Thursday, 23 April 2015

'As a generation we have turned a corner'

Women becoming nuns hits 25-year high
BBC headline 

A Church source explained  that England and Wales experienced a remarkable nun boom last year, triggered by women being drawn to the religious life because of a 'gap in the market for meaning in our culture ...  the fact that more women are becoming nuns than there has been [sic] in the past 25 years shows that as a generation we have turned a corner.' When I looked, this was the 8th most popular story on the BBC news website:
So, exactly how many women became nuns in England and Wales in this extraordinary year?

45. Up from a low of seven (in 2004).

Does an unconventional lifestyle choice by 45 people out of a population of 56,000,000+ constitute a demographic trend that warrants a national news headline and a soundbite from an official source explaining how 'as a generation we have turned a corner?'

Maybe, as a generation, we have turned a corner - but not in the direction suggested by the Church spokesperson. In 2001, working with some rather larger numbers, the census for England and Wales asked the question "What is your religion?" 14.81% said "none." When they asked the same question in 2011 around a quarter (25.1%) said "none." This might not represent an actual loss of 5 million religious adherents in a decade - other surveys are available - but the general trend looks clear and, this time, the magnitude of the numbers isn't so ridiculously microscopic that they disappear at the scale of national populations.

Now it's true that the Catholics haven't experienced quite the same level of catastrophic decline as the Anglicans, but doing better than the Anglicans isn't setting the bar very high, considering that:
  1. The Catholics are starting from a lower base (8.9% of the population, as opposed to 19.9% for the C of E, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009, which was for the whole of the UK, not just England and Wales).
  2. Several denominations, including the Catholics, have benefited from recent demographic changes, like the arrival of more Polish Catholics in the UK, according to research by people like Peter Brierley who surveyed nearly 300 Christian denominations in the UK in 2013.
  3. The stark decline in ordinations to the priesthood has been somewhat offset by the poaching of former conservative Anglican priests via the The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
But, for all the qualifications, the long-term trends look bleak, as this snapshot from before the advent of Polish migrants and the Ordinariate shows:
The figures for marriages and baptisms are not simply alarming, but disastrous. In 1944 there were 30,946 marriages, by 1964 the figure had risen to 45,592-----but by 1999 it had plunged to 13,814, well under half the figure for 1944. The figures for baptisms for the same years are 71,604 (1944), 137,673 (1964), and 63,158 (1999)...

... Apart from marriages and baptisms, Mass attendance is the most accurate guide to the vitality of the Catholic community. The figure has plunged from 2,114,219 in 1966 to 1,041,728 in 1999 and is still falling at a rate of about 32,000 a year.

In 1944, 178 priests were ordained; in 1964, 230; and in 1999 only 43-----and in the same year 121 priests died. 
Michael Davies' book Liturgical Time Bombs, as quoted on the Latin Mass Chairman's blog.

It makes you wonder why the Catholic Church would want to overplay 45 people deciding to join religious orders as a significant 'generational' shift.

  • they're fully aware that the actual numbers are less than a drop in the ocean, but they're desperate for anything that might look like a positive headline
  • their spokesman was Father Dougal McGuire, who's still having a few conceptual difficulties with the relative sizes of big things and small things...: