The Church of England is facing a catastrophic fall in the proportion of young adults who describe themselves as Anglican as data shows an acceleration towards a secular society.
For the first time, more than half the population say they have no religion, and the generation gap on religious affiliation is widening, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.
Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican – fewer than the 5% who identify as Catholic. Almost three out of four 18- to 24-year-olds say they have no religion, a rise of nine percentage points since 2015.
Among the next age group, 25-34, only 5% identify as Anglicans and 9% say they are Catholic. The presence in the UK of young European workers may be a factor in the relatively high proportion of young Catholics.
Among all adults in Britain, only 15% consider themselves to be Anglican, compared with almost one in three at the turn of the century, according to BSA data. Nine percent overall identify as Catholics, 17% as “other Christian” and 6% say they belong to non-Christian religions.
More generally, 53% of all adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.
While the fall in religious affiliation is being driven by the young, the proportion of people over 75 saying they have no religion is 27%. A much higher proportion, 40%, identify as C of E or Anglican.
Despite the rapidly shrinking proportion of the public identifying as Anglican, the C of E continues to enjoy a privileged status as the established church, with 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops.
Many within the C of E have warned that its resistance to same-sex marriage, and the difficulty of some churches in accepting LGBT Christians, have alienated almost an entire generation of young adults. Some young people also view the C of E as failing to embrace and represent the diversity of 21st-century Britain.
C of E leaders are aware of the risk of atrophy, with a warning last year that numbers attending church were expected to continue to decline for the next three decades. They have embarked on an evangelism and reform programme aimed at modernising the church and increasing by 50% the number of priests being trained to 600 recruits a year.
Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool, said the BSA figures “bring a continuing challenge to the churches, to speak clearly of our faith into a sceptical and plural world”.
He said: “In this modern world people are more willing to be honest and say they have ‘no religion’ rather than casually saying they are ‘C of E’. This honesty is welcome … But saying ‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism. People’s minds, and hearts, remain open.
Both God and the church remained relevant, he said. “We in the church, and all who love the church, need to keep finding ways to show and tell those who say they have ‘no religion’ that faith – faith in the God who loves them still – can make that life-transforming difference for them and for the world.”
Roger Harding, of the National Centre for Social Research which publishes the survey, said the latest figures followed “the long-term trend of more and more of us not being religious”.
He added: “The differences by age are stark and, with so many younger people not having a religion, it’s hard to see this change abating any time soon. The falls in those belonging to the Church of England are the most notable, but these figures should cause all religious leaders to pause for thought.”
Humanist UK said the figures raised fresh questions about the place of churches in running state schools and their other privileges.
“How can it be right that 97% of young people today are not Anglicans, but some 20% of the state schools to which their children will go belong to the C of E? More generally, how can the Church of England remain in any meaningful sense the national legally established church, when it caters for such a small portion of the population?” said Andrew Copson, Humanist UK’s chief executive.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “These statistics indicate that the time has come for this country to have a serious debate about the place of religion in our society.”
The BSA data called into question the existence of faith schools and reserved seats for bishops in the House of Lords, he added.