What is happening to Church of England attendance?

At around this time each year, the Church of England statistics team release the data on what has been happening with attendance and services in the Church of England, based on the returns from churches from the previous year. This information is very useful, though also needs to be handled with care. On the one hand, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. And yet actual figures confront us with the reality that we are otherwise very happy to ignore; for the last two years, we have at Archbishops’ Council spent some time reflecting on these, but only because I asked for it to happen. And numbers matter, because numbers are people, and people matter.

So I have commented on the statistics here for the last couple of years. In 2018, when reviewing the 2017 figures, I noted a number interesting things. There was good evidence that the figures added up; there appeared to have been a marked change in 2012, though no-one has been able to explain that; proportionate to the wider population, we actually had the right number of children (though that assumes that children in church grow into adults of faith); looking at worshipping communities seemed to tell us something important; but the state of the C of E varied enormously from one place to another.

When I looked again last year, examining the figures from 2018, there was rather less to be encouraged about—though digital engagement was one bright spot. Children were still there—though it turns out that they are mostly concentrated in a small number of large churches. There are some signs of growth in some places—but the C of E is now a much smaller player, even amongst the Christian churches of the UK, despite its significant assets. And I ended with some challenges: will we remain committed to evangelism and church planting, will we be willing to learn from our mistakes, and can we learn from others who are being effective?

When I looked at this year’s statistics (from 2019), I did not immediately see anything new to comment on. But David Keen, who is vicar of St James’ and St Peter’s in Yeovil, has regularly done an analysis of the figures, and I reproduce his article from his blog with permission here. You will see that David is not very upbeat, and he reflects the feeling amongst many that we are very quickly reaching a point of no return in some important regards. He ends his piece with some serious challenges.

It is worth recognising that this is not the whole story. God is faithful; there are signs even within the C of E of new life, growth, and people coming to faith. And around the world, the church is growing and the grace of God is being proclaimed and received. Within the UK, there are other denominations who are full of life; in our city of Nottingham there are a good number of large churches, many of them engaging effectively with young people. Whatever these numbers signal, it is not the death of God—though it might be the death of the C of E structured in the way we have known it.

There was a graphic circulated on social media which summarised current attempts to think about what the necessary new structures might be, and it was widely derided as ‘doing church by PowerPoint slide’. I do not share that scepticism, not least because this was one slide taken out of a wider presentation, and a text without a context is a pretext for making things mean what you want them to. But change is coming, and it is up to us to decide whether we have a hand in deciding what that change looks like, or whether we have change forced on us by statistical and financial reality—if that is not already inevitable.

David Keen writes: The Church of England has published its latest ‘Statistics for Mission’ for 2019, links to the various documents—press release, Excel spreadsheets (did 16,000 members drop off the end?) etc. can be found here. You’ll find analysis of previous years stats here.

The more upbeat the press release, and the further you have to go before it mentions church membership and attendance, the worse you know it’s going to be. This year is no exception. After making a great deal of social action and digital engagement it’s paragraph 15 of 16 before we discover that attendance was down a further 2% from the previous year. Here are the figures for ‘Adult Weekly Attendance’ (average no of adults attending worship each week) for the last 5 years.

And here are figure over the same period for children:

Hereford has seen an increase from 1000 to 1300 during the 5 years the stats cover. Otherwise, the overall picture among under-18s is worse than it is among adults.I’ve been keeping track of these stats, inspired by Bob Jackson, as far back as they go. A few years ago, church growth enthusiasts like myself were encouraged to see London Diocese bucking the trend, and hoping that where the capital led, the country would follow. Sadly not; here’s the stats since the beginning of the century—as you can see above, London is now on the same trajectory as everyone else:

This is a catastrophic decline. The Church of England now is where the Methodists were a few years ago (305,000 members in 2003, 170,000 now), and the URC a few years before that. The figures for children, as always, are worse:

There is a generational feed through into other church activity—we are baptising 9% of children, marrying 17% of couples getting married, and taking the funerals of 25% of those who die. Each of these is down 30-40% over the last 10 years, and there is a clear progression through the generations.The report does find some good news—over 90,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2019, with a significant proportion being first-time church members

10% of parishes are reporting growth, but 4x the number report statistically significant decline. Overall growing churches are still a tiny minority, but some new churches have been planted—90 recorded in the stats, who have seen their membership more than double since 2016.Finally, I’m always interested in this chart, which gives a fascinating cross-section of what the ‘average’ church looks like:

Translation: the top 5% of churches have an average weekly congregation of 185 or more, of which 1/6 are children. A church exactly in the middle of the 16000 Anglican churches in terms of size has 31, of which 6%, that is, 2, are children. The largest churches have a larger ‘fringe’ of non-members, sustainable numbers of children and youth, and enough people to comfortably fill the building. The one upside of social distancing is that the smaller churches can still meet as a whole congregation, since there’s plenty of room in the average church for 20 people to sit on their own at the same time.By accident rather than design, the Church of England has ended up with a Tesco structure. Tesco has a small number of ‘Tesco Extra’ megastores (Cathedrals), about 15% of its outlets are ‘Tesco Superstore’ (large church, kids and youth work, several outreach projects, sizeable fringe), there’s a few ‘Tesco Metro’ stores which are scaled down versions of the superstores (75th percentile churches), but 3/4 are either Tesco Express or One Stop, small corner shop versions, providing local access to a core selection of produce. The management, logistics and life of a megastore is very different to that of Tesco Express, though they all carry the same branding, and some shared products.

