Those of us who research our families in Europe have found a great deal of information, particularly for ancestors beyond three or four generations back, in church records such as baptism, marriage and burial registers. As I pointed out in blog posts of 19 April 2016 and 3 May 2016 concerning Historical Trends in Parish BMD Register Entries, the completeness of information in ecclesiastical records began to wane in the latter 19th century. For the areas of England that I have looked at in detail, I thought it might have to do with movement away from the Church of England as well as the emphasis on civil registration of vital events.
I recently came across an interesting website on Wikipedia called Religion in the United Kingdom. I thought it might shed some light on the questions of whether the church was losing its relevance, at least in terms of the recording of those vital events.
The plots of baptism, marriages and burials from Church of England registers for the parishes of Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice in Devon in my previous blog posts showed a marked decline in entries beginning in the mid-1800s. Civil registration had of course begun in 1837 but that did not immediately halt the trend. I thought a part of the answer might lie in the country becoming more multi-cultural.
Certainly over the last two centuries there has been an influx of immigrants from other parts of the world into Britain. Unfortunately detailed statistics have only been kept for the most recent decades. Census records show the percentage of foreign-born residents of Britain was quite small until the middle of the 20th century, though, so immigration does not explain the drop in baptisms or church-related marriages and burials.
The 2011 United Kingdom census offers some interesting statistics as do British Social Attitudes (BSA) Surveys. Both sets of data show that religion is still very much a part of the lives of most citizens – 67% of the total population. Of those, 60% indicated they were Christian.
In a more detailed 2009 BSA survey concerning religions, only 19.9% of those surveyed (40% of those with a religion) said they belonged to the Church of England. Over half of the people (50.7%) said they were not religious at all. The proportion of Church of England members dropped further by 2015, to just 17% of those with religion.
Time series from the British Social Attitudes Survey showing the religion to which people consider themselves to belong
These last two groups probably account for most of the decline in entries in the Church of England registers. Over two hundred years ago, almost all of the people of England were associated with the Church of England and had their important life events recorded in the registers. Many, of course, were forced by law to do so even if they belonged to a non-conformist group since, for so long the Church of England was almost an arm of the government. Notwithstanding that, the church records offered a very accurate view of the communities in terms of births and deaths.
Surveys such as the BSA and analyses of census results shown on the Online Historical Population Reports Website are great resources to find out about the makeup of communities from the past. Not only do they summarize religious connections but also tell a great deal about occupations, movement of people across the country and immigration.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.