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After COVID: The Deepening Decline of the Church of England

COVID was bad for the Church of England. And new data show just how bad. Overall, the church lost one in five of its Sunday worshipers during COVID. For children at worship, it’s worse.

Canterbury Cathedral makes the CofE appear impressive, but appearances can deceive. The Diocese of Canterbury had 1,600 children in Sunday worship in 2019, before COVID. By 2022 it had 1,000 children in Sunday worship. That’s nearly a 40 percent drop.

Long-term decline coupled with COVID has left much of the church in deep trouble. Yes, there are wonderful pockets of vitality, but their number is shrinking. The new data show that, during COVID, the condition of much of the church has moved from serious to critical.

The End of Sunday

The latest C of E data are just out, covering 2022. Here are the overall figures for Sunday attendance in the Church of England since 2000.

Usual Sunday Attendance (all ages)

2000    950,000

2010    799,000

2019    680,000

2022    549,000

Sunday attendance has nearly halved since the millennium. A church that had long been declining has seen the decline dramatically speed up during COVID. The latest data, covering 2022, are crucial because they give us a clear sense for the first time what COVID did to the church. The data from 2020 and 2021 were so affected by COVID they cannot easily be used. By 2022 most churches were doing in-person worship, and those who wished to attend could do so. The evidence is that those who had not come back by 2022 were not going to come back in significant numbers.

Online worship? The figures for this are rightly described as the wild west of ecclesial data-gathering. It is impossible to know exactly what they mean, and church leaders cannot put too much weight on them. The advent of online church has value, but has proved compatible with dramatic congregational decline in the C of E and elsewhere, and there is no reason to think that this will change.

What this Looks Like on the Ground

Here are figures for a handful of dioceses, which give a sense of the effects of such decline on the ground.

Usual Sunday Attendance                              1990                2019                2022

Bath and Wells                                                 33.5k               16.9k               14.3k

Manchester                                                        35.1k               18.4k               14.0k

Ely                                                                        17.7k               13.6k               11.2k

Southwark                                                         40.5k               31.6k               25.2k

London                                                               51.8k               53.6k               43.4k

You can see the deep fall in Sunday attendance over recent decades and how this sped up since COVID. All dioceses have lost between a fifth and a quarter of their Sunday worshipers, between 2019 and 2022.[i] And this accelerated deep pre-existing decline. Some dioceses, like Bath & Wells and Manchester, have lost 60 percent of their Sunday congregations since 1990. Some, like London and Ely, have done less poorly, but all have seen a sharp drop since 2022.

There are other metrics for measuring attendance. They have their virtues, but also their vices. The great virtue of “usual Sunday attendance” is that it offers a long run of years of data. And it is easy to collect. There are other measures, but they generally offer shorter runs of data and, in some cases, are highly complex to calculate, raising concerns about the reliability of data. And the other metrics support the attendance trends given above.

Here is “leveling down” in action. For several decades, the Diocese of London held out against the rest of the church and actually grew (modestly). At last, it has come back into line. London is now declining as fast as everywhere else. London used to be an embarrassment for many C of E bishops. Why did it keep growing, when every other diocese was shrinking? This is an issue no longer. Every single C of E diocese is shrinking.

Beyond that, there are wider trends. Some of the smaller rural dioceses have shrunk less. But don’t be fooled. This is because they already had a tiny number of children and families. And it is children and families who have been most likely to stop attending during COVID.

The most spectacular falls are in some urban dioceses like Manchester and Liverpool. Both have half the number of Sunday worshipers now, compared to the beginning of this century.

Here’s one intriguing shift: The Diocese in Europe used to be regarded as a minor player in Anglicanism. But, post-COVID, the dioceses of Worcester, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Hereford, Truro, and Carlisle are all smaller than the Diocese in Europe in their Sunday attendance.

The End of Children in the C of E

The data are worse when you look at children. Sunday attendance for children is 23 percent down, overall, between 2019 and 2022.

But the figures in some dioceses were much worse. As noted, the Diocese of Canterbury had 1,600 children in Sunday worship in 2019. By 2022 it had 1,000, nearly a 40 percent drop. Many other dioceses are not far behind. Hereford “only” dropped from 500 to 400 children, across all its churches, 2019-22. Hereford has 399 churches. In 2023, it is likely that Hereford has more church buildings than it has children inside them, on an average Sunday across the entire diocese. Whilst the average fall in English child Sunday attendance is 23 percent, many C of E dioceses lost a significantly larger proportion of children in Sunday worship during COVID.

