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American Unitarians are declining, British Unitarians are growing

OK, I've been writing a lot about statistics lately, and you have to be very cautious about statisitics. There's all kind of ways in which they don't report the full picture of reality. But they are worth keeping an eye on.

The UU World has reported that the membership numbers of UUA congregations in the United States have fallen for the third year running. This was reported at the latest UUA Board meeting.

First (at the risk of repeating myself) I want to note that membership numbers are reported as a matter of normal business at the UUA Board, whereas I've never seen them discussed in the British Executive Committee minutes. This should be normal practice.

As these numbers aren't reported normally in the British Unitarian community I've drawn upon work that other people have done (here and here), and this year's (2010) Annual Report to look at what our trends are. Here we go:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672

Over six years we can see an overall picture of decline (7% by my calculations). That does not suprise me. What does suprise me is that the last two years have actually reported growth. Only very slight growth, only a little bit more than a flat line, but decline has stopped.

How do we explain this? Is it a blip? Is it just a difference in reporting? That's quite possible. With numbers this small it's hard to see a clear picture.

But in fact this might point to the fact that the Unitarian General Assembly is growing. Well, to be more accurate, I think it probably means that some congregations are growing.

Because the numbers are so small I think these numbers are probably pointing to about five congregations growing. The steady or dramatic growth of a handful of congregations is probably enough to offset the decline or stasis of 160+ congregations.

What this might mean is that the overall number might stay the same over the next five years, while the distribution of members might change dramatically. Are we heading towards fewer, but larger congregations? This might have all kinds of interesting ramifications.

But perhaps amid the decline we are seeing some signs of hope.


Robin Edgar said…
Allow me to provide some perspective. . .

Even if British Unitarian membership magically increased by 1000% overnight there would still be less than 40,000 Unitarians in the UK.
Anonymous said…
We need to be careful here.

If I remember correctly, we based our recent GA Quota contribution on "contributors" rather than "members". Therefore, a different count is being reported for 2010 (?) and 2011.

It is probably a better figure as it represents active people rather than passive members.

But it may have boosted the most recent figures relative to the earlier ones.

Was it selected to "hide the decline"? I don't know.

As usual with statistics of any form, Caveat Emptor!
Both your caveats are absolutely right.

If there were 40,000 Unitarians in the UK we'd still be a tiny denomination, but we'd be big enough to do a lot of things we can't do now.

But seeing as I do know that some congregations are growing, I'm inclinded to believe these numbers do relfect that.
Yewtree said…
According to the last census (2001), there were 40,000 Pagans in the UK (if you add up all the separate groups like Heathens, Shamans, eclectic Pagans, Wiccans, etc etc). However, they are separate and disparate and not all of them subscribe to the national organisation (the Pagan Federation), partly because it's insufficiently democratic, and partly because it has a statement of what it means to be a Pagan that not all Pagans can sign up to.

Recently Derek McAuley (our chief officer) testified to a Parliamentary select committee on the negative impact on LGBT people of contracting out local government activities to religious charities. To be honest, I can't imagine any Pagan representatives being invited to testify to a Parliamentary select committee - which suggests that though Unitarianism is small, it still does punch above its weight, because it is well organised, democratic, and has a proper national body with proper funding and administration, plus a decent website and publicity materials.
Derek McAuley said…
Just a correction. Contrary to the press article I was not infact invited to testify to the Select Committee however I made a written submission. A very few organisationaand/or individuals get invited personally to appear. Our evidence has been published and on this occasion (on the Big Society) the Unitarians were one of only two faith groups who contributed. Maybe next time. But the principle of have the capacity and being organised to undertake such work does stand.
Rob MacPherson said…
Greetings all,

It would be nice to think of us a growing, but if we were, we'd be one of the few non-charismatic churches that is. The decline is general, across all similar denominations, and absolutely consistent since 1912 (pre WW1. I refer you to Callum Brown's excellent book, stats-laden book, "The Decline of Christian Britain" (2001).

The changes in stats quoted in this post are hardly statistically significant in realtion to the overall Unitarian cohort, and so reading them as 'straws in the wind' would be unwise.

Having said that, we are still the best religious news on the block. Our principles reflect the values of the mainstream--freedom, reason, tolerance--and there's no real reason we can't grow if we want to badly enough.
Leigh said…
I'm the treasurer of a Unitarian congregation and we've always paid our quota based on our membership and not on our contributors. I don't remember this being any different in 2010.

The frusting aspect of membership ac ross the movement is that there are no in depth statistics to look at. We have grown in the last couple of years but it would have been good to see how this compared to losses through deaths, resignations and so on. The Quakers, in particular, are excellent at keeping track of all this. They make it public each year. Here is the recent layout>
If we could do this it would allow us to spot problems and plan much better for the future.

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