By David Goodhew
Lambeth 2020 is a series exploring issues related to the next Lambeth Conference and available at our weblog, Covenant (bit.ly/CovLC2020). David Goodhew’s articles have explored vitality and decline across the Anglican Communion. Previous articles have looked in closer detail at Anglican churches in Africa, Asia, Australasia, the Pacific Rim, and Latin America.
In 1990 the adult membership of the Church in Wales was 98,900, but in 2016 it had dropped to 45,800. At the same time, in the Church of England’s Diocese of London adult membership rose from 45,100 to 73,900. British Anglicanism has changed significantly in the last 30 years.
In considering Anglicanism across Europe, we need to beware of romanticism. Choral Evensong services in Oxbridge colleges and English cathedrals have a certain allure, but they do not represent the bulk of the Church of England.
Decline is so profound in some places that if it is not faced, the end really is nigh for substantial areas of the church. Equally, there are heartening areas of vitality and new life.
A Word about Numbers
All numerical data on religion need careful handling. Many metrics used by the Church of England and others are sometimes deeply deficient. Mark Wigglesworth’s dissertation, “A Critical Evaluation and Theological Reflection on ‘Worshipping Community’” (Durham University, 2014), shows that one of the main measures used by the church is so badly flawed it needs to be taken with a bucket, not a grain, of salt.
But we should not abandon hope. Serious data are out there and if we compare different strands of data much can be said. Moreover, such data keep us honest. Commentary about the churches is often detached from what is really happening, or massages data to fit presuppositions. Facing what the data say will inoculate us against wishful thinking.
Good News in London
For almost 30 years, it has been clear that something different is happening in the Diocese of London (which covers half of the city), compared to the rest of the church. As the table shows, London has experienced sizable and sustained growth since around 1990. This is very different from the past. London was a byword for secularization for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, being markedly less devout than other places, and in the 1970s and ’80s the diocese declined sharply.
Top Five Dioceses by Electoral Roll
Electoral roll has its weaknesses as a measure, but is of serious value. Well-known distortions in the figures cause overcount, but distortions cause undercount too. The great virtue of this measure is that we have a long data set collected across the church. Tested against other measures, it holds up better than the newer measures that church has introduced in recent years.
Moreover, these figures are backed by a range of other metrics. London’s vitality is best symbolized by plans to start 100 new congregations in the diocese between 2012 and 2020. The diocese is unique in England and most of Anglicanism in the Global North for its marked growth in recent decades. By contrast, dioceses that were once substantially larger than London are now substantially smaller.
Is the diocese’s different trajectory due to the marked rise in London’s population and its ethnic diversity, drawing in those who are less secular? This is partly true, but it is inadequate as an overall explanation. The Diocese of Southwark covers the remainder of London, and its population has grown and diversified just as much as the area covered by the Diocese of London — even as the Diocese of Southwark has shrunk. The Diocese of Chelmsford also includes a large slice of highly diverse East London, where there has been marked growth in the overall number of churches — but almost all of them are outside the Church of England (C. Marchant, “New Churches in Newham,” in D. Goodhew and A.P. Cooper, eds., The Desecularisation of the City: London’s Churches, 1980 to the Present [Routledge, 2018]).
Bob Jackson and others have studied London, and their research suggests that these factors have fueled growth there:
- Bishops’ single-minded valuation of growing and multiplying local churches, which has spread across diocese
- A financial framework that encourages growing churches instead of penalizing them
- A readiness to live and let live between traditions
- An ambitious strategy for starting new churches (see B. Jackson, “The Diocese of London and the Anglican Church in London, 1980 to the Present,” in ibid).
In the late 1960s, the retiring Bishop of Woolwich told his successor that the church in inner-city London would be dead in ten years. But it has seen marked church growth in subsequent decades. So much for episcopal doom-mongering. This is one reason the data from the Diocese of London matter. These data not only offer a shaft of light in an often gloomy landscape, but also show that secularization is not all-powerful. If a city set on secularization can turn around, other areas can do the same.
The Surprising Diocese in Europe
A related surprising piece of good news is the Diocese in Europe. Here is a diocese that stretches from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Urals. It began primarily as a chaplaincy for wealthy English people who moved across the Channel. But it has markedly diversified and expanded since 2000. It is now almost as large as the Scottish Episcopal Church and is overtaking many English dioceses.
Electoral Roll Figures for Europe and Some English Dioceses
Europe’s Sunday attendance figures are less rosy, suggesting a small decline, but this is still markedly better than most of the Church of England. One of the ironies of Brexit is that it is occurring at a point when English-speaking Anglicanism is gaining traction in mainland Europe. Its dynamism is concentrated in globalizing cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris. Large European cities were once the epicenter of secularization. But they have also known vigorous church life in recent decades.
In a rapidly globalizing world, many inhabitants of European cities are looking for services in English. Beyond this, Anglicanism’s via media capacity to draw on Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal traditions is a significant virtue as people move to the city and seek Christian community in a setting where denominational identity is fluid.
England: Not-So-Good News
In England, it is a rough rule of thumb that things grow worse the further away from London one travels. A handful of dioceses within a 70-mile radius of London, such as Canterbury, Oxford, and Ely, have declined, but not by much. The same is true of a cluster of Midlands dioceses: Coventry, Leicester, Peterborough, and Southwell & Nottingham. But all dioceses, apart from London, have shrunk to some degree in the last 30 years, and in some dioceses the numbers are grim:
Electoral Roll for Selected Dioceses, 1990 to 2016
|Bath & Wells||47.3k||29.8k||– 17.5k|
|St. Albans||50.0k||31.9k||– 18.1k|
Electoral roll data are far from infallible, so it matters that these numbers chime with other data, notably that for Sunday attendance. The picture in this table is rough but correct. The figures should be judged in terms of both the numerical drop and the percentage fall. A sizable number of C of E dioceses have declined by a third or more since 1990.