The bulk of adult believers come to faith in the first decades of life. Things were bad regarding children in worship before COVID. In large swathes of England, the church now has no children in its churches on a Sunday. This is moving beyond decline and toward extinction.

This bleak picture is backed by other figures. There is a measure called average weekly attendance. This tracks worship with children that happens both on Sundays and other days of the week. Child average weekly attendance across England dropped 28 percent between 2019 and 2022, decline of over a quarter in three years. By the average weekly attendance measure, the number of children in the church halved in the decade up to 2022.

The net result is that the church has markedly aged since COVID. Those that are left are, on average, old. Worshiping communities markedly aged during 2019-22, with 36 percent of the church being over 70, whereas 13.5 percent of the population of England are over 70.

Where Next?

Where the C of E goes next can be seen by looking at other denominations in England.

The United Reformed Church was the main home for Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England. It is leading the trend of mainline decline. In 1972 it had 192,000 members. By 2022 it had 37,000 members. In 50 years, it has shrunk by over 80 percent. The bulk of its existing churches are small and elderly. This is what ecclesial collapse looks like. British Methodism is on the same path.

The trajectory of the church will take a little longer, but in many places it is the same trajectory.

As congregations age, they struggle to fill key posts — wardens, treasurer. They stop being composed mostly of people in their 70s and become composed mostly of people in their 80s — and then they stop. There comes a point when decline tips over into being unviable and that point is at hand for many congregations.

This won’t happen everywhere immediately, but it is happening and at speed. Remember that in 2000 there were nearly double the number of Sunday worshipers in the church compared to 2022. In 2006, there were roughly double the number of children on Sundays in church, compared to 2022.

Don’t be deceived by the splendor of Canterbury Cathedral. The 40 percent fall in the number of children at worship in the Diocese of Canterbury shows the underlying reality.

Decline existed before COVID, but COVID has put it on steroids. It led to the largest fall in C of E attendance in the last 100 years. The damage is particularly marked with regard to children and families. This vital sector has been hit hardest.

The British Government is conducting an inquiry about lessons to learn from COVID. The church has not followed suit. There is a sense that no one wants to face just how bad the figures are.

Following the comments of Dean Kelley and Tim Keller, I would argue that churches decline when they allow the heart of the gospel to be obscured by other matters — however laudable those other matters may be. Church leadership has spent the last year focused on sexuality. This is a major issue, but it has allowed avoidance of the bigger, existential, question the organization faces. The church cannot claim to have put its primary energy into leading people to faith in Christ and building people up in that faith. And the church has managed, thus far, to skate over the fact that it has lost one in five of its Sunday participants since 2019.


[i] There was a modest rise in attendance between 2021 and 2022, but this was to be expected, as some of those kept away by lockdown chose to return. The more important measure is the comparison between 2019 (before COVID) and 2022 (when most churches were open for in-person worship). In that case, all dioceses were substantially smaller in 2022 than in 2019.

28 COMMENTS

  1. I visited Canterbury in late October,2023. At Sunday morning prayers there were about 15 people, including 4 priests. That said a lot. I attended 3 evening prayers services. I was always struck by how at every service when requesting financial support, we were told it cost about 30,000 pounds per day to keep the cathedral going. Not once did I hear about how the funds are used to help people, although I know they do. The cathedral seemed more like a museum rather than the seat of Anglicanism.

  2. Thank you David for your article.

    In case anyone is interested, the figures relating to the Church of England in this piece were taken from the 2022 Statistics for Mission report (of which I am the author), published in November 2023. The report, which contains lots more detail for those interested, and a methodology, can be found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-11/statisticsformission2022.pdf

    I am always delighted to receive comments and suggestions – contact details in the report.

    • Ken

      One thing I have long been puzzled about is the failurebto collect data on people who worship at home because they are sick or frail. Given that congregations are ageing why is this overlooked? Many clergy put a lot of time into this ministry. Sick people are just as much members of a church.

      I once wrote to the Church Times asking the same question but received no reply.

  3. Thank you David for this article.

    The figures presented, however, only show part of the overall picture as churches work hard to recover post-Covid. Research I undertook with Ven. Bob Jackson and Ken Eames show a far more nuanced picture, with recovery being strongly associated