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United Kingdom

United Kingdom

POPULATION 59,778,002
ROMAN CATHOLIC 12.5 percent
MUSLIM 2.7 percent
HINDU 1.0 percent
SIKH 0.6 percent
JEWISH 0.5 percent
BUDDHIST 0.3 percent
OTHER 0.3 percent
NO RELIGION 29.0 percent

Country Overview


The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland occupies most of the British Isles, which lie off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe. The country is composed of four territories—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—with distinct religious histories. Nearly 84 percent of the people live in England, which has one of the most religiously diverse populations in western Europe. Although the English heritage is predominantly Christian, there are substantial numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. The Church of England is the largest Christian denomination.

The largest religious group in Scotland is the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, but there is a substantial Catholic minority. Wales has traditionally been Nonconformist, with chapels generally of a Calvinist hue, though the Anglican Church in Wales has a substantial presence. In Northern Ireland a Protestant, mainly Presbyterian, majority and a Catholic minority have tended to be identified with opposing sides in the political conflict over the future of the province.

English history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was marked by a struggle for supremacy, even survival, between Catholics loyal to Rome, the newly independent Church of England, and dissenting Protestant groups. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Church of England had become secure. A Catholic minority remained, however, and various Protestant sects took root and grew, including the Quakers and Baptists and later the Methodists.

The contemporary religious position has been greatly influenced by immigration. Large numbers of Irish Catholics came to find work in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After World War II people from former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent came to settle in Britain, introducing new churches and non-Christian religions. Many Britons, however, no longer regard themselves as belonging to any religion, and most people do not participate in formal religious practices except at special ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.


The Church of England is the established (official) church in England, though only about half the English population is even loosely affiliated with it. The Church of Scotland serves as the national church in that jurisdiction. Wales has not had an established church since 1920, and there is no official church in Northern Ireland.

In earlier times people not belonging to the Church of England suffered from legal discrimination, but these restrictions were largely dismantled over the course of the nineteenth century. The European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into domestic law through the Human Rights Act of 1998, provides protection against religious discrimination in the United Kingdom. There is a high degree of religious freedom and tolerance in Britain, though on occasion Muslims and Jews have been the targets of hostility. While religious tensions are still apparent in Northern Ireland, legislation and political agreement have substantially improved the situation there.

Major Religion


DATE OF ORIGIN 1534 c.e.


Christianity arrived in Britain around the second century c.e. and was boosted through the missionary work of Saint Augustine in the sixth century. The new faith had a profound effect on law and culture in the country, and the church as an institution acquired great wealth and influence, as it did elsewhere in Europe. When, in the 1530s, the pope refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce, the English monarch broke with Rome. The Church of England was separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Liturgy and practice in the church began to evolve in a Protestant direction, while never entirely forsaking its Catholic roots. Anglicanism (the religious movement that derives from the Church of England and that includes the Episcopal Church in the United States) continues to see itself as pursuing a "middle way" between Catholicism and conventional Protestantism.

The development of a distinctively Anglican liturgy began with the publication of a new prayer book in 1549, and The Book of Common Prayer, notably the version published in 1662, has become a cultural landmark. Doctrine was codified under Queen Elizabeth I in the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563. The translation of the Bible commissioned by James I, known as the Authorized or King James Version, was published in 1611 and remained the standard scriptural text through the midtwentieth century.

Following the death of Henry VIII, the fortunes of Anglicanism rose and fell as successive rulers of England showed sympathy to Catholics or to Puritans. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the subsequent Acts of Succession, bound church and state together, with Catholics barred from holding the throne.

Colonization and missionary activity spread the Church of England worldwide, with sister churches belonging to the Anglican Communion coming to exist in all parts of the English-speaking world. Closer to home, the Church of England is linked to the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church of Ireland.


The reigning monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England. For all practical purposes, however, the senior figure in the church is the archbishop of Canterbury. Important historical figures to hold this position include Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), who was condemned to death by the Catholic Queen Mary and burned as a heretic in 1556; William Laud (1573–1645), beheaded during the English Civil War; Gilbert Sheldon (1598–1677), who built the famous Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford; and William Temple (1881–1944), a leading advocate of social reform whose father had also been archbishop. Rowan Williams, who was previously archbishop of Wales and before that professor of theology at the University of Oxford, became archbishop of Canterbury in 2002.


