Keeping the Faith I: Religion in Wales – Facts & Figures

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

This three-part miniseries is a follow-up to April’s examination of equalities issues and Welsh independence, this time looking at the role of faith, organised religion and religious freedom in an independent Wales, as well as how to deal with both religious and political extremism.

See also: Census 2011: Losing our religion?

The key finding from the 2011 census was a decline in the number of people identifying as Christian (-14.3% since 2001) and an increase in the non-religious (+13.6%).

The census also found that while people who practised and identified with non-Christian faiths had increased, when compared to England they remain small proportions of the Welsh population.

Islam is the biggest non-Christian faith in Wales, with 1.5% of the Welsh population at the time (~46,000) being Muslim (UK = 2.5%).

The numbers of Hindus and Buddhists had also doubled since 2001. Despite this, adherents to religions other than Christianity and Islam (Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Others) made up just 1.2% of the Welsh population combined.

A Jewish community has existed in Wales since the 13th Century or earlier, but there are now only ~2,000 Jews left (since peaking at around 5,000 in 1913) – and most live in the Cardiff area. There used to be enough Jews to sustain synagogues in valleys communities like Merthyr Tydfil and Tredegar, but there are now only three active synagogues in the whole country.

There are two major umbrella organisations for religious groups in Wales.

Firstly, there’s Cytun – the ecumenical organisation representing Christian denominations – which is divided into full members (churches with a national organisation and congregation with Wales) and associate members (denominations without a national organisation and limited/tiny congregation).

Secondly, there’s the Inter-Faith Council for Wales, which fosters dialogue and interaction between different faith groups. They also play an advisory (perhaps controversial) role on faith in the National Curriculum and devolved policy.

There are smaller organisations for minority faiths too such as the Muslim Council of Wales, Hindu Cultural Association, Sikh Council, Pagan Federation etc.

The changing nature of Christianity in Wales

While the proportion of Christians is decline in Wales, those left may be increasingly turning to more fundamentalist and evangelical “New Churches”. (Pic: via Flickr)

Wales was among the first Christian nations of western Europe, converting around the 2nd/3rd centuries. Some of the major religious leaders in Wales at the time attained sainthood – David, Illtud, Teilo, Padarn, Asaph etc.

For most of its history, Wales was a Catholic country, but the translation of the Bible into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588 not only helped the survival of the Welsh language (after the Laws in Wales Acts effectively outlawed it in public life) but also enabled a faster uptake of Protestantism.

In the 18th Century, something important (and perhaps unique to Wales) happened. An evangelical Methodist movement spread and Wales became a nation of dissenters – Protestants who weren’t happy with the established church (aka. Nonconformists).

Nonconformist denominations (Baptists, Independents, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, Quakers, Unitarians) became the Church of the predominantly Welsh-speaking and increasingly radicalised working class, while the Church of England was the church of the Anglicised establishment. Nonconformist chapels set the bedrock for the Welsh education system and the “rural radicalism” it fostered helped make the Liberal Party the dominant party in Wales for decades.

Due to the influence of Nonconformism, the Church of England was disestablished in 1920.

As society changed through the twentieth century, particularly the waning influence of “the chapel” on community life, Nonconformism lost its impact despite a brief flaring into life around 1904-1905.

So, what are things like now?

There are very few hard figures for the number of worshipers of particular Christian denominations, but I did manage to find something. According to this 2015 Church Statistics report (pdf), here are some of the congregational figures (and changes between 2005-2010):

  • Roman Catholic Church in Wales: 29,000 (-17%)
  • Union of Welsh Independents: 28,000 (-16%)
  • Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Church of Wales: 27,000 (-20%)
  • Baptist Union of Wales: 14,000 (-16%)

The report also said there were just over 4,000 churches in Wales in 2010, and in 2017 it was said around 20 churches close each year in Wales, blamed on falling congregations.

Believe it or not, there have been increases in congregations elsewhere (though no specific figures for Wales). So-called “New Churches” – which are mainly evangelical (i.e. Pentecostals) – have seen sizable increases in congregations of 15% and up to even 70%+.

This is a sign that practising Christians might be shrinking in number, but they’re “going more hardcore” by being drawn towards more fundamentalist/evangelical denominations led by relatively young, active and charismatic leaders.

There aren’t any figures for the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons in Wales, but I would be surprised if there were more than 5,000-6,000.

Is Wales still a “Christian nation”?

Like Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales doesn’t have an established (state) church – this is the situation in most of the world; the likes of England are an exception, not the rule. So technically, Wales hasn’t been a “Christian nation” for the best part of 100 years and is already secular.

At the rate of decline, Christians are likely to be a minority in Wales (if still a large self-identifying group) by the middle of the century, if not earlier.

It’s a cliche, but the only times most us will have any interaction with organised religion are Christenings, weddings and funerals; but the experience of the majority doesn’t mean that the minority – for whom organised religion may well be an important part of their lives – don’t count and don’t deserve to have their due rights respected.

It would be accurate to describe Wales as a secular nation, but one that’s “Culturally Christian”. Our public holidays are, in the main, still shaped around the Anglican and Catholic calendar, while the vast majority of people reading this will still celebrate Christmas and Easter without being church-goers.