There are socioeconomic drivers here. Areas seeing greatest decline tend to have less population growth or ethnic diversity than London and its environs. But, and it is a huge but, pleading social change as causation can be a cop-out. Why has St. Albans shrunk so much, while nearby dioceses have not? Manchester has sharply declined, even though it is highly diverse ethnically and has a rapidly growing population. Ultimately, these numbers are extremely serious.
Scotland and Wales: From Bad to Dire
In Scotland, the decline is bad. Church membership has dropped from 58,000 in 1990 to 32,000 in 2016. Figures from Brierley show that the church’s attendance was around 20,000 in 1994, but by 2016 this had nearly halved to 12,500, and this is without the effect of the church’s sexuality debates, which look likely to drive further declines (P. Brierley, Growth amidst Decline: What the 2016 Scottish Church Census Reveals [ADBC Publishers, 2017], p. 39).
Of the 303 Anglican congregations in Scotland, nearly 10 percent have a Sunday attendance of fewer than ten people. Some Scottish dioceses have only a few hundred people in church across the entire diocese on an average Sunday. Very few new churches have been started in recent decades and there is little sign that such decline will cease.
In Wales, the news is worse. The electoral roll in 1990 was 98,900, but in 2016 it was 45,800 — a drop of more than 50 percent. Current plans entail further reorganization of parishes into larger and larger units led by fewer and fewer people. This strategy has been tried in many parts of the West and always has the same effect: further decline. It may help to look across ecclesial frontiers at this point. Decline in British Methodism is now so severe that it has effectively died out in significant parts of the country. The same could well happen to the Church of Wales in the next 20 years.
This raises broader questions. The Diocese in Europe will soon be larger than the Scottish Episcopal Church. Why is it not a province when Scotland is? Conversely, the decline of Wales and Scotland raises the question of whether, when provinces shrink so much, they should continue to have the status of province, and the influence that comes with this, within the Anglican Communion.
Ireland: A Partial Exception
Irish Anglicanism deserves more space than is available here. It has been more robust than Anglicanism in Wales and Scotland. What is crucial to note is its distinct ecclesial ecology, with the bulk of the church found in Northern Ireland, where denominational, social, and political identities strongly overlap and where secularization has made less progress than the rest of Britain. The Church of Ireland’s membership in Northern Ireland held steady in the 1980s at around 162,000. From around 1990 it has gently declined, reaching about 140,000 by 2015 (These figures are taken from P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 3 [ADBC Publishers, 2018] 2.1.5 and earlier publications in this series). This is a significant fall, but shows more resilience than most of the U.K. This has happened amid the substantial decline of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, which reflects wider secularization. Ireland is, however, still markedly more observant than the rest of Britain and much of Western Europe.
Europe and the Future of Anglicanism
What, then, is the prospect for the motherland of Anglicanism? Fifty years ago, the Diocese of London was a byword for secularization and Anglicanism in Europe was largely a chaplaincy for rich ex-pats. The vigor of these dioceses in recent years is both a surprise and an encouragement. Churches that decline can also revive.
The Church of England and Anglicanism across Britain need encouragement. But the signs of encouragement should not just give us a warm glow. They need to be heeded. Secularization need not have the last word. The growth of Anglican churches in some of the most modern areas of the West should nerve the arm of congregations. These signs also show the need for Anglicanism across Britain and Europe to have the humility to learn from others, notably the Diocese of London. There is what Australians call the “tall poppy syndrome,” when those who see vigor elsewhere tend to carp at it. This instinct needs to be resisted. Conversely, the supposed inevitability of secularization is strangely seductive. It allows clergy, congregations, and entire dioceses to excuse their inaction by claiming that they can do nothing about decline.
London and Europe offer hope, but the dire figures in parts of Britain also need to be faced, too. The Church in Wales has more than halved since 1990. The data for Scotland and significant parts of England is little better.
Like it or not, British dioceses are in a missionary situation. The Christian gospel is good news. It deserves to be shared and the evidence shows that if congregations and denominations intend to grow, they tend to grow. The question for Anglicanism in Britain, Europe, and the wider Global North is whether we really want this.
Pink Floyd once sang that “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” The evidence from across Europe is that this need not be true for churches.
 Electoral roll data has its flaws and is sometimes criticized for how it can be inflated by inclusion of nominal church members. It is important to note that electoral roll data is credible because the overall picture these figures paint is echoed by other metrics, such as usual Sunday attendance (uSa). Usual Sunday attendance shows London has grown and all the other C of E dioceses named have been shrinking, often on a large scale, since 1990. The growth of uSa in London since 1990 is lower than that for electoral roll, but it is substantial and the difference between the two measures has some obvious explanations – notably the way Sunday working and family commitments mean people are able to attend church less frequently in recent years and the growth of worship on days other than Sundays. These developments depress uSa but not electoral roll. It is also important to note that other metrics used by the Church (especially what is called the October count) have different, but major, flaws and only offer data for recent years, so cannot give a longer term perspective. Beyond this, as I have noted, electoral roll data is as vulnerable to undercounting as it is to overcounting and is a valuable resource when handled carefully.