For the first time in a census of England and Wales, fewer than half the population — 46.2% — described themselves as Christian in a 2021 headcount, the Office for National Statistics said Tuesday.
Britain, which sent Bibles and missionaries throughout its global empire to spread the Christian faith during the 18th and 19th centuries, is moving toward secularism and away from the official state religion, the numbers indicate.
The poll about religious affiliation is voluntary, the ONS said, but 94% of the overall population answered, up from 92.9% in 2011. Self-identified Christians totaled 24.7 million people in the survey.
Those holding “no religion” rose to 22.2 million in the 2021 survey, up from 14.1 million 10 years ago, while the self-identified Muslim population of 3.9 million showed an increase from 2.7 million a decade earlier. One million residents said they were Hindu, up from 818,000 in 2011.
The ONS reported Wales had a greater decrease in the Christian population, down to 43.6% in 2021 from 57.6% in 2011. Census officials said the percentage of Welsh residents claiming “no religion” jumped from 32.1% a decade ago to 46.5% in 2021.
London is Britain’s most religiously diverse region, according to census figures. More than a quarter (25.3%) of residents reported a religion other than Christian, officials reported. Britain’s northeast and southwest regions are the least religiously diverse, with 4.2% and 3.2%, respectively, selecting a religion other than Christian, according to the report.
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Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, one of the most senior clerics in the Church of England, told the Associated Press that the results were “not a great surprise” but constituted a challenge to Christians to work harder to evangelize.
“We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian, but other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by,” Archbishop Cottrell said.
Lt. Col. Dean Pallant, spokesman for the Salvation Army’s U.K. territory, said the decline of Christian identification offers an opportunity for the movement, which began in 1865 as an evangelical outreach in East London’s slums.
“We need to rethink the way we explain the good news of Jesus in our society,” Mr. Pallant said in a telephone interview. “The traditional evangelical methods don’t work as they once did. People often don’t even know the story of the gospel, so we have to rethink this with humility.”
Mr. Pallant said the Salvation Army’s traditional open-air street meetings, combining brass music with gospel testimonies, no longer work in a society where the Christian story isn’t known. Instead, he said, “People have to go on a much longer journey to become disciples of Jesus.