Important contributors to Anglican thought include Richard Hooker (1554–1600), a great Elizabethan theologian whose work on governance influenced the American founding fathers; John Wesley (1703–91), a founder of the Methodist movement, which became a separate denomination after his death; William Wilberforce (1759–1833), an evangelical antislavery campaigner; and John Henry Newman (1801–90), a leader in the Oxford Movement and later a convert to Catholicism. In the twentieth century the lay theologian C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) restated Christian tenets in response to growing doubt.

A number of great literary figures have had ties to the Church of England and have written on religious themes. These include the poets John Donne (1572–1631), George Herbert (1593–1633), and T.S. Eliot (1888–1965).


The territory covered by the Church of England is divided into more than 13,000 parishes. Many churches in rural areas are centuries old, and many of those in cities were built during the Victorian period. Anglican churches are typically more ornate than most Protestant places of worship. It is common, for example, to find stained glass, elaborately carved pulpits and choir stalls, and religious art in the nave or behind the altar in an Anglican church.

Bishops have their seats in cathedrals, buildings that are characteristically large and ancient, although some, like Liverpool cathedral, were built within the past century. Canterbury and Wells cathedrals, York Minster, and Westminster Abbey, an ancient church in which royal weddings have been held and kings crowned but not a cathedral because it does not contain a bishop's throne, number among the most significant places of worship in the United Kingdom.

Other places may be considered holy. Some Anglicans, for example, attach special significance to shrines such as those at Walsingham and Glastonbury Abbey or to newer sites of religious activity and pilgrimage like the Iona Community.


Relatively few objects or activities are traditionally regarded as sacred by Anglicans, though there is scope for individual variations in views. The sacraments of the Church of England—baptism and Holy Communion—are sacred rituals, and the objects employed in them, in particular the consecrated wine and wafers, have a special status. Similarly the notion of "consecrated ground"—the churchyard, an adjacent cemetery, the church itself—refers to a holiness attached to these places, within which one is expected to act with decorum. Crosses, images of Christ or the saints, and indeed Bibles and prayer books are to varying degrees held to be sacred, and overt acts of disrespect would previously have been interpreted as blasphemous. As British culture has become more secular, however, it is increasingly difficult to give special protection to what religious people may regard as sanctified.


The Advent and Christmas seasons are important periods of the year in Britain, even for people who are not religious. Church attendance on Christmas Eve and Day is higher than at any other time of the year, with special carol services frequently attracting large crowds. The other major, and more purely religious, holiday is Easter. Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, is traditionally celebrated as Pancake Day.

Ascension Day (celebrating Christ's ascent into heaven 40 days after Easter) and Pentecost, or Whitsun (the seventh Sunday after Easter, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples), are other important dates in the Anglican calendar. An English public holiday in late May is often referred to as Whitsun. Although they are not official church holidays, annual harvest festivals are popular services, particularly for children and families, at which people are invited to bring food for distribution to the less well off. Another distinctive practice is Remembrance Sunday (around November 11), when public and religious ceremonies memorialize those who have died in war.


No special dress distinguishes Anglicans from others in England. It is conventional to be reasonably well dressed in a conservative style for attendance at church services, but many people no longer regard this practice as important. There are still traditions regarding dress for special services. Brides usually wear wedding dresses, infants being baptized may have christening robes, and mourners at a funeral often wear black, but even these dress codes are voluntary.

Ordained ministers can often be recognized from their white neck band, sometimes called a "dog collar." In everyday situations, however, clergy often choose to wear ordinary clothing. Priests officiating at services generally wear special vestments, elements of which may have a color corresponding to the church season, with, for example, purple worn during Advent and Lent. It is common for members of the choir or for people assisting the priest at the altar to wear robes as well.


The Church of England does not regulate what people may eat. In earlier times it was common to observe practices such as fasting before Communion or abstaining from meat on Fridays, but these traditions are largely obsolete. It is still common, however, for active Anglicans to make modest sacrifices during Lent (for example, by giving up a favorite food or drink).