Here’s the thing. Half of our churches, 8000 of them, have 26 adults or fewer on a Sunday. If you had 26 people to form a Christian presence in a community, you wouldn’t start from here. You wouldn’t have a listed building which costs thousands to heat and insure. You wouldn’t have the protocols for running the church written into law. You wouldn’t have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there’s barely anyone there who isn’t there because they’re on a rota. You wouldn’t open an Anglican Extra, you’d have an Anglican Express. In fact, you probably wouldn’t open a building at all.

Covid will make the figures for 2020 such a mess that there probably isn’t any point collecting them, and 2021 may not be much better. As many have observed, it is accelerating changes that were already happening. Businesses on the edge are shutting down. Trends towards online shopping have increased. What does that mean for the church? There is nothing in the stats to suggest that we are about to turn a corner. Or if we are, it’s turning in the opposite direction to the one we want. There are islands – many islands (1600 according to the stats) of growth, many others holding their own, and making a life-changing contribution to local individuals and communities.

But, but…… the parish system hasn’t changed since it was introduced towards the end of the Dark Ages. The overall structure of the CofE hasn’t changed for a century. The buildings we operate on haven’t changed for (insert your own figure here). The structure of deployment, church life, legal framework seems set in concrete. Witness the absurd debate about communion since lockdown. Don’t get me started.

Maybe the Bishops should have shut us down for longer at the start of covid. Because we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Any church that doesn’t have a life without it’s building, or its Sunday gathering, has been so shaped by them that it has ceased to be a church. Instead of hanging on until we could re-open, maybe 12 months of ‘being church’ without ‘the church’ would have done us some good, if we’d allowed it to shape us. For many of our folk it was a break: suddenly the small army of people involved on a Sunday morning could forget the rota, roll out of bed, make a coffee and switch on Youtube. Sure it’s great to involve people, but we pour so many resources into worship, and the building and professional caste that make it happen, that there’s precious little energy, time and money left for anything else.

The church in its present form will have to die. It is dying. It’s slow and drawn out because we don’t have the nerve, or the structures, to make clear and painful decisions. Political debate today is dominated by whether we need a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown. I’d argue the CofE needs the same. Shut everything. Pray and seek God. Stop wasting energy, lives and talent on a structure and system which, in most places, no longer works.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

78 thoughts on “What is happening to Church of England attendance?”

  1. David says ” Covid will make the figures for 2020 such a mess that there probably isn’t any point collecting them” but I understand that weekly virtual attendance is up on previous weekly actual attendance. The question is whether there is a lesson to be learned from that.

      • Is that a fair use of scripture?

        1. Wasn’t it the miracles that gave cause for fear? I’m not sure that fits with an average church experience. They might just embarrassed at some of what goes on… or not ready to go further yet.

        2. It’s not the first encounter I’ve had with an allied understanding that people who are “not in church” are afraid. “Online is unacceptable for a real member”… Some may exist but others (the majority in my local experience) are taking a different view of their personal risk and/or their risk to others amongst their family or friends. In this Tier 3 area I see people taking risks that are heavily advised against. Pressuring people to “be here” (with explicit language or poor communication) because they need to “overcome fear” is unhelpful and simplistic. Employing other dubious use of texts around not having fear because of God is pastorally damaging.

        3. I’m very happy that there is still a fringe online beyond Christians who are present in person. It’s a pool to fish…. such things can dry up very rapidly in the current pandemic.

  2. Another thing to consider, to include in our planning, is our energy levels … however much I plan to do, do I have the energy it needs to make it happen? Covid has drained us.

  3. Yes the virtual attendance figures are useful, but what covid has really highlighted is the need to have a detailed list of who are the members of our worshipping community. These are the people we should be looking out for in the sense of understanding whether they have some sort of access to our physical or virtual services. In our October counts this year we are inviting our virtual attendees to let us know so we can work out who we are missing.

    We are currently getting around 45 each Sunday physically – about half our AWA, but the other half join us virtually (live). How we do Christmas 2020 will be our biggest test as to how we can change in response to Covid. We normally get about 1000 attending – how can we do something meaningful when our building can only safely hold 50?

    The Tesco metaphor is interesting. Should we be looking at different parish governance structures for each type? However if you have a building you need a certain minimum number of volunteers to manage it?

    • “Yes the virtual attendance figures are useful, but what covid has really highlighted is the need to have a detailed list of who are the members of our worshipping community. ”


      My church, and many (most?) c-of-e churches, have a very wide and fluid “membership”. Certainly compared with the Baptists’ tighter, more defined membership. Knowing who my flock are is and reaching them is hard. (12 years in a large parish with only two other congregations / buildings means that thousands of people, rightly, consider me “their” vicar and the building as “their” church). That model doesn’t work online, or not so well.

  4. I’ve said for a very long time that the very best thing that could possibly happen to the church is for it to die. Institutionally at least.

    Lord, save us from survivalism!

  5. Firstly, I’m not convinced by this sentence: “You wouldn’t have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there’s barely anyone there who isn’t there because they’re on a rota.”

