Church at Christmas: Hereford's 'come all ye faithful' v Manchester's 'silent night'

December 19, 2004

While the lure of carols, candlelight and crib scenes could see church congregations in Guildford treble this Christmas, vicars in Manchester can expect fewer than 20 per cent more worshippers to mark the traditional birthday of Jesus.

This is among discoveries made by a leading academic doing ESRC-sponsored research into the general state of religion in Britain today. He identifies the people of Hereford as the strongest Christmas churchgoers, with more than one in 10 taking to the pews of Anglican places of worship during the festival.

Dr David Voas, a University of Manchester specialist in religious change in modern societies, found that whether Christmas is now celebrated as a largely religious or secular holiday varies greatly between different parts of England.

He said: "If you want to find the Christmas spirit in your parish church, go to Hereford. More than 10 per cent of the population in the diocese of Hereford will be in an Anglican church at Christmas. That is three times as many as in London, four times as many as in Birmingham, and five times as many as in Manchester."

And a considerable majority of those attending in Hereford will take communion. "Whilst congregations there swell in line with those in the country as a whole, most of these people are real, if only occasional, churchgoers", said Dr Voas.

Church statistics gathered for the research show that for those whose idea of Christmas mostly concerns shopping and parties, Manchester is the place to be.

Dr Voas said: "Barely two per cent of people in Manchester make it to an Anglican church on Christmas Eve or Day, and practically all those who do go are regular worshippers. Attendance at Christmas is a meagre 19 per cent higher than the usual weekly average."

For those who do not usually go to church but like to attend at Christmas, Guildford is the number one choice, according to attendance figures. Holiday congregations there are three times as large as usual, whilst the proportion of people attending who take communion is the lowest in the country, at 37 per cent.

Dr Voas said: "These are Christmas tourists, mixing a little ceremony into their festivities."

Though Easter is the more important festival in religious terms, the popularity of Christmas in general clearly extends to church celebrations, with congregations at parish churches in England swelling on average to more than two and a half times their normal size at the height of the festive season. The Church of England had 2.6 million people attending over Christmas Eve and Day in 2002, compared with fewer than 1.5 million at Easter.

However, even Christmas has not escaped the general decline in religious participation. The Church of England only recently started to record total attendance at Christmas; in the past, only people taking communion were counted.

Dr Voas said: "Barely three per cent of the adult population now takes communion in an Anglican church at Christmas, whereas 20 years ago the figure was one and half times higher. And 40 years ago it was twice the current proportion."

Dr David Voas on 44-161-275-4836 (office), 44-143-365-9823 (out of office use this number on Thursday 16th December), 07732 498308 (mobile) or Email:

Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC on 01793 413032/413119/413122

Economic & Social Research Council

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