London, the city that prays together

Pic: License CC0 Public Domain , George Hodan

By Andrew Brown

London is a much more religious city than the media supposes and much more devout than the rest of the UK. These surprising results emerge from a report based on extensive polling conducted by Comres earlier this year.

The largest religious grouping in the capital is Christianity, and the second largest “no religion”. This reverses the position in the rest of the country where “no religion” is more common than anything else. What is more, the Christians in London are very much more likely to pray and to attend church services than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

“London is another planet from the rest of the UK,” said Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University. “And the largest religion by migration over the past few decades is Christianity, with the effects of that more evident in London.”

Paul Bickley, of Theos, the think tank that commissioned the report, agrees. “It’s largely immigrant-driven,” he said. One in four Londoners, the report points out, were born outside the UK. Whatever the reasons, the result is strikingly different to the picture for the rest of the country.

The biggest outlier is in the proportion of non-religious young adults. Outside London 60 per cent of people aged 18-24 describe themselves as non-religious in this survey: in London that proportion drops to 41 per cent, while 32 per cent are Christians, and 10 per cent Muslims.

In sharp contrast with the pattern elsewhere in the country, Christian observance in London drops off with age. The report divides believers into three classes: frequent practitioners, who pray and attend services often, infrequent ones, and non-practising Christians.

“Approaching half (45 per cent) of London’s 18- to 24-year-olds and almost two in five 25-34s and 34-44s (37 per cent) are frequent practitioners in London.” This figure drops off to about one in five among older people, who also form the bulk of the non-practising Christian population.

The frequent practitioners are gender-balanced, whereas occasional Christians are disproportionately female and non-practising ones disproportionately male.

The denominational balance is also reversed in London, which is both the most religious and the least Anglican part of the UK. Roman Catholics are a couple of percentage points (37 to 35) larger than the Anglicans. Paul Bickley points out that this may change with Britain’s departure from the EU.

“What will affect the future is who chooses to stay in London and who chooses to leave. There is a potential future in which the mostly graduate, largely white, non-religious population leaves the city, or does not move into it. In that case, it will stay religious.” But this is not the present trend. The report shows that the non-religious population of the city has increased by a million over the past decade.

The religious make-up of the city also affects political and moral attitudes. London as a whole contains opinions that are more liberal and more conservative than the balance of the country outside. There is a surprising amount of social and economic conservatism.

“Christians here are less welfarist than both non-Christian religious respondents and religious nones (who are the most welfarist group). Christian are more likely to say that ‘many people on benefits are exploiting the system’, and less likely to say that ‘cutting welfare benefits had damaged too many people’s lives’.” says the report.

“Non-Christian religious respondents were the group least likely to favour increased provision through higher taxes.”

Although nearly half of Londoners (47 per cent) favour the complete abolition of the death penalty, the figure is lower for Christians (42 per cent) and lower still for other religions (37 per cent). Similarly, 81 per cent of Christians think that “schools should teach children to obey authority”, while only 70 per cent of Londoners as a whole agree. Among the non-religious the figure drops to 56 per cent.

“Non religious ‘nones’ said sex before marriage was always wrong, while 10 per cent of Christians and 21 per cent of non-Christian religious respondents (and 38 per cent of Muslims) said the same.”

The report warns that these attitudes may lead to political trouble in the future: “In some cases, education is a significant source of friction at the interface between religion and state, particularly for very socially conservative religious groups.

“The practical issues which highlight the problem are the teaching of creationism, prevalent in certain religious groups, and more topically, relationships and sex education (RSE). The latter is a particularly neuralgic area in the light of the widely reported parents’ protests in Birmingham over teaching children about LGBT relationships.”

Yet among Christians it is those who are least observant who are farthest to the right on both social and political issues. This is one characteristic that fits with the rest of the country, where Linda Woodhead’s research has found that the best single predictor of Brexit was to be an Anglican who does not go to church, and that the hierarchy of the church was to the left of the people in the pews economically and politically, but much less liberal on sexual morality.

In London, said Paul Bickley, the frequent practitioners among the Christians were much closer to the average views of Londoners than those for whom Christianity was a marker of belonging.