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Normalizing denominational statistics with demographic data: the case of the United Church of Canada.

AT THE BEGINNING of the twenty-first century, the debate over the exact nature of religion and its transformation in the western world remains ongoing. Religious data at sociologists' disposal, both quantitative and qualitative, continue to be interpreted in various and often contradicting ways. Many American researchers, such as Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone, propose that plural markets characterized by a variety of religious organizations offering quality spiritual products keep religious indicators relatively high, even in modern times. In such markets, smaller and more conservative religious groups are seen to do better, offering rarer spiritual products in return for more involvement from the individual (Iannaccone 1988, 1994; Olson and Perl 2005; Stark and Finke 2000). Others, such as British sociologists Steve Bruce and David Voas, argue that the general trend is still one of religious decline in contemporary societies (Bruce 2002, 2011; Voas 2009; Voas and Crockett 2005). Others still find themselves somewhere in between supply-side and classical secularization theories, suggesting rather that various aspects of religion decline and transform at different rates; whereas institutional indicators of religion (e.g., church practice and membership) are on the decline, other more personal aspects of religion (e.g., beliefs, prayer, and importance assigned to Christian heritage) still remain relatively salient among the majority of individuals (Bowen 2004; Campiche 2010; Davie 1990, 2000; Hervieu-Leger 2003; Hout and Fisher 2002).

In the Canadian context, Reginald Bibby, one of the most prominent sociologists of religion in the country, predicted in his 2002 book Restless Gods that a certain religious revival was taking place due to churches better answering the spiritual wants and needs of Canadians (Bibby 2002, 2004). This prediction drew heavy criticism, most notably from scholars such as Kurt Bowen (2004), Joel Thiessen and Lorne Dawson (2008), as well as David Eagle (2011). They argue that data from sources such as the General Social Surveys and the Canadian Census show no signs of a religious revival, contrary to what Bibby observed with his Project Canada surveys dating back to the 1970s. Thiessen and Dawson (2008) contend that even these Project Canada surveys only show signs of a religious revival due to Bibby's selectivity of results. More recently, Bibby (2011) has continued to push the discussion further by proposing the existence of a polarization trend between the religious and nonreligious within Canada.

This debate over contemporary religious trends in Canadian society, measured mainly by quantitative data, has remained dependent on what little survey and census information there is on religion in the country. Although this type of statistic provides sociologists with an unrivaled and essential factual source, religious surveys and census data also have their limitations; the researcher is often restricted by limited sample sizes, making the analysis of smaller religious groups and narrower geographic regions near impossible; very few Canadian surveys focus on religion and thus have a restricted number of religious questions to derive trends from, questions that may also vary across the time span of the survey; many U.S. scholars have also found that certain religious variables are influenced by the phenomenon of social desirability, meaning that individuals may be inclined to claim a higher level of religiosity and religious activity than is actually the case (Chaves and Cavendish 1994; Hadaway and Marler 2005; Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves 1993; Marcum 1999).

Consequently, some researchers, most notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, have supplemented their analyses of survey responses with another statistical source: denominational data. Each year, many churches collect statistical information at the congregational or parish level, providing national and international data on aspects such as church membership/population, Sunday worship, number of congregations/parishes, practice of rites of passage, as well as financial revenues and expenses. Mark Chaves and James Cavendish (1994), Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler (2005), as well as John Marcum (1999) are some who have used church figures on Sunday worship to argue the existence of the previously mentioned social desirability phenomenon regarding church practice, showing that in many U.S. regions more individuals claim to go to church weekly than the actual number in the pews. In Britain, David Voas (2003) has used data on Anglican membership and baptisms to show the ongoing decline of the Church of England since the nineteenth century.

However, this alternative measure of religious transformation, from an institutional rather than an individual viewpoint, has remained for the most part unused in the field of sociology of religion in Canada, (1) despite many Canadian churches publishing such data annually. The goal of this research note is thus to explore some of the analyses and interpretations that are possible with such data, most notably when they are combined with demographic information collected by Statistics Canada. In order to do so, the evolution of certain indicators of the United Church of Canada, most notably membership, child baptisms, and funerals, from 1970 until 2007 in four Canadian regions will be analyzed in detail. A discussion will then follow on the theoretical implications of the findings, as well as the advantages and limits of such a methodology.


To analyze the evolution of membership, child baptisms, and funerals, statistics from the United Church of Canada, found in its annually published Yearbooks, were compiled. The 13 conferences of the United Church were divided into four Canadian regions following provincial borders as closely as possible: the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and Western regions. (2) Once divided as such, the church statistics were normalized with corresponding demographic data (population size, number of births, and number of deaths) in order to determine if the observed trends of church indicators were particular to the church or simply a reflection of more general demographic tendencies.

As with all quantitative and qualitative data in the social sciences, this data presented their own unique set of challenges. The four regions derived from the United Church conferences do not follow provincial borders perfectly but are close enough for it to have been possible to compare their statistics to provincial data. As well, since the data employed is a form of administrative statistic, certain interpretive limitations ensued. Exact individual behavior cannot be determined from such data, as a slew of other factors may also play a role in the tendencies observed. (3) Comparing church statistics to demographic data has allowed a certain isolation of these factors bur still does not permit the establishment of direct causal links.

Church statistics in general have also been thrown into question in recent writings (Fletcher 2008; Larmondin 2000). Certain types of data provided by the churches are less standardized than others; for example, with the United Church, different congregations process their statistics in different ways. Even among the most standardized, there are usually a number of congregations that do not succeed in forwarding their data to the conference in time for the annual publication of statistics. In such cases, the missing data may be taken from the previous year or simply omitted by the Church. It must then be replaced by the researcher, by using mobile means for example. This type of relatively constant error is characteristic of many types of administrative data. As a consequence of such limitations, only the most standardized indicators such as membership, child baptisms, funerals, and deceased members have been employed in the present analysis, omitting, for example, weekly attendance numbers compiled by the United Church, due to somewhat inconsistent counting methods among congregations. As with all data, a healthy dose of caution when interpreting the results is equally needed.

Despite these methodological challenges, the following results do provide a general picture of the evolution of United Church trends in Canadian society since the 1970s. As opposed to survey data, these trends are mapped not from an individual's point of view, but rather from that of the church, in this case the United Church of Canada.



Membership can be defined as the specific way Protestant churches keep track of their populations. In the case of the United Church, each congregation maintains a list of members: the additions to the list relate to professions of faith, or as individuals transfer from another congregation; the deletions relate to members who are recently deceased, members who transfer to another congregation, or a decision to remove some members due to inactivity. The way in which this last decision is made varies from congregation to congregation, a fact one must keep in mind when analyzing the larger tendencies of membership in a given region and over time.

Since the start of the period at study, membership numbers seem to be down in every Canadian region, with the Atlantic region being characterized by the lesser drop of 21.7 percent, compared to 69.6 percent in Quebec, 52.4 percent in Ontario, and 48.3 percent in the West (see Figure 1). As the results of Tables 1 and 2 show, not only has United Church membership declined in relation to the total populations of the regions, (4) it has also declined faster than the rate of individuals identifying with the United Church in the Canadian Census, (5) with the exception of Quebec.

This exceptional rise in the ratio of members to affiliates in Quebec may be related to the more general decline of the Anglophone population in the province since the 1970s, a population that made up 86.1 percent of United Church affiliates in Quebec in 2001 (Wilkins-Laflamme 2011). Joan Marshall (1995), in interviewing English-speaking Anglicans in the Diocese of Montreal, showed that those who were members of a parish were more likely to stay in the province during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, due to their stronger sense of attachment to a community. A similar phenomenon may equally be affecting the United Church's ratio of members to affiliates within the province.


Child Baptisms

Whereas both child baptisms and membership have seen a decline in numbers since the 1970s, the evolution of child baptisms in relation to membership (6) (see Figure 2) is relatively stable, following more generally the evolution of births in the wider population for the same period. The Atlantic provinces have seen a steady decline in births since 1970. Quebec and Ontario have seen peaks in the late 1980s and the West, in the early 1980s (Statistics Canada 2010a). Similarly, the rate of United Church child baptisms in relation to membership has declined in the Atlantic region since 1970, whereas it peaked in the mid-1980s in the West and in the early 1990s in Quebec and Ontario. In other words, the rate of practice of baptisms within the remaining United Church population seems to have stayed relatively constant since 1970.