    I am not aware of anything that requires all these roles on Sunday. You could just have a simple service, with one person to lead and preach (normally the vicar) and at most one person to play an instrument (doesn’t have to be organ, could be piano or guitar). I’ve had plenty of meaningful acts of worship in that type of setting, with small numbers.

    However, the one thing I would to see is better comparisons with other denominations. The methodists and URC are mentioned, and their numbers are similarly saddening, what about baptists, FIEC, pentecostals, etc. Anecdotal evidence is that these are not in decline. And what about those parts of the CofE where there is growth – it’s often said that this is the evangelical wing – let’s see some figures.

    And let me ask a slightly challenging question, which might be answered by more detailed statistics: is there any link between churchmanship and attendance ? Evangelicals like to claim the theological high ground over liberals and anglo-catholics – does this translate into numbers ?

  6. Isn’t the C of E becoming an irrelevance?

    I thought the churches that were growing, tended to be the ones where people actually believed the Bible? So this includes growing C of E churches too? Am I mistaken?

    • Then you seem to be mislead by a few very loud people. Of course there are differences about how to understand it and apply it, but very few do not believe it.

      • Actually that’s not true. I had a conversation online this week with a vicar in London, who is quite clear that some of the things that Jesus says in the gospels are ‘abusive’ and wrong, and that he feels no compunction at all about saying that in public.

        That is not ‘believing the Bible’, and this person is not alone.

        • We’ve seen a journey over 50 years from “those things we don’t like are not reliably in the gospels” to “those things may be in the gospels but should be treated in some non-literal fashion, or can be safely ignored” to “those things actually are in the gospels and the gospels are abusive”

          One suspects that is what non-believing clergy thought all along but didn’t have the conditions that made it OK to say it without risk of losing their stipend

  7. This makes depressing reading for those in the C of E. However, there are exceptions to the trend. There seems to be little analysis of those individual churches that are thriving and growing in numbers. What is it about these churches that bucks the trend? Clearly they are doing something right. Surely that’s worth a more detailed look.

    I thought cathedral attendance was increasing. Is this reflected in the figures?

  8. I think there is a rather important comment from Michael Lakey on Facebook, which I repost here with permission:

    This is a 10lb brain problem trying to be solved by folk with 2lb brains–and because we can’t even properly agree on what the cause is, what the goals might be, and what theological resources we might marshall in order to put on a decent stab at getting there, it’s difficult to see how we might stabilise things.

    What I mean is this: is the problem intrinsic to the CoE, or extrinsic? Is this just the terminal phase of Kulturchristentum as a mediating social reality in the UK, such that nobody wants what we offer, and when we plead “oh, but we can change on x, or Y, or Z” they don’t come back anyway; is it a failure in duty, such that Anglican Christians have not passed on their faith to their offspring; is it a structural or organisational problem related to a hubristic overcommitment to the obligations that attend Establishment; is it a supply-side problem (too few Christians to run the ship); or is it some combination of all of these and more? Problem is, we can’t agree on the problem, so much so that for someone to name the presenting issue (numerical decline) that arises from whatever the underlying problem might be all-too-frequently results in responses that take the *actual truth* that numerical growth isn’t a be all and end all, and use it to resolve the cognitive dissonance that comes from watching a Church slowly die.

    Perhaps a better way forward might be to ask the question what constitutes an honourable or good death for a Church? I don’t say this because I think institutional death is inevitable, but because it focusses the mind to ask for what things do we want God to remember us? If we asked that question well then we might perhaps have a better handle on what our underlying malaise might be, and knowing that we might be able to discern what might be done by way of response. My own view is that it would not be a dishonourable death for a Church to be found by its master to be doing all of the things it is supposed to be doing, but to die anyway. That people might not be persuaded of the Gospel does not invalidate faithful preaching. That people might prefer other forms of life than we offer does not invalidate our own trusting and obeying. etc. etc.

    But, of course, all this does is to draw attention to the fact that there is almost no consensus amongst Anglicans about what constitutes the Gospel or the Christian form of life. We can’t even agree about what it is that is dying!

    • “But, of course, all this does is to draw attention to the fact that there is almost no consensus amongst Anglicans about what constitutes the Gospel or the Christian form of life. We can’t even agree about what it is that is dying!”

      True. If all the ordained Ministers believed, taught and preached the terrible truth that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and the wonderful truth that God sincerely invites all to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life giving resurrection; to submit in repentance, faith, love and obedience, I wonder what would happen

      Phil Almond

      • We all might wonder…

        But…. “That people might not be persuaded of the Gospel does not invalidate faithful preaching.”

        Don’t we tend to forget the faith heroes of Hebrews? “…. Sawn in two…. wandered.. the world was not worthy of them…” and, maybe the Parable of the Sower /Soils.

    • There is no consensus on the gospel partly because some are untaught or ignorant in this matter
      -in which case (as ever) we go with the informed not the untaught – no problem there.

      Although there is no consensus on that – partly for the trivial reason above which need not detain us – there is consensus on what things produce church growth. There can scarcely fail to be. So that gets us some distance.

      The next question is whether said growth is desirable or whether it has longterm bad effects (like the prosperity message or like the work of some demagogues). This can be seen with hindsight, and patterns discerned.