Unofficial dietary traditions can be found in Britain, but these are not exclusive to Anglicans. They include eating turkey and special cakes and puddings at Christmas or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The latter custom arose as people used up eggs and butter in preparation for the Lenten fast.


Worship in the Church of England generally takes place on Sundays, though many churches offer midweek services. Anglican services are relatively ritualistic compared with those in most Protestant churches, with a set order that, at least traditionally, requires the congregation to sit (to listen), stand (to sing), or kneel (to pray) at different points in the ceremony. Most services include certain standard prayers, the public reading of passages from the Bible, a sermon, and the singing of traditional hymns or sometimes more contemporary religious songs.

Various types of services may be provided at different times or on different days in order to satisfy the requirements of different groups of churchgoers. Some people prefer the traditional liturgy based on The Book of Common Prayer; families may be invited to bring children to special services that offer appropriate words and music; and Communion is performed at some services but not others.

Church weddings remain popular in Britain. Couples applying to marry in church may be asked to demonstrate residence in, or commitment to, the parish. In traditional wedding ceremonies the father escorts the bride down the aisle of the church before "giving away" his daughter to the bridegroom. The man and woman being married make vows and exchange rings.

Funerals were traditionally held in a church, with subsequent burial in the churchyard, but in the late twentieth century more and more people in Britain began to choose cremation, so that many funeral services have come to be conducted at crematoria. For individuals who were reasonably well known, it is common for a small private funeral to be followed days, weeks, or even months later by a memorial service, in which the religious elements tend to take second place to a more secular celebration of the life.


Baptism, popularly known as christening, is a sacrament that initiates a person into the Christian community. In the Church of England it has traditionally been administered to infants, though it is also common to see older children and adults being baptized. The church also offers the less formal procedure of "thanksgiving" for celebrating a birth. The official liturgy for baptism involves parents and godparents making religious promises on the child's behalf, while thanksgiving appeals to nominal Anglicans who do not feel comfortable with the undertakings of the traditional christening.

Confirmation is a rite in which adolescents, or sometimes adults, affirm their faith and personally renew the promises made at baptism. It is usual to attend a series of confirmation classes for religious instruction prior to the ceremony. In the past only individuals who had been confirmed were regarded as qualified to receive Communion, though as confirmation becomes less common, this restriction is likely to be eased.


Although 24 million people have been baptized in the Church of England and thus are nominally Anglican, only about 2 million are regular churchgoers. The church is interested in recruiting new adherents and in bringing lapsed Anglicans back into active membership, but it rarely does so aggressively. The evangelical wing of the church tends to be moderate in its approach, while the liberal wing is more concerned to show respect for other faiths than to argue against them. The Alpha Course, a series of talks and discussions generally organized around an evening meal and aimed at introducing nonchurchgoers to Christian beliefs, has become one of the most highly publicized activities.

Discussions have been held with the Methodist Church, the third largest church in England, which originated as an offshoot of the Church of England, over ways of bringing the organizations together. The two churches have come close to agreement on a covenant that may eventually result in union.


The Church of England has spoken out on many issues related to social justice, including racism, poverty, the environment, and foreign policy. The publication in 1985 of a report titled Faith in the City is often seen as a watershed in the church's engagement with such issues, demonstrating that it aims to serve the socially disadvantaged and not just the establishment.

The Christian socialist movement drew compassionate attention to social problems in the late nineteenth century. The contemporary church involves itself in practical partnerships such as caring for asylum seekers, supporting urban regeneration schemes and young people's projects, providing counseling, and endorsing groups fighting racism.


The Church of England has attempted to respond to social changes such as premarital cohabitation and childbearing, the rising frequency of divorce, and public acceptance of homosexuality. It proclaims the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family, while accepting that some people will not meet these ideals. Many Anglican ministers have become willing to perform church weddings for people who are divorced. Most do not automatically condemn non-marital sexual relations.


Although the Church of England has a special constitutional status, its political influence is slight. The public speeches of the archbishop of Canterbury and other leading bishops receive attention, but even Anglican politicians do not feel themselves bound to follow the recommendations of the church. In any event, church leaders generally refrain from making explicit pronouncements on public policy.

Religious influence on political affairs is more commonly felt indirectly, through the activities and decisions of individual Anglicans who hold power. Some prime ministers have been committed Anglicans, from William Gladstone in the nineteenth century to Tony Blair in the twenty-first.


