When I was editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian I wrote a column entitled ‘Ponder Anew’ (and might still do from time to time – indeed my initial intention was to give this blog the same name but this proved not to be possible). Anyway I thought I would review some of those pieces and came across the following which was published in March 2011 and concerned the number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland counted in the 2001 Census in Northern Ireland. The Census showed what is certainly an underestimate of the total numbers of Non-Subscribers by a large degree. Having looked at this piece I suddenly realised that I had not noticed what the 2011 Census itself actually recorded – happily the information is easily found. I will add a short appendix to the original article to make a comparison with 2001. But here is the slightly amended article from the March 2011 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian:
This year sees another Census. Every ten years the citizens of the United Kingdom are asked to provide a vast amount of information for the government’s use. At the last Census, for the first time, residents of England, Scotland and Wales were invited to disclose their religious affiliation. This revealed a large number of people (390,127 no less) who declared their religion as being Jedi…..However, a very curious result was thrown up in Northern Ireland in the most recent, 2001 Census, concerning this denomination which I have never seen referred to by anyone in our churches.
The 2001 Census reported that the total membership of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland was 1,233. That figure includes adults and children but obviously excludes those resident in the Republic. That means that only 1,233 people identified themselves as Non-Subscribers. This is a very small number and without doubt is a significant underestimate. First of all, we might ask, does it matter? Well, the Census figures are used, not unreasonably, by authors producing surveys of religious affiliation. Indeed, in a paper produced for the Irish Council of Churches Norman Richardson has said that the apparent drop in our numbers “indicates one of the most notable proportionate declines in comparison with the 1991 figures.” But secondly, is this true? Without doubt we can answer that question with a resounding ‘No’. Our own statistics for 2001 reveal 3,529 adult members and 511 Sunday School members making a total of 4,040, that is a full 228% higher than the official government figure. The Synod’s figure, with members in the Republic excluded, is largely made up of those who make a financial contribution to a church. Yet every minister knows that beyond the official list of members there is generally a large mass of individuals who at times will claim membership, famously described by the late Rev Robin Williamson as “those who neither pay nor pray”. Indeed in Northern Ireland it is said that of those who don’t go to church everyone knows which church they stay away from. This is reflected in much of the Census statistics where most denominations (unlike us) actually record higher figures in the government numbers than in their own records. But how then do we explain this enormous reverse discrepancy in our figures? Well part of it is explained by the 342 people who recorded themselves as Unitarians. If we add this figure to the 1,233 we get a total of 1,575. But this is still far less than half of our official and hardly exaggerated total. If my memory serves me right the Non-Subscribers/Unitarians appeared as a single category in 1991, although generally they had been separated out in previous years, this in itself being an interesting area of analysis. Another difference between 1991 and 2001 was the complete disappearance of the 152 people who declared themselves as Old Presbyterians in 1991 (certainly part of our group as well) by 2001. It may be that some of our members simply wrote Presbyterian (another separate category totalling 985) but it must be also true that a very large number of those who belong to our denomination chose not to answer the religious question. There is some evidence that this has been a long term practice. However, one person has suggested to me that the sudden drop in those declaring themselves as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians was caused simply by the lack of space on the form for the answer to the religious question. There may be something in this. The ‘big four’ denominations all had a tick box, while all others had to be written in, in a space with less characters than we have in the first two words of our name! However, whatever the reason, with the next Census due at the end of this month we all have the chance to declare our allegiance. If we all do that then on paper our numbers will enjoy a massive jump and we can produce a notable proportional increase this time. It will at least give the statisticians something to talk about.
So what was the result of the 2011 Census for Non-Subscribers? Well, it does not look good. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians numbered only 646 (down from 1,233). Unitarians numbered 265 (down from 342). Once again there were no Old Presbyterians at all and those who could be no more specific than stating ‘Presbyterian’ were up from 985 to 1,494. So adding the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians to the Unitarians this makes a total of 911. How does this compare with the denomination’s own statistics? With the numbers for those resident in the Republic of Ireland again removed the total number of adult members recorded in 2012 (which effectively means those counted in the same year as the Census) was 2,900 plus 373 children – a total of 3,273. Again, as in 2001, there is no reason for this figure to be inflated. Admittedly there may be some people who are members of more than one church and so are counted twice but they will be more than outweighed by those whose allegiance is only important when a rite of passage is suddenly required. It is a big drop from the 4,040 of 2001 but still a far greater total than the government statistic. The most recent numbers issued by the denomination in 2014 show numbers for adults and children (again excluding the numbers for the Republic) of 3,133 and 368 respectively, a total of 3,501. So numbers are actually going up. It is certainly my experience that some churches are growing. But what a curious statistical anomaly the Census provides.