      The work of Paul and/or of Wesley is good enough as a model and it is difficult to see why anyone could wish to go in a different direction from theirs, given that the chances of even going so far as emulating them are very small. What their message was (together with the fire that drove them and the open-air nature of their ministry, because that is where the people are) we already know. If you can’t beat them (and who can?) join them. Few even consider their basic message to be other than positive and powerful. So it is unnecessary to spend time debating that – just follow the role models.

      • I think the problem is much deeper than that, actually. Many people who are perfectly well taught just don’t believe what the C of E states as its doctrine in its formularies.

        • Ian

          Your Ian Paul October 23, 2020 at 8:58 am comment makes the bee in my bonnet buzz again: isn’t it about time that those who do believe (and teach/preach) “what the C of E states as its doctrine in its formularies” challenge the rest of the church (perhaps by an open letter) whether they believe (and teach/preach) those doctrines. Of course there will be counter challenges about what those doctrines are: e.g. even from you about the atonement doctrine of penal substitution and Christ satisfying the wrath of God.

          Phil Almond

          • Michael Lakey and Dr Shell

            I have tried to persuade leading conservative evangelicals (e.g. Lee Gatiss, Gafcon) to write an open letter to challenge all ordained Ministers about their commitment to the doctrine stated in the Anglican formularies (bearing in mind Canons A5 and C15), but there does not seem to be any appetite to do so. Have you any suggestions for persuading them?

            Phil Almond

          • When people see and experience the real thing, the culturally-conformist apostasy becomes something of an irrelevance, and it can end up eating itself anyway (or being widowed in the next age). That’s why I would rather focus on the positive than emphasising the negative, which may not even be there by the time we finish criticising it. The preaching and living of the gospel in its multiple dimensions (as in the Jerusalem and Antioch churches) is something to aim for, and many churches have not got that far yet – but those that do are liable to grow.

            Managed decline is fatal and (worse) illogical. (1) If anyone claims to predict the future, they are not telling the truth, so can be disregarded. (2) History never goes in straight lines. (3) Certain key conditions can be more or less guaranteed to bring growth. (4) Growth is not something optional if 90% are unchurched, more when it comes to children and young people. (5) Managed decline like anything else can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (6) Managed decline flouts the truth in ignoring the revivals and flourishing of the last 2000 years, not least of the 20th century, sometimes called the Christian century, in which all of us were alive and in which Christians grew to become a third of the world and a much more populous world at that. (7) If you have only one life on earth, is managed decline your vision for it?

          • Not to mention that the initial generation of Christians (who ‘turned the world upside down’ and were viewed as a rival by the emperor) had none of our travel and communications advantages, and more than our degree of counter-culture and persecution. So they (and the whole pre-Constantinian church, with its marvellous track record) could have said – It’s impossible. Look at how new we are. Look at how few we are. Look at how poor we are. Look at our lack of status. Look at how distant from prevailing culture we are. Look how many of us are being killed. It’s managed decline for us from here on.

  9. I always enjoy David Keen’s analysis and thank him for his work here. I would take issue with this, though: “Maybe the Bishops should have shut us down for longer at the start of covid. ”

    It was the government, through legislation, who locked us out. The Bishops went above and beyond that (thus revealing their default position or deepest desire to be overreach; t was also unlawful i.e. ultra vires). Maybe the *government* should have shut us down for longer but please don’t acquiesce to the Bishops’ aggregation of powers beyond their legal limits. Incumbents have rights and responsibilities; the Bishops expect their clergy to discharge the latter and the clergy expect the Bishops to respect the former.

    Anyway, to my point: for several years now I have refused to return my annual statistics.

    And it’s not because I’m hiding decline. Mind you, nor are we growing. We are (more or less) holding steady in terms of Sundays and have been for several years. Now, stasis isn’t growth and the itself parish has grown (new housing). Where we *have* grown is in things like Messy Church, but that’s once a month and very “lite” (e.g. no communion, no in-depth Bible preaching).

    I would certainly commend an approach of non-cooperation with the number crunchers. I know what my figures are (and crucially WHO they are). The Diocese is welcome to come and have a look in my service register and do the maths but I’m not going to collude with this project.

    Why? Because all you can do is your best. Numbers (up and/or down) are just one more source of pressure. Resist it. Pray and work and leave the rest to God. You can read Numbers (and Exodus) but faithfulness to the gospel and the church is all I can offer and all I am called and commended to offer.

    For the rest, I agree with David: the whole model and structure of the C-of-E is worse than useless. Instead of closing / disposing of buildings and merging parishes we just lumber clergy with more of both. That makes your average rural vicar only really able to manage (at best) rather than lead and love. Six separate buildings (all listed, natch), six PCCs, six sets of accounts, six lots of Christmas services etc etc make growth impossible. But anything is, it seem, even more impossible. Just getting rid of a parish church is a nightmare: often it’s an otherwise useless medieval building and odd legalities (glebe, tithes and endowments; plaques, monuments and human remains; registers, records and archives). Much easier to dump another one on some poor cleric to keep it on the books and functioning, or at least covered. Result: no real change, more overworked clergy on the way to burnout or at least serious disillusionment.