However, when United Church child baptisms are put in relation to the number of births in the region (see Figure 2), (7) the rate of births baptized by the United Church is in decline in all four Canadian regions, especially outside the Atlantic provinces. These provinces saw a drop of 27.5 percent, whereas Quebec, (8) Ontario, and the West saw respective declines of 78.9, 68.2, and 78.8 percent between 1970 and 2007. (9)


What does this decline in the proportion of births baptized by the United Church signify? This phenomenon could be a consequence of the aging of the remaining United Church population, (10) fewer and fewer births coming from within the church's ranks. Related to the aging of the United Church population is the fact that the church has attracted proportionately fewer immigrants since the 1960s than other churches, such as the Catholic, Evangelical, or non-Christian churches (Beyer 2006; Bibby 2011). More generally, a pluralization of the population means that proportionately fewer Canadians who are having children possess links, either in person or through family history, to the United Church, seemingly bringing about a decline in the rate of births baptized by the church since the 1970s.

However, aging and pluralization may not account for all the decline. Taking Quebec as an example, the ratio of United Church child baptisms put in relation to births of children whose parents were both born in Canada has also seen a decline of 51.8 percent between 1980 and 2007. Decline has also affected the Atlantic region since the mid-1990s, a region known for its lower rates of immigration and pluralization. As well, with a rising rate of "no religion" across the four Canadian regions since 1971 even among some third-generation populations (Statistics Canada 2007), it would seem possible that disaffiliation may play a role in the decline of births being baptized by the United Church. It has equally been shown that the United Church has difficulty in retaining young families within its ranks (Bibby 2002, 2011). Most probably, the observed declines could be the reflection of all three phenomena: aging, pluralization, and disaffiliation. However, it is not possible with the present data to confirm the specific influence of each factor.

Therefore, in relation to the membership of the church, the rate of baptisms seems to have remained relatively constant--following more general demographic tendencies of births in the regions. However, when put in relation to societal statistics, the proportion of births baptized by the United Church has been in decline since the 1970s.


Figure 2 equally shows that tendencies observed with regard to baptisms in the United Church also seem to be present for funerals. Within membership, there seems to be a slight rise in the practice of funerals, (11) following most likely an aging population anda general rise in the number of deaths in Canadian society (Statistics Canada 2010a). However, when put in relation to those deaths, (12) once again there is a drop in the proportion of deaths resulting in funerals in the United Church since 1970. A drop that equals 22.7 percent in the Atlantic region, 76.3 percent in Quebec, 55.2 percent in Ontario, and 67.1 percent in the West between 1970 and 2007.

The factors of pluralization and disaffiliation could, as with baptisms, influence such a decline. However, aging of the United Church population would seem less at play, since it could be hypothesized that this phenomenon would bring a rise in funeral statistics rather than a decline, as observed with the ratio of funerals per membership.

Data collected by the United Church also allows for a comparison between the number of funerals and the number of members deceased in the same year (Table 3). (13)

Though it would seem that there were still high percentages of non-members practicing funerals within the church in 2007, that number was proportionately less than in 1970 in all four regions, indicating that funerals appear to be becoming more and more reserved for remaining members of the church. (14)

In summary, like baptisms, the practice of funerals seems to have remained relatively constant among the remaining membership of the church, following more generally a rise in deaths in the wider population. By contrast, the proportion of deaths resulting in funerals in the church is in decline across the country, once again considerably less in the Atlantic region. Data regarding deceased members also indicate that United Church funerals are becoming more and more a practice within the membership of the church, rather than by that of larger Canadian society.


The results seem to show then that within United Church membership, the practice of child baptisms and religious funerals has been fairly steady since 1970. However, when put in perspective with larger society, both membership and the practice of these two rites of passage have been on a downward trend for the same period, the Atlantic region not showing as pronounced declines as Quebec, Ontario, and the West.

Returning to the preexisting literature in the field of sociology of religion, these findings could be interpreted as supporting supply-side religious market theories of mainline church decline. United Church indicators have dropped substantively in Canadian regions characterized by seemingly more "open" religious markets, such as in Ontario and the West. The lesser declines in the Atlantic region could be explained, in accordance with this theory, by historical and contemporary conditions leading to a more monopolistic religious market, conditions such as a more European model of territorial churches (Grant 1998; Hayes 2004; Martin 2000) and lower rates of contemporary immigration and ethnic pluralism. (15)

However, there does seem to be one main fault with these current market theories in the Canadian context, indicated mainly by the religious affiliation data. According to religious market theory, even though there may be a decline with regard to mainline churches, individuals still have "religious needs" that must be met, hence the strength of conservative churches offering a "rarer" product. The level of overall religiosity is thus not supposed to drop, only the vitality of the mainline churches. One type of church's loss is to be another type's gain. Yet in the Canadian context, although conservative Christian groups have maintained their numbers since the 1970s (Beyer 2006; Bibby 2002), it has been the category of "no religion" that has seen the most dramatic rise in the last four decades. This rise thus poses a challenge to a fundamental assumption of supply-side market theory.

