Easter congregations belie Norwich's reputation as 'the godless city'
PUBLISHED: 06:30 01 April 2013
Packed pews and a busy Easter period have belied Norwich's newly-bestowed reputation as the most godless city in the country, church leaders have said.
Recently released results from the 2011 census claimed that 42.5pc of the city’s residents said they had no religion, the highest proportion in England and Wales.
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, said the cathedral was “absolutely full” yesterday morning, with 2-2,500 people taking communion during Easter week, a similar number to last year.
Meanwhile, he pointed to the reception recently afforded the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on a visit to Norwich, as evidence against the survey results.
He said we live in a commitment-phobic society where it is easier tick ‘no’ than ‘yes’, and the census question did not allow people to express their place on a continuum of interest in religion.
He said: “If you look at the city, it probably has a younger population, and if you are younger you are more likely to tick ‘no religion’. If you go out to the suburbs and the rest of Norfolk the figures change radically.
“I think there’s a sense in which people here want to say ‘mind your own business’ more than in other parts of the country, and are not so keen on filling out these nosey-parker forms.”
That view was shared by Fr James Walsh, dean of St John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, who said Norwich residents “have always had a tradition of doing things differently”, and are private people, unhappy about responding to surveys.
He estimated attendance at yesterday’s service at 3,000, but said that while congregations have grown in recent years, the demographics have changed, with more people from the Philippines, Poland and India, and fewer people from England.
He said: “I think there’s a more widespread pattern that the number of people with a formal attachment to the church, particularly the established churches, has declined and there are all kinds of reasons for this.
“I think some people are disillusioned with the established churches, and they look to them for answers to questions and they don’t always get those answers.”
Rev Madeline Light said St Stephen’s in Rampant Horse Street had a congregation of 100 yesterday morning, the highest for at least a decade.
She said one reason was that it was a joint congregation for the church’s traditional and recently-introduced contemporary services.
She said: “It’s not a city that is godless. It’s no more godless than any other city, but if that’s what the statistics say, that’s what they say, but that does not mean the churches are dead. Far from it.
“There are living churches, within denominations and independent, full of passionate young people as well as full of old stalwarts. There’s a real passion for Christianity from young people who catch the flame.”
She pointed to the hundreds of church goers who serve in the city’s community, with her parishioners volunteering for lunch clubs, the YMCA, street pastors and the Magdalene Project to support prostitutes.
Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said: “My experience has been that Norwich’s church communities are thriving and contribute an enormous amount of life to the city. However, it’s also the case that Norwich has a long and proud non-conformist history and perhaps this is what is showing through it the census figures.”