Similarly, you can appreciate the ethics or moral code of Christianity/Jesus Christ without interpreting it literally or believing the Bible is “The Word of God” – the Ten Commandments (in addition to The Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated”) are mostly solid rules to live by, sometimes literally, sometimes as metaphor (and you can happily ignore Leviticus).

Religion & Personal Characteristics

What does a person’s religion tell us about their personal characteristics in Wales?

Again, most of this is from a statistical analysis of the 2011 census (pdf). We won’t get another set of results until 2022-2023.

  • There’s a clear link between race, national origin and religious affiliation – This is one of the more predictable findings. You’re more likely to identify as Christian, Jewish or non-religious if you’re from Wales, the rest of the UK or white; Hindu or Sikh if you’re from southern Asia. The interesting ones are Muslims and Buddhists, as only 54.8% of Muslims in Wales are ethnically Asian; 10.3% are black and 7.9% are white. In addition, about half of Buddhists in Wales are white. Also unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to be born outside the UK if you’re Muslim or Hindu – but a majority of Sikhs and Buddhists are from the UK or Wales.
  • Christians are more like to identify as “Welsh” – Up to 60% of Christians identified as Welsh only, while in almost all other religions there were higher proportions of people who identified as British only – 45.5% of Muslims identified as British compared to the Welsh average of 16.9%.
  • Religion and deprivation – 67.9% of Jews lived in the least deprived areas, compared to 54.8% of Christians, 34.2% of Muslims and ~54% of Hindus and Buddhists. The non-religious and Sikhs had more varied social backgrounds with about a 50:50 split between the most and least deprived. Muslims had the highest proportion of people living in the most deprived areas (19.4%).
  • There’s no real link between religion and health – More Muslims and non-religious said they had the best health when compared to other religious groups, but there’s no conclusive difference; everyone’s in broadly the same boat.
  • Minority religious groups are better educated and more likely to work than Christians and Muslims – 40.1% of Christians and 35.4% of Muslims had either no qualifications or entry-level qualifications. This could be linked to age in the case of Christians and deprivation, race and perhaps even gender in the case of Muslims. Minority religious groups (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews) are significantly more likely to hold a university level qualification (42.5%), but Muslims (27.3%) and Christians (24.6%) are more likely to do so than the non-religious (24%). Minority religious groups also had much higher economic activity rates (70-78%) than every other group.

Faith Schools & Faith in Schools

(Pic: Wales Online)

As far as I can tell, the Church in Wales says there are 172 Church in Wales schools (with 25,000 pupils) and there are said to be 91 Catholic schools across Wales. It’s unclear how many non-Christian faith schools and independent faith schools there are.

Faith schools have key differences from state schools. The obvious one is that they often place more emphasis on religion in their compulsory and non-compulsory curriculum and are allowed to be partly selective, with children who adhere to a faith or denomination being a priority for admission over non-believers (particularly if a school is over-subscribed).

They often also have different administration models, being either voluntary aided (the building and school are run by a trust rather than a local authority) or voluntary controlled (only the administration side is run by a trust). In the case of voluntary aided schools, parents may be asked to give a donation to partly-cover running and maintenance costs.

Faith schools, generally, perform better on average in exams – but this could be because of the background of the pupils (due to the partly-selective nature) rather than the school itself.

Religious education (RE/RS) is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum for all pupils until the age of 16 (and has to be taken as at least a short course at GCSE). There have been proposals for the subject to be reformed to cover more philosophy and ethics and less religious belief and practice – this could yet form part of the new National Curriculum, due to be introduced in Wales in the 2020s.

It’s also a legal requirement for schools to undertake a daily act of worship “of a broadly Christian nature”, with school inspectors often marking down schools which are unable to do this. There have been calls for this requirement to be scrapped – even a petition to the Senedd – though the Church in Wales has argued that the relative unpopularity of the requirement is because the act of worship isn’t approached in the right way.

Religious Hate Crime

In 2016/17 (xls), there were 123 recorded incidents of hate crimes based on the victim’s religion – near enough the same as the previous year – and accounting for 2.1% of all recorded religious hate crime incidents in EnglandandWales, which is smaller than our proportional population share (~5-6%).

The vast majority of incidents (90) were in the South Wales police area, though while you would’ve expected Gwent – as a more urbanised, multicultural part of Wales – to be next, it actually had the lowest number of recorded incidents at just 7.

When compared to race, disability, sexuality and gender identity, there doesn’t appear that much of a problem in Wales when it comes to religiously-motivated hate crime, but it does happen and might be under-reported.

It’s also unclear which religions or denominations are targeted. There’s very little history of (Christian) sectarianism in Wales, so it’s likely to be either targeted at someone practising a specific religion (Islam would be the obvious candidate) or sectarianism within a non-Christian faith (i.e. Sunni vs Shia vs Ahmadi).

It’s also unclear how race is conflated with religion; as I recently covered, there were different attitudes amongst the Welsh towards Asians as a group (more positive) when compared to Muslims (more negative).

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