Bainbridge and Stark (1982) have tried to take into account this rise in "no religion" in the Canadian context, especially in the western provinces. According to the American sociologists, the decline in church affiliation is compensated by a rise in cult activity--activity seemingly not measurable by Census data. However, with nearly 100 separate categories of religious affiliation accounted for in the 2001 Census, including many groups defined as cults or sects, and still a continuing rise in the category of "no religion," Bainbridge's and Stark's conclusions may need to be revised in this matter.

In hand with this constant rise in the rates of individuals professing "no religion" in Canada since the 1970s, the decline of the United Church indicators could alternatively be interpreted as further evidence toward institutional religious decline, a trend proposed by such authors as Bowen (2004), Campiche (2010), and Hout and Fisher (2002). This phenomenon could be seen as simply taking longer to reach more peripheral areas of the country where ties between Church and culture take longer to break down (Martin 1978, 2000).

Very few of the results observed in the previous sections seem to support Bibby's theory of a religious renewal in Canada. If new signs of vitality have reached the churches, they have yet to be seen in the United Church's statistics. The tendency for the moment, at least in the case of the data observed for the United Church of Canada, is still one of decline. However, there were some signs of what Bibby (2011) at times calls religious polarization, at least with regard to institutional or church indicators. Although declining among the population in general, the practice of baptisms and funerals seems to have remained relatively constant for the Church's membership.

Nevertheless, the theoretical interpretations that can be drawn from the results of this research do have their limits, due mainly to the nature of the data. Although normalizing the denominational statistics with demographic data does help, it remains difficult to isolate factors that are responsible for causing the observed trends. In order to begin establishing direct causal links, the researcher would need more precise demographic data, merging, for example, various Statistics Canada databases, or a different methodology, such as in-depth interviews or questionnaires.

Despite these limits, denominational data do present some unique advantages. For example, Bibby has shown that the rate of individuals claiming they would still baptize, marry, and have funerals within church has remained relatively constant over the course of the Project Canada surveys (2002:89). It could be inferred from this that the practice of at least some religious rites of passage in the country has equally remained relatively constant. However, the results in the previous section show that, at least with regards to the United Church, there seem to be many more factors at play that are leading to a decline of child baptisms and funerals in larger society despite what individuals claim. With denominational data, the researcher is thus able to see if trends at the individual or micro level translate to the institutional or macro level.

Church statistics equally provide sociologists of religion with a larger variety of religious indicators than the standard affiliation and attendance variables found in many surveys. With numerous churches keeping statistics at the congregational or parish level, these data also offer a way to study numerically smaller churches and narrower geographic regions, something that is usually not possible with survey responses. Finally, denominational statistics, along with other existing quantitative and qualitative sources of religious data, can act as a starting point by setting the initial context for additional research, not only in the field of sociology of religion bur also for many works regarding historical and societal transformations in the modern era.

To summarize, denominational data do possess certain limitations for the researcher, restricting the sociologist's interpretation in unique ways. These boundaries may explain in large part why these data have been underutilized in the Canadian context. However, church statistics also have advantages that fill certain holes left by the limitations of other types of data. As such, they provide a useful tool to scholars who wish to undertake comprehensive studies of many social phenomena.


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University of Oxford

(1.) Exceptions can be found in Meunier et al. (2010) and Meunier and Wilkins-Laflamme (2011), who have used diocesan data dating back to the 1960s to track Catholic trends of both stability and decline in Quebec and Canada. Clark and Macdonald (2011) have also compiled diocesan data on the five main Protestant denominations in Canada and have analyzed descriptive trends since 1945 in the country.

(2.) The Atlantic region includes the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince-Edward-Island, Nova-Scotia and New-Brunswick, as well as the United Church Conferences of Newfoundland and Maritimes. The Quebec region includes the province of Quebec as well as all the United Church congregations found within the province's borders. The Ontario region includes the province of Ontario as well as the United Church Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, and Montreal-Ottawa (congregations in the province of Ontario only). The Western region includes the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British-Columbia, as well as the Northern Territories. It also includes the United Church Conferences of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta & Northwest, and British Columbia.

