The Desecularisation of the City

London's Churches, 1980 to Present

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David Goodhew, Anthony-Paul Cooper
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     366 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Goodhew and Anthony-Paul Cooper’s edited volume, The Desecularisation of the City, critically challenges common assumptions about secularization across Europe using London as their in-depth case study. Rather than becoming less religious, they aim to show that religion (their focus is on Christianity) in London has proliferated since 1980. However, that does not necessarily mean that London has become more religious, rather that Goodhew and Cooper and the authors they have assembled present us with a more complicated picture. In the editors’ own words: Since the 1980s, “London’s congregations have been growing, but it should not be inferred that London as a society or Londoners as individuals are necessarily becoming less secular. Dobbelaere’s threefold typology of secularisation means it is possible for a society to be growing more secular in terms of one form of secularisation but less secular in terms of another” (5).

In the introduction, the editors acknowledge the challenge of relying on and using data for such a project and suggest the use not only of individual measures of religious practice (such as membership numbers, attendance, number of baptisms, or clergy), but also census data, longitudinal studies, or geolocation data. Taking a diverse range of data into account, they argue, provides a better picture of the status of the church in London.

In London both the number of churches and church attendance has been rising since 1979 by 50% and 10%, respectively (26). While the demographic shifts in London and its increasing ethnic diversity may contribute to religious practice, explaining the rising numbers only through this demographic shift does not offer the full picture (27). Instead, the editors emphasize that on the one hand, “London’s churchgoers are more multi-ethnic than the population of London” (8); on the other hand, the white British population in London is also more likely to go to church than in most other parts of the country (16). The editors also caution us with regard to equating migration with religiosity as we can find diverse attitudes towards religion among migrants (27).

Section II of the collection focuses mostly on the question of data, particularly London’s demographic shifts. It encourages researchers to draw on a range of data including harnessing online geolocation data (134). The chapters in this section complicate the picture of religious change in the city. Eric Kaufman, for example, argues that the presence of non-Christian religions seems to impact Christian practice: wards with a higher Muslim population seem to host a larger number of white British identifying as Christian or saying that they practice their religion (55). Section II also draws our attention to how religious groups often serve their local communities in a variety of ways that go beyond offering places of worship, but helps people deal with everyday challenges (97f).

Section III takes a closer look at the relationship between ethnicity, identity, and religious belonging. It discusses challenges religious communities might face due to increasingly strict immigration laws in the UK and the impact ethnicity and national belonging might have on conversion rates into specific religious communities.

Section IV discusses denominational shifts and contributes to complicating the picture of religious change in London. For example, Sam Jeffery and William K. Kay point out that some growth of charismatic congregations can be traced back to migrations from other churches there is evidence of people converting to Christianity and into these charismatic communities.

Finally, Section V pulls the previous chapters together and offers comments from a sociological-historical perspective. John Wolffe proposes looking at religious life over the past 150 years, and suggests a reframing from a narrative of decline to a “narrative of dynamic change and innovation rather than overall decline more accurately represents reality” (341).

Grace Davie concludes the book with a spot-on analysis: “In short I am not convinced that we are experiencing either reverse mission (always a controversial term) or a sustained reversal of secularization even in London. Rather, we are becoming aware of a global narrative overlaying the European one” (360).

Goodhew and Cooper have presented us with a provocative and insightful publication and the chapters they have curated are well presented and well researched. Initially, I was wondering about the relevance or applicability of the publication for researchers and students of religious life outside of London but the chapters each have take-away messages that might help scholars in their own research.

While insightful, the collection also leaves a number of question unanswered. It would have been beyond the scope of this book to provide an in-depth reflection and analysis of what the detailed data presented in this volume means for Christianity in the rest of the UK, other European capitals, and the rest of Europe. But one is left wondering about these questions and it would have been worthwhile to include a chapter that addresses the broader European context. Wolffe’s and Davie’s final two chapters offer valuable starting points for these questions and the final section would have benefitted from one or two more chapters.

Conflicts emerging out of demographic shifts could also have been addressed in more depth. Davie briefly touches on an important point at the end of her chapter when she asks, “Why then were ‘Christians’ . . . disproportionately in favour of Brexit – all too often persuaded that migration is likely to threaten rather than renew the Christian heritage of this country?” (360). This observation poses the question of the impression and self-perceptions present within Christian communities about the health and vibrancy of their communities. It also poses the question of how strong and widespread the link between Christianity and whiteness still is, something that is not a new phenomenon as some chapters in this volume show. Immigrants did not always find a home in existing churches or, as Andrew Roger shows, the growth of non-white Christian communities has been ignored or not been paid attention to by white Christians (97). Eric Kaufmann’s observation about the presence of Muslim communities increasing Christian practice in some cases (55), too, poses the question about Christianity, whiteness, and nationalism.

Overall, however, this is a valuable publication of interest to anyone studying secularization processes or religious practice in the UK. It offers valuable data and starting points to continue the conversation about the questions that could not have been included in this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander Darius Ornella is Senior Lecturer in Religion at the University of Hull, UK.


Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Studies, Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham University. He has edited four volumes on contemporary Christianity with Routledge, beginning with Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (2012).

Anthony-Paul Cooper is Research Fellow of the Centre for Church Growth Research at Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham University. Anthony-Paul has a background in social research, with previous research topics including new church use of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ space and the use of social media data to better understand church attendance and church growth.


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