By David Goodhew

Whither the Church of England (C of E)? The numbers make bleak reading, for the most part. Take the diocese of Bath and Wells. In 1990, around 34,000 people attended its churches on Sundays. By 2019, less than 30 years later, Sunday attendance had halved to around 17,000 people. Not every C of E diocese declined as much, but all, apart from one, have dropped substantially. Moreover, the figures have worsened in recent years. And that’s before factoring in the impact of COVID.

This article charts the C of E’s recent trajectory and offers reflections on ways forward. Not all is lost, yet. Of course, Anglicanism is much more than the C of E, but the C of E plays a crucial role within the Communion. And C of E trends mirror those elsewhere, notably in the U.S. So its current and future trajectory deserves study by wider Anglicanism.

What has happened?

Assessing the data needs care. Some C of E data is dodgy. Some exists for so short a run of years that no firm conclusions can be drawn from it.[1] The most useful metrics are those that exist over a long period. One other thing: watch the trend, not the precise numbers.

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Church of England – Usual Sunday Attendance

2000    950k

2010    799k

2019    680k

Church of England Sunday attendance has dropped by nearly a third since the start of this century. For baptisms, the picture is worse.

C of E Baptisms (total)           C of E Infant Baptisms (infant = under 12 months)[2]

2000    161k                            114k

2010    135k                            82k

2019    86k                              49k

C of E baptisms dropped by almost half overall, 2000-2019. And infant baptisms more than halved. English Anglicanism used to be a quasi-ethnic faith, in which large swathes of the country routinely had their children baptized, even though they showed little interest in Christian faith the rest of the time. In much of England that has largely ceased, hence the deep drop of infant baptism figures.

Other metrics, mostly, tell a similar story.

What will happen next?

Ecclesial prediction needs doing with care. But some clear truths stand out. First, decline is long-term and large-scale. Second, carrying on as before means that much the same can be expected to happen. It is a sign of madness to do the same things and expect a different result. Third, all the signs are that COVID has made the many fragile congregations of the C of E more fragile. Most dioceses currently face severe financial pressure and are likely to cut the number of parochial clergy, which is a recipe for further decline.

Not all gloom

This is a deeply serious picture, but the degree of seriousness varies. Below are five different dioceses, tracked across almost thirty years, and the rate of decline within them varies dramatically.

Usual Sunday Attendance                              1990                2019

Bath and Wells                                               33.5k               16.9k

Manchester                                                     35.1k               18.4k

Ely                                                                     17.7k               13.6k

Southwark                                                       40.5k               31.6k

London                                                            51.8k               53.6k

All have shrunk, except one — London, whose Sunday attendance has grown, modestly.

Here are the same dioceses, using a different measure — “electoral roll.”[3] Electoral roll is the nearest thing the C of E has to adult membership figures. It is a measure with flaws in it, but its virtue is that it has been measured consistently over many years, so long-term comparison is possible.

Electoral Roll              1990                2019

Bath and Wells           47.3k               25.7k

Manchester                 39.3k               22.2k

Ely                                 23.8k               16.3k

Southwark                   46.1k               37.3k

London                        45.1k               61.3k

Sunday attendance and electoral roll figures paint a similar picture and are backed by other data sources. We can be confident they depict what is really happening.

London stands out. It has grown when every other C of E diocese has shrunk. Some dioceses — like Manchester and Bath and Wells — have nearly halved in the last 30 years. Some have shrunk, but by “only” 20 to 30 percent, like Ely and Southwark. Indeed, London is the only Anglican diocese in either the USA or England to have grown in the last 30 years. You do not need to be Albert Einstein to see that, based on pre-COVID trends, in another 30 years some C of E dioceses will cease to exist.

Most interesting is the long-standing contrast between the dioceses of London and Southwark. London covers the northern half of the city of London, Southwark covers the southern half of London. Demographically they are much the same, yet London has grown and Southwark has shrunk. London’s resilience is, partly, a reflection of the rapidly diversifying population. But only partly. Southwark has the same demography, but nothing like the same vitality.

You might have thought that, given the dire straits of the C of E, many would have been trying to understand what London got right. You’d be wrong. There has been only limited interest and even a degree of hostility. The C of E needs, urgently, to get over such dog in the manger mindsets.

Why has London been different ?