    But never mind parishes. I’d scrap Dioceses. A single national HQ in, say, Coventry would give huge economies of scale and give much greater consistency in policies and procedures. Pooling the 40 DBFs’ funds would also “nationalise” the wealth, as was done with parishes when their historic assets were sequestrated by those very DBFs decades ago.

    • Oliver I have a lot of sympathy with this—except for one crucial thing. ‘All you can do is your best’. That is actually not true in the sense you claim.

      We might all try and do our best (though in fact whilst many of us, clergy, are workaholic, many are also lazy). But even those who try and do their best can do so out of delusion about what is really happening, what really is effective, and what ‘best’ looks like.

      I share your reticence about measuring everything—but the numbers are the only way I know of for shattering the illusions that many hide behind.

      • I was struck by this; “But even those who try and do their best can do so out of delusion about what is really happening, what really is effective, and what ‘best’ looks like.”.

        It resonated with a phrase I heard on Radio 4. “Optimistic bias” (or possibly “prejudice”. I was a tad sleepy at the time!).

        I think it happens when “what I’m aiming for” becomes partially detached from what’s around. One can’t steer a shop based exclusively on a map in seas cluttered with flotsam and jetsam.

      • Ian: good point. My (idea of) “best” might not be what is wanted or needed.

        And what are “the illusions that many hide behind”? I’m not sure many are hiding behind illusions (delusions?), at least not at parish level. They might despair or try hard harder or give up but, hiding behind illusions? No.

  10. Much like Oliver, I think a focus on numbers risks invoking the kind of response David got when he got fixated on the issues in 1 Chr 21. Not that I believe we’d ever find ourselves at the mercy of some kind of OT plague with the medical skills we’ve got nowadays…


    Anyway, I attend a C of E church because it’s five mins walk from my house. I believe in local church. My wife and I lead worship there (or on Zoom) so I’m not just warming a pew.

    What I very much don’t believe in is the organisation known as the C of E. It can die and we can make a big bonfire of all the vestments as far as I’m concerned. Each year I get badgered to be on the Electoral Roll. No one has so far given me any good reason why I should be on it (maybe some of you can), but if it doing so will make some stats geeks happy that seems like a good reason to continue to avoid it. An even better reason to avoid it is if those stats geeks think that the extra digit I provide says anything at all about the state of the church.

    What I am concerned with is the quality of the discipleship in the people who go. I’d rather go to a church with five Spirit-filled people who love God with all their hearts, than five hundred who are only passionate when there’s a guitar solo from the front.

    I can understand why many of you who signed up to a life’s subscription with the C of E would beat your brow about all this. However, I think there’s a very real possibility that it’s quite a long way from what God would have us beat our brow about.

  11. Given the state of the CofE here in the UK this is probably positive news.
    The Lord is purging the Church and perhaps Joe public can see the hypocrisy in those who claim to have the truth being so fearful of dying from Covid.
    1Chronicles 7:14

  12. I would love to be able to think that numbers are unimportant. Quality of discipleship is very important, but without people there is no church. Declining numbers affect income and the ability to pay clergy. We can discuss what numbers are important, but in the end size does matter.

    Oliver – I fail to see where refusing to submit numbers helps anyone.

  13. Not really surprising. The UK and Ireland have become much more secular in the last 3 decades, with many churches now accepting gay marriage etc, even it seems the Pope. It will not be long before the majority accept such societal norms, with those refusing to do so being ostracised and any public or indeed private funding withdrawn.

    But in the end, why would you bother going to a church if you havent had a real conversion? I wonder if many clergy are just concerned with numbers per se, because they think having a large congregation = successful church, rather than actual believers?


  14. It could be said that figures on weekly attendance at church correspond to figures for sales in a business. I’m sure few of us would suggest it’s an exact comparison but it’s interesting that the Archbishop’s Council only agreed to reflect on these figures at Ian’s request. They would automatically be top or near top of the agenda for a business! Despite talk (and complaints) about the increasing managerialism of the church’s hierarchy, it’s difficult to spot much realism and genuine effort at cutting out the kind of nonsense which continues to drag the church down. There may indeed be lip service to this but practical change seems to be driven far more by financial necessity (eg fewer salaried incumbents for ever larger clusters of parishes) than returning to the rather straightforward essentials of gospel centred ministry. The vision still seems far more to be about shoring up the institutional edifice until the date of one’s own retirement, whereupon the next guy can be responsible for the final demolition. The coming LLF publication is the kind of insane attempt at drumming up non existent customers that you’d expect from a failing business shortly before the receivers are called in.

    David Keen’s figures leave no doubt as to the broad trends, and he’s right to say that 2020’s figures will be meaningless. The national reaction to the viral epidemic we are experiencing means that now cannot be the right time for predicting future trends and invoking radical new policies: we could be looking back on this in a year’s time and wondering what all the fuss was about or, conversely, we could be in an economic meltdown with the CofE effectively bust.

    On the other hand there are cardinal principles which should guide us no matter what the situation. With regard to Christian churches mine would be ‘keep it simple’. The whole of Biblical narrative is complete; Christ’s work of redemption is done; the gospel has been written and it’s freely available; we are living in the last days – in human time it might be hours or millennia but that is the Christian era in which we live. So surely our purpose as a church is a simple threefold task: a) to know, understand and believe the gospel; b) to live it out; c) to proclaim it. I think that’s a simple and logical guide for any Christian church of whatever denomination.