The Church of England includes a broad spectrum of opinion on social issues, and the most awkward divisions are related to internal controversies. The conditions under which people who have been divorced can be married again in church continues to be debated. The ordination of women was resisted by a minority of Anglicans, some of whom left the church to become Catholics, and the question of whether and when women may become bishops remains to be resolved. Although the Church of England tends not to condemn homosexuality, whether in the laity or the clergy, more conservative churches in the Anglican Communion, especially in Africa and Asia, find this view unacceptable. Revised forms of the liturgy have been controversial for many years, with some Anglicans continuing to prefer services from the traditional Book of Common Prayer. The position of the institution as the official, or established, church is one that many Anglicans, including some church leaders, have questioned.


The cultural impact of the Church of England has been immense. The English language itself has been profoundly influenced by the King James Version of the Bible. The landscape of the country is marked, in reality as well as in art and the popular imagination, by church spires rising above villages and by cathedrals dominating cities. Only the Houses of Parliament can rival Saint Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey as the symbol of London. Sacred music has been extremely important in the cultural life of the nation, with Anglican composers such as Thomas Tallis (1505–85), Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), Henry Purcell (1659–95), and William Boyce (1711–79) being among the important figures. The English choral tradition is rooted in sacred music such as Handel's Messiah. The religious tradition was maintained in the modern period by composers that included Charles Stanford (1852–1924), Herbert Howells (1892–1983), and even Benjamin Britten (1913–76), whose War Requiem was commissioned for the dedication of the new Coventry cathedral in 1962.

Other Religions

The Roman Catholic Church is the second largest religious organization in the United Kingdom. Although the number of Catholics in England and Wales—no more than 9 percent of the population—is substantially lower then the number of Anglicans, the Catholic attendance at Mass on a typical Sunday is—at around 1 million—slightly higher than the number of Anglicans in church at the same time. Catholics are even more significant in Scotland, where they make up 16 percent of the population, and they constitute more than 40 percent of the population of Northern Ireland. Although some English Catholics are descended from recusants (those who maintained their allegiance to Rome after the Church of England split from its control), the majority are descended from Irish immigrants.

Catholicism has had an enormous impact on British culture, not only prior to the Anglican split with Rome in the sixteenth century but also subsequently. Many leading figures in public life have been Catholic, and prominent Catholic authors have included Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) and Graham Greene (1904–91).

The cardinal archbishop of Westminster is the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The church plays an important part in education, with many of the country's state-supported secondary schools being Catholic establishments. In other respects its reputation has suffered; as in some other countries, the church has been accused of doing too little to prevent child abuse by the clergy.

The Church of Scotland, also known as the Kirk, is the largest church in Scotland and the third largest in the United Kingdom. In the 2001 census more than 2 million people in Scotland, 42.4 percent of the population, identified themselves as belonging to the church, though only about 600,000 are officially members.

The Scottish Reformation was led by John Knox in the sixteenth century. The movement, which was opposed by the Catholic monarch Mary, Queen of Scots, was eventually successful, and it resulted in the country becoming Protestant by an act of Parliament. Scotland and England were united under the Stuart dynasty in 1603, and the religious foment of the seventeenth century affected the Kirk. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Catholic King James II was deposed, the Kirk was established as the national church of Scotland in 1690. Periodic rifts, notably the Disruption of 1843, and reunions have produced the Free Church of Scotland and the United Free Church as groups separate from the Kirk.

Unlike the Church of England, which is episcopal (administered by a hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and priests), the Church of Scotland is presbyterian. Parishes in a district are administered by a group of ministers and elders known as a presbytery. The General Assembly is the national decision-making body of the Kirk.

Other Christian denominations in the United Kingdom include the Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed, Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches. There are also groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Salvation Army, Seventh-day Adventists, Quakers, and Unitarians. In contemporary times there has been substantial growth in independent "house churches," where small groups gather in private homes to worship without clergy or liturgy, and community churches.

Although many, or even most, people in the United Kingdom would describe themselves as being Christian in a broad sense, the majority do not identify themselves with any denomination, and even fewer are members of a church. At least three-quarters of the population do not attend services except on special occasions (for example, for weddings or funerals or for Christmas carols). Church statistics show that baptism, confirmation, church weddings, and other religious practices have declined steadily since World II.