First, London prioritized congregational growth over decades. That might sound obvious. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to evade the obvious. Large sections of the C of E see the growth and multiplication of congregations as unnecessary or impossible. In the last decade there has been more rhetoric about growing churches, but all too often it is accompanied by minimal action, or ineffectual action. Prioritizing growth means serious focus on sharing faith and multiplying congregations — and a willingness to use hard metrics to face up to what is happening.

Second, London protected and sought to increase the number of parochial clergy, encourage younger vocations to ordained ministry, and minimize situations where incumbents had charge of multiple churches. The C of E has for many years expanded the geographical area and number of churches a single incumbent is expected to oversee — and assumed this had no serious effect. If you ask a teacher to have 40 kids rather than 30 in their class, you know the quality of education for those kids will fall, however talented the teacher. Exactly the same is true of clergy. Parish priests are central to the work of the Church of England. Plans to cut their number and increase their workload guarantee further decline.

Third, London was led by Anglo-Catholic bishops who supported often evangelical parish clergy. I’m not saying that is a guaranteed way to grow dioceses, but it is intriguing that when Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals work together, good things can happen. What is clear is that David Hope and Richard Chartres, Bishops of London for most of the years since 1990, were two of the most gifted Anglican bishops in the last 50 years. We should be learning from what they did.

Positive signs from elsewhere

The Diocese of London is not the only sign of growth in British Christianity. There are some good things happening elsewhere in the C of E. But most of the other signs of growth are to be found outside of Anglicanism.

Church Membership in Britain           1990                2019[4]

“New” Churches                                    81k                  163k

Orthodox Churches                            185k                475k

Pentecostal Churches                          147k                380k

Many churches in Britain are growing, But most of the growing churches are not Anglican. Immigration is a significant driver of growth, but not for every growing church. Alongside this, historic denominations such as Methodism and Presbyterianism are collapsing.

Church Membership in Britain           1990                2019[5]

Methodist                                               447k                186k

Presbyterian                                        1,244k             622k

The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.

Alongside theology, a key factor is ethnicity. Put crudely, churches appealing to what the census enumerators call the “white British” are shrinking and those which appeal to a wider ethnic mix are growing. The “new” churches, Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches are far better at this than Anglicanism — but it need not be that way. There are some positive indicators. For example, translation of C of E liturgy into Farsi is a recognition of the spread of Christianity amongst Iranians who have moved to the UK.

But C of E work with Iranians is the exception, not the norm. Despite many pious declarations, the C of E has made limited efforts to encourage multi-ethnic congregations. Yet what are called (with decreasing accuracy) “ethnic minorities” are far keener on Christian faith than most of the “white British” and minority ethnic communities are expanding fast. Many British cities are now majority-minority. These populations are feeding into non-Anglican churches, but they could feed into C of E congregations too.

The Church in England will not die. Significant chunks of it are vigorous, even as significant chunks of the Church of England face oblivion in the coming decades.

Conclusions

I believe in Anglicanism. I believe in the C of E’s capacity to glorify God and bless England. The C of E has a continued future and, in places, can thrive. But I would be dishonest if I were to pretend the problems were smaller than they now are.

Most C of E dioceses have seen deep decline in recent decades. A handful of dioceses have suffered smaller, but still significant, decline. Only one diocese, London, has grown. Some dioceses will be operatively defunct by 2050, on the basis of current trends. Others will still exist, but be radically smaller. Only one looks robust. Unless something radically changes, large swathes of England will see Anglicanism effectively disappear by 2050.

It is therefore essential that members of the C of E learn from London and let go of any “tall poppy syndrome” whereby London’s different trajectory is ignored, or even resented. It is, likewise, vitally important that the C of E learn from the many non-Anglican churches that are growing in England — notably about ways of connecting with the burgeoning minority ethnic communities.

Anglicanism is more than the C of E, thank God! There are many provinces and dioceses across the Communion which are far more vigorous. But the C of E’s role as “mother-ship” to the Communion means its struggles cannot be viewed with equanimity. Moreover, many of the challenges it faces are ones faced elsewhere, not least in North America. Some of the more vigorous Anglican provinces have much to teach the C of E, if it can find the humility to learn from them. Ultimately, the Church of God is far stronger than any one branch of it. The C of E has glorified God and blessed many in England in the past. We need to pray that it continues to do so in the future.