    Unfortunately ‘keeping it simple’ and ‘the Church of England’ don’t sit well together in the same sentence. We are tied historically, legally, geographically, institutionally, politically to the secular state. Are those shackles strangling us to death? I think they probably are. However, I also think disentangling us from all those institutional ties is now so vast an endeavour that doing so would divert us into extinction! We’re just too weak to do it at present. On the other hand if every single one of the church’s bishops and clergy acted according those 3 simple principles which focus on the gospel, we might still turn the church from a moribund state institution into a radical lively force for God right across the nation. That vision need not and should not exclude pruning out as much as possible of those activities which get in the way of our gospel focus.

    But divesting ourselves of our buildings does not figure in what I mean by pruning. Christians need to meet physically together for praise and prayer, teaching and fellowship. We need places dedicated to the worship of Almighty God where Christians and the wider community can mark important life events in a way that directly acknowledges him without lengthy explanation. Physical witnesses to Him as a natural part of urban and village geography should be seen as an asset for evangelism rather than a hindrance. How they are used and managed is a separate issue – one which rather obviously displays the bureaucratic inertia of a church which should long ago have worked out how stop these essential assets being a burden on the clergy.

  15. This article, and discussion, looks at the hierarchy, and attendance, and is of considerable interest.
    What we do not as Churches, perhaps ever really acknowledge, is the level of faith.
    Commitment, yes, long term attendance in older generations; but much of the attraction for Millenials is reported as being the activities which draw them together.
    Listening to discussions over many years, it’s clear that (despite initiatives, courses, and inspiring local clergy) for many people their faith-understanding wasn’t developed after Primary School.
    Home Groups studying the Bible yet not able to make connections with the present day… Mission groups rejecting any idea of having a conversation with their neighbours… Stewardship focussed on financial giving, rather than on a spiritual connection with the church.
    Primary Schools are the foundation, but there is almost nothing in Secondary Schooling to enlarge understanding. For that reason, as much as any other, there is a real resistance to sharing faith.
    If the CofE in its present assembly doesn’t inspire, has the urgency been lost for its members to treasure and pass on something of great value?

  16. Hi Ian,

    A really important article. Thank you. Interestingly (and I know I’m a biased youth pastor’s spouse!) Helen has seen her work grow because of: a) COVID-19 b) an enlightened diocese/benefice c) presence d) persistence (not in order and God should probably be in here somewhere). It’s small steps but for a rural Hampshire Benefice to go in 3 years from nothing to a thriving community of youngsters shows that the Church has a way forward. In our ‘old’ money it was the model of having families in churches, bringing the children through in Sunday School and then involving them in wider church life. It’s how I became a priest… (notwithstanding Adrian and Jill!) If you had to push me I’d say God, presence and persistence were most important…does that mean there’s still hope?

  17. The figures are obviously distressing, not only for Anglicans but for other Christians who see the presence of a strong and faithful Anglican Church as good for Christian mission.
    I’m not sure, however, that adequate attention is being paid to a point Ian has raised previously: patterns of churchgoing are very rarely weekly, particularly among the young.
    I pastor a small Baptist church in Surrey (evangelical and charismatic, for what it’s worth). In the last 5 years the total number of people who regularly attend our church has doubled from about 30 adults and 20 kids to about 60 adults and 40 kids (pre-Lockdown figures). However, on any given Sunday the number of adults present has shown only a small rise. The main reason for this is that younger Christians (particularly those with kids) do not come weekly. We could debate the reasons for this but for the present, it is enough to note the trend.
    Average Weekly Attendance would therefore show a church that was largely static. Adding up the total number of people who attend every month, however, would show a large rise.
    My point is this: the figures may be bad but they may not be quite as bad as you think. Particularly for church traditions that disproportionately attract people in their 20s – 50s, the total number of people attending church on a monthly basis may well be a better reflection of the size of the church than the weekly figures. This is further reinforced if involvement in other church activities is considered.
    Of course, this may all be inapplicable in an Anglican context, in which case: please ignore!

    • Thanks Phil. I entirely agree with you, and I am surprised that the drop in frequency because of more fluid patterns of living (at every level) is not noted.

      The question though is whether this has an impact on discipleship…

        • Not only but also.
          Are not Sunday gatherings together, to pray, praise, worship, hear the word, commit to creed, signs of priority and commitment in a believer’s life; in short, a significant part,but not the whol of discipleship, a unity in Christ, in the Spirit? Sometimes with the palpable presence of God.
          Does that happen in small groups? Yes.
          Does it happen online ….?
          In addition meeting on a Sunday is also a sign for good or ill to people who live in the neighborhood of the church building.

      • It is obviously not ideal from the perspective of discipleship. I think, however, that it is largely unavoidable given the conditions of, among other things, the British labour market which moves jobs around without regard for historic family ties (although this may be a more noticeable problem around London).
        There are other things that can be done to mitigate the damage, however. In case it’s helpful, here are some things we’ve tried (some more successful than others):
        – Encouraging people to commit to regularity even if they can’t be there every week.
        – Life Groups. This is huge. We structure them by reference to the teaching program of the church and proactively encourage people to be engaged in them. Moreover, we pursue an integrated model of discipleship that focuses on Scripture, accountability and prayer within the groups. By linking them to the weekly teaching program the small groups are able to stay as part of the wider church family rather than becoming disconnected.
        – Regular Alpha. Alpha runs every year and becomes a new small group.
        – Daily devotionals. These take the forms of a couple of prayers and a reading with a reflection and some application questions. The readings follow the week’s service, again providing continuity and helping with application. We’re a small church so we don’t have an app. There are 60 people in the daily readings WhatsApp group.
        – Using WhatsApp to connect people for regular sharing of prayer etc through the week in groups. To be honest, the biggest factor, I think, is the leadership of the church having a clear view of the aim of Christian discipleship and how it can be achieved. We were really haphazard until we committed to a form of Wesleyan model prioritising small groups and holiness.
        As I say, some elements of this are more productive than others. As a whole, however, I think it works reasonably well in discipling people.
        I have a paper about this in relation to Wesley’s model in next year’s Ecclesiology journal that looks at the underlying theological issues and how to translate them into wider church culture.

        • Thanks Phil, That’s helpful and encouraging.
          Before Wesley, was there not Count Zinzendorf’s Moravian model?
          “I have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.,’
          There is an astonishing prayer of his, that was answered by God in lasting revival. The prayer was read out at a lecture by a church historian prof from Scotland, I attended.
          Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find it on the internet.

  18. Factor in a baseline population growth of 0.5% and we’ve actually declined by approx 2.5% (adjusted for inflation.) Which is 20% worse than 2%.

  19. Ian this time last year you were claiming that in your diocese, Southwell and Nottingham, “overall decline has been halted;”. Two people picked you up on it then, but you didn’t respond. The figures didn’t back your claim up and don’t now.
    It would be great if it were true. Please could you elucidate?

  20. I think all of these comments are enlightening. I am the spouse of an anglican clergy person looking after 3 churches. All 3 buildings are several hundred to over 1000 years old. An awful lot of peoples time is tied up with maintaining an antique however beautiful.

    Despite the majority of people in the churches being lifelong communicant members of the CoE there is probably less knowledge of the Bible, its stories and teachings than among any other church I have attended in the last 40 years. What were the previous vicars doing?

  21. Maybe, just maybe, the point Ian made about there being choice of vibrant ( my word) Evangelical choice of churches in Nottingham, is a factor to be taken into account.
    Andrew, I’d suggest your comment is indicative of what is part of the problem in the CoE : it is too inward looking, self absorbed and there are no viable alternatives.
    It would be interesting to have surveys on the general public perception, nationally and at a local community level of the CoE and of each local church.
    That is, if they do not exist.

  22. That thought stimulates another: in those far off days, 15 or so years ago, in patient hospital forms had a tick box category for Religion. Church of England and Catholic were the presumed dominant persuasions.
    I can distinctly recall writing, Christian, as I fell into neither.
    It seems that the CoE remains living in those days, nationally, resting on its laurels, it’s assumed relevance and influence well dressed for public occasion, it scrubs up well. Jesus may have had some well chosen words.
    Good in parts, a curated egg, like hearing cats, may be some contemporary phrases.
    While I’m protestant, I do sense that Protestantism has drifted far far away from the idea of Magisterium. The creeds, I suppose, are a remnant as are the 39 Articles, as there has been a lemming race away from catechisms. I think J. I. Packer sought to promote a new catechism – fresh expressions.
    Today, why would anyone who is unchurched, ever want to step over the threshold of a church building? For social reasons, food Bank in the building, fun and games?
    Anything else?
    Many are happy to partake of vibrant kids clubs, but run a mile when invited to come in, to come and see.
    The 1990’s saw a push, even in a CoE church I was part of, for house church methodology. I don’t know how that has panned out today. Growth in discipleship or splits and fragmentation, or a withering away of scheme.
    The adage, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here might be a starting point: even with a blank slate, blue sky thinking, where would we start? And how?
    And more important, why would we even bother?
    The existential question of eternity is essential, placed in the light of eternity: Christ is unmovably central.
    Probably to misquote C S Lewis, aim for heaven and you get the earth thrown in; aim for the earth and you get neither.

  23. There seems to be a death-wish within the C of E, certainly around where I live.

    The Anglican church in my (largish) village used to have a thriving congregation, but today, it is in a ‘Mission Community’ with six or seven other churches. Spurgeon himself would have struggled to pastor eight churches, but rather than put in a young, dynamic evangelical of the type that is supposed to be coming out of Oak Hill in large numbers, the last four of the last five vicars have been old sick men who wouldn’t know the Gospel if it jumped out and bit them on the leg. They have stayed a year or so and then retired. The other person differed only in the fact that she was younger. The result is that most of the churches in the ‘mission community’ are entirely unviable, and even the biggest one has only a remnant turning up each week. Most of the believers are either at free churches or drive each Sunday to the big evangelical church in the nearby city.

    For many years now I have been a member of an FIEC church. One of the blessings of the FIEC is that, to remain in fellowship, the leaders of each church have declare EVERY YEAR that they are in agreement with the Basis of Faith https://fiec.org.uk/who-we-are/beliefs How many Anglican ministers would be able to sign up to the XXXIX Articles with a straight face? But if the man (OK, person) at the front doesn’t believe what he’s supposed to teach, why on earth should those in the pews? And what possible point is there in attending?

  24. Dear all,
    Anonymously I offer the following( as a longstanding member of the laity, and a woman).
    I attended my parish church Sunday last, for the first time since February, out of duty not devotion. ( but thank you to the long suffering clergy who are doing their best).
    A good video screen dominated the main aisle ( of a very historic Church in Oxford).
    MISSION IMPOSSIBLE began on the screen,with the appropriate theme music filling the church, to the horror of the grotesque stone figures staring at us.
    A figure in a black mask, hat pulled over his face, was filmed walking around the parish, stealthily, with curious unknown purpose.
    He reached the Churchyard, and stopped by a tombstone… Then he entered the church, and stood by a side altar, facing the camera for the first time. He then ripped off his mask and hat, and spoke……There was no one in the pews…..

  25. We need to know why the few churches that are growing are different from the rest. Without this data we simply have nothing to go on.
    We cannot respond to decline without repentance, prayer and this information.
    Enough said!

  26. A very late response from a recent church returner after a lapse of 20 years. In my middle years I was a member of a very active evangelical North London CofE church. It was successful and growing with exciting activities for all ages. I lapsed through the end of a stage in life and came back at another to join a rural parish church in Sussex.

    Immediately it was obvious that the congregation was small and very elderly. At 66 I was the youngest member. Other than the services, a music and a flower festival there are no other outreaches. Occasionally a young couple attend for their bans. It is actuarily obvious that the churches (two in our group that we attend alternate weeks) will go extinct when the present membership (about 10 regular attenders) falls below 5, which will happen in the next 5 to 10 years.

    The figures of decline continue in an almost perfectly straight downward slope since about 1963. All this has been well described above and persuasively explained in Callum Brown’s book “The death of Christian Britain”. The explanation is based on a post modern feminist hypothesis that shows how people ceased to think of their life in religious terms from the early 1960s onwards, especially as a result of the 60s feminist movement, which removed women from their role as guardians of the family faith. Now we live in a secular culture and most people, even those who describe themselves as Anglican never attend church. People I now talk to about the church invariably describe themselves as non-religious and say the church has no relevance to them or society in general. Although all the village primary schools are nominally CofE, no parents ever attend weekly services.

    It seems obvious to me that Christianity is breathing its last gasps in the country at large and that my experience in the evangelical North London Church was highly untypical. A fellow member of that community and god father to my children, a member of my profession, took holy orders on retirement. He now looks after 7 parishes neighbouring a city. The city has a flourishing cathedral. So my view from an empty pew is that I am attending the last rites of a tradition stretching back to around 600 AD

    Society is now post Christian as a former Archbishop pointed out. But I still enjoy the services, our vicar’s short sermons and the company of a few old people. I take part in the rotas and help with the music and flower festivals. My real faith sustenance comes from Premier Christian Radio and a planned move to a larger town where I hope to join a thriving church.

    • George, that is a fascinating and insightful comment.

      What you are noting, though, is that ‘institutional’ church is in terminal decline, but ‘affiliational’ church is not.

      Given that, I don’t agree that Britain is ‘post-Christian’, but it is post-Christendom. There can be no church growth—and no church in fact—without lively faith expressing itself in gathered worship.

  27. Well said. Post Christendom captures is much better; although the actual Kingdom in which we live is still nominally ruled by the head of the Anglican Church, she is effectively powerless and purely representational. There can indeed be no church without a lively faith that gathers in worship. As this ceases to happen the national church will cease to be. The last sentences in Callum Brown’s book put it thus “But the culture of Christianity has gone in the Britain of the new millennium. Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die”.

  28. The Church of England was created from King Henry VIII’s nuptual problems and associated tiff with the then pope. It had political legal basis in the Act of Supremacy 1534, later repealed and then reinstated in 1558. King Henry VIII took church assets and then used the proceeds therefrom for some unsuccessful wars in France; this was blatant theft. When I visit Westminster Cathedral, there is a mosaic plaque there to all those faithful Catholics who were put on the rack and killed on account of their faith and loyalty to the Catholic faith. This Church of England has disreputable foundations and is now in terminal decline; good riddance to an illegitimate organisation ! The Church of England desperately needs restructuring. It is top-heavy with an excessive number of bishops living in luxury; all they seem to think about these days is gay and lesbian rights. Other denominations have a much leaner management structure. Many of the Church of England vicars that I have known over the years have been utterly useless and only half interested in their vocation. Just are few Church of England vicars are really excellent. The Church of England now has a very brief window of opportunity to sort itself out, otherwise it must perish and die to give way for other denominations to take its place and preach the message of God more effectively.

  29. Well, fascinating comments. The Church of England’s demise has been regularly prophesied for the last 50 years. My guess is that we will struggle on. What alarms me though was the study that suggested half our clergy don’t believe in the virgin birth and a third deny the physical resurrection of Christ. I am unsure why you would want to continue as a priest if your answer to the second question was negative. As St. Paul said if that was the case: we of all people are to be pitied. His comment is just as true today. It’s pathetic pretending a faith in order to lead others astray or to ensure you continue to get a stipend. The church first needs the balls to dismiss those who cannot be leaders of faith. By all means give them their pensions, but I would rather have a believing lay person leading the service and preaching. From what is left, we can rebuild the church.


Leave a comment