Until the 1970s the principal non-Christian religion in the United Kingdom was Judaism. A Jewish community has existed in Britain for many centuries, and Jews have made large contributions to British society. Although Jews were free to practice their faith for most of the historical period, until the twentieth century they were socially handicapped by official and unofficial discrimination. Nevertheless, some Jews came to prominent positions. One of the greatest figures of the Victorian era, the politician Benjamin Disraeli, was of Jewish descent, though from a family that had converted to Christianity.

Both Orthodox and Reform Judaism are represented in the United Kingdom. Some people who are fairly secular in their practices are nevertheless associated with Orthodox synagogues, and to that extent Orthodoxy in the United Kingdom covers much of the social and religious territory that is occupied by Conservative Judaism in the United States. The head of the Orthodox movement in the United Kingdom is the chief rabbi, who is generally recognized as being the leader of the Jewish community, though strictly he represents only one part of it.

Most British Jews are indistinguishable from the general population in dress and everyday life. Some observant men wear a skullcap, called a kippa or a yarmulke, and the highly orthodox, particularly those in the Hasidic community, may wear the distinctive black coats and hats that derive from previous times in eastern Europe. The holy days, rituals, diet, rites of passage, and other practices of Jews in the United Kingdom are the same as those observed by Jews in other parts of the world.

The chief rabbi in the United Kingdom has at different times been criticized by the more and the less orthodox either for being overly accommodating to religious pluralism or, conversely, for being too rigid and sectarian. One particular controversy concerns the inability of some orthodox women to obtain religious divorces from their former husbands. Another surrounds the creation of an eruv (a boundary within which activities are less restricted on the Sabbath) in northwest London. The international debate over Israel and the Palestinian territories has been reflected in difficult relations between the British Jewish and Muslim communities.

Following immigration, mainly between the 1950s and 1970s, from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Caribbean, and later from the Balkans, the Middle East, and other areas, Islam has become the largest non-Christian religion in the United Kingdom. The 2001 census found 1.6 million Muslims in the country. There have been Muslims—for example, from Yemen—living in Britain since well before World War II, but it is the presence of large numbers of people whose ethnic origins are in Pakistan and Bangladesh that makes the group so important today.

There are as many as 1,000 mosques in Britain, though more than half of them are simply rooms rather than special buildings. There is no single religious authority or organization representing Muslims in the United Kingdom. One major association is the Muslim Council of Britain, to which several hundred local groups are affiliated. The Imams and Mosques Council is another important organization.

While Muslim religious practices are similar to those found in other parts of the world, in their detail they are often influenced by the national origin of the families concerned. Dress may be wholly Western, particularly among the young, though many individuals—for example, Pakistanis—wear clothes characteristic of their ethnic group. It is not unusual to see women wearing headscarves.

Muslims have become increasingly active politically in the United Kingdom. The controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, himself a British Muslim, served as a catalyst for conflict. The book was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, while for secular society freedom of expression trumped religious sensibilities. There has been a move to provide legal protection from religious discrimination, since Muslims, unlike Jews and Sikhs, are not recognized as forming an ethnic category for these purposes.

Immigration has also brought substantial numbers from other faiths to Britain. Among these the largest groups are Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Asian religious practices have increasingly become integrated into British society, with acceptance of other cultures in schools and workplaces growing. Schools are required to teach elements of Asian religions as part of the curriculum, and it is common for universities and other establishments to provide Muslim prayer rooms alongside Christian chapels.

Many Asian parents bemoan the creeping demise of practices such as arranged marriages, fasting, and family rituals and the fact that religious, clerical, and parental authority is increasingly challenged in ways it would not have been in the more closely knit communities and extended families that have been left behind. Many immigrants have experienced the hostility that can be aroused by outsiders or unfamiliar ways, and there is a constant tension between the desire to integrate and the desire to preserve tradition. In principle, public policy supports diversity as well as assimilation, with many city councils assisting the celebration of non-Christian festivals and some employers providing special leave on religious holidays.

Various New Age and neopagan practices are also found in contemporary Britain.

David Voas

See Also Vol. 1: Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, Christianity, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholicism


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