The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University and vicar of St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough. He can be followed on Twitter @ccgr.


[1] This article is in no way a criticism of the Research and Statistics department of the CofE who do a remarkable job given the challenges of data collecting for such a large and disparate organization. However, Average Weekly Attendance (aWa) is, I would argue, a measure with serious problems due to the complexity of what it is trying to measure (making it difficult to collect), the variable competence of those collecting the data and changes made in the way the data has been analysed. “Worshipping Community” is a new measure which lacks the length of dataset to give perspective. It also suffers from being a complex measure (making it difficult to collect) and from the variable competence of those collecting the data. I would be very wary of basing conclusions on these measures.

[2] P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4 (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2021), 2.5; P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 1, (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2011), 4.4

[3] 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, electoral roll data is as vulnerable to undercounting as it is to overcounting and is a valuable resource when handled carefully.

[4] Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4, 12.4; 12.6; 12.7. “New” churches are denominations which sprung up from the 1970s, originally called ‘House Churches’.

[5] Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4, 12.5; 12.8.

About The Author

David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham.

 

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C R SEITZ

One of the obviously distinctive challenges is church property/number of church buildings/care for these. The CofE has no clear analogy here anywhere else in the Communion. Given the demographics, are 5% of these properties needed? 10%?

I am a regular reader of Thinking Anglicans. The problem is universally acknowledged and some very knowledgeable proposals have been put forward. It is a special challenge for the CofE.

[…] David Goodhew The Living Church Whither the Church of England? […]

Mike O'Leary

Issues of “church”, Before I go into the thoughts God has given me I want to explain that this is not aimed at anyone particular person or any particular church. Some denominations may fit into all of this and some may just have a partial fit but I do think it’s a huge problem we have to sort to ensure that we are all far more efficient in our Faith. Let’s imagine the church, as a whole, as a pine tree. Jesus is the massive truck with deep roots and we are all branches. Congregations are the lower branches spread… Read more »

As a Roman Catholic, it would be improper for me to give organizational advice to another Church. However, by education and avocation I have some competence in Western History. It is my observation that there seems only four choices available to those in the Anglican communion who see the present organizational components as not meeting their needs. They can remain as they are and hope for a renewal of tradition as they understood it to be before 1930 Lambeth. They can remain and resign themselves to going along with the direction the Church seems now headed. They can remove to… Read more »

C R SEITZ

Thank you. My own considered plea (see Convergences 2020) would be that the Catholic Church consider further ways to encourage catholic relationships. The Ordinariate may be one of these, though it often appeals to a certain kind of liturgical antiquarian (the liturgy of the present Catholic Church is virtually indistinguishable from that of Anglicanism, for obvious reasons of ecumenical work in the last century). Anglicanism has become more, not less, fractured since Vatican 2. But there are also much easier ways for the Catholic Church to identify fellow travelers within the AC of today.

Nic Tall

Interesting that the article takes a view over the last 30 years. If you look at the five years up to the pandemic (the most recent data over “normal” times) and use “Worshipping Community” it is a slightly different picture. There is still an overall decline, but there are 15 dioceses who have either maintained their position or grown. The leading dioceses in terms of growth are Hereford (15.5%), Lincoln (10.2%), Southwark (10.1%), Sheffield (8.9%), St Eds and Ips (7.3%) and Ely (5.0%). All very different as places – urban/rural, north, east, south and west, so it’s hard to pick… Read more »

Benjamin Guyer

The following doesn’t really make sense: “The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.” Orthodox and Pentecostals have very different theologies. And while they might be conservative on certain matters – abortion and gay marriage, for example – “theology” is obviously bigger than hot-button moral topics. So, I’m going to question whether theology as such is key, or whether it is really about… Read more »

Thanks for the article, David. I am the person responsible for collecting, checking, curating, and publishing the Church of England attendance & participation figures as part of the annual Statistics for Mission report. The latest edition is available here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/21969. Archives, going back to the 1960s, are available here: https://www.churchofengland.org/about/research-and-statistics/resources-publications-and-data A few quick general comments for anyone who finds the information that my colleagues and I provide interesting, thought-provoking, or useful (David, thank you for encouraging me to post comments): 1. Please use the information – it’s what it’s there for, and it’s why I argue every year for publishing… Read more »