(3.) For example, a decline in the number of baptisms may be a result not only of an individual choice to not baptize a child, but also of a number of demographic factors, such as an aging population, a lower fertility rate, and a diversification of the population.

(4.) This ratio is calculated by dividing membership numbers by the population of the given region for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(5.) This ratio is calculated by dividing membership numbers by the number of individuals identifying with the United Church for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage). Religious affiliation has been asked in the long version of the Canadian decennial Census since the nineteenth century, until 2001.

(6.) This ratio is calculated by dividing the number of child baptisms by the number of members for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(7.) This ratio is calculated by dividing the number of child baptisms by the number of births for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(8.) Even when United Church child baptisms are put in relation with Anglophone births (mother speaks English in the home), the rate of decline still reached 69.8% in Quebec between 1977 and 2007.

(9.) With Statistics Canada's permission, one could estimate the proportion of newborns coming from households in which at least one of the older members identifies with the United Church for a given long-form Census year. This proportion could then be compared to the number of baptisms counted by the United Church, in order to form a better idea of the ratio of affiliates that could have their children baptized by the United Church and those who actually do have them baptized. This being said, this method is at the current time beyond the scope of the present research.

(10.) Even though an aging population is a phenomenon affecting the whole of Canada, Reginald Bibby (2011) has shown that the mainline Protestant churches are particularly hard hit.

(11.) This ratio is calculated by dividing the number of funerals by the number of members for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(12.) This ratio is calculated by dividing the number of funerals by the number of deaths for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(13.) This ratio is calculated by dividing the number of deceased members by the number of funerals for a given year, multiplied by 100 (percentage).

(14.) In order to compare denominational and Census data in the case of deceased United Church affiliates and members, one could follow the methodology of Wilkins et al. (2008). With the permission of Statistics Canada, these researchers merged the long-form Census data of 1971, 1981, 1991, and 2001 with the Canadian Mortality Database, the goal being to calculate a number of mortality hazard ratios. Since this data also contain information on religious affiliation, it would be possible to estimate the hazard of mortality for affiliates of the United Church with proportional hazard regression models, and compare such estimates with the number of United Church funerals for the same years. However, this method is beyond the scope of the present research.

(15.) In 2006, first-generation Canadians made up 28.3% of the population of Ontario and 27.5% of that of British-Columbia, compared to only 1.7% of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador and 3.7% of New-Brunswick's population. Whereas visible minorities formed 22.4% of Ontario's population in 2006, they only made up 2.2% of the Atlantic region's population for the same year (Statistics Canada, 2010c).

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, Department of Sociology, Nuffield College, University of Oxford, New Road, Oxford OX1 1NF, United Kingdom. E-mail:
Table 1
Ratio of Members/Total Population (in Percent), United Church
of Canada, Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and Western Regions, 1971
and 2007, with Proportional Variations (1971 as Reference Year)

             1971   2007
             (%)    (%)

Atlantic     6.5      4.5
             100    -30.8

Quebec       0.9      0.2
             100    -77.8

Ontario      6.6      2
             100    -69.7

West          5       1.5
             100    -70

Sources: United Church of Canada (1971-2008); Statistics
Canada (2010b).

Table 2
Ratio of Members/Affiliates (in Percent), United Church of
Canada, Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and Western Regions, 1971
and 2001, with Proportional Variations (1971 as Reference Year)

            1971   2001
            (%)    (%)

Atlantic    38.2    36.2
            100     -5.2

Quebec      30.4    49.9
            100    +64.1

Ontario     30.7    22.9
            100    -25.4

West        19.4    14.5
            100    -25.3

Sources: United Church of Canada (1971-2008); Statistics
Canada (2010c).

Table 3
United Church Deceased Members/Funerals (in Percent),
Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and Western Regions, 1970 and
2007, with Proportional Variations (1970 as Reference Year)

             1970   2007
             (%)     (%)

Atlantic     42.2    48.5
             100    +14.9
Quebec       36.5    49.7
             100    +36.2
Ontario       50     64.1
             100    +28.2
West          24     36.8
             100    +53.3

Source: United Church of Canada (1971-2008).
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Date:May 1, 2012
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