlets, where more than one in three are Muslims, there is still a greater number claiming to be Christians. And in Bradford, renowned as an Asian cultural heartland, more than 60% of the population profess to being Christian, while the Muslims – the most predominant Asian religion in the city – represent only 16% of the population.

The way in which evangelical Christians should address the challenge of the genuinely multi-cultural areas and those dominated by a single Asian religion is a serious and sensitive issue. There are principles and practicalities involved, as well as a need for pastoral wisdom. The approach and attitude needs to be biblical and godly. There is great scope for getting it all wrong. But the Census results provide us with reliable and useful details on which local strategies can be based.

No religion

The regional breakdown for ‘Christians’ and those with ‘No religion’ is shown in table 2.

The town with the most followers of Christianity is St Helens, with 86.88%, closely followed by its neighbour Wigan (86.85%). The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has the smallest proportion of Christians (38.4%).

Norwich (27.78%) and Brighton and Hove (27.02%) have the most people without a religion. The fewest without a religion live in Knowsley, near Liverpool. Of all the London boroughs, Havering has the most claiming to be Christians (76.13%).

In Wales the highest proportion of ‘Christians’ live in Anglesey. The Rhondda Valley may have echoed in the past with the singing of hymns, but nowadays Rhondda Cynon Taff is the Welsh authority with the most people without a religion. Flintshire has fewest without a religion (12.92%).

Separate statistical Census reports will be produced for Scotland and Northern Ireland. All the Census findings are available on the web site of the Office of National Statistics at http://tables.neighbourhood. statistics.gov.uk

Rod Badams is retiring on 11 November after 13 years as administrator of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (FIEC). He previously worked for Christians at Work for 22 years, after 11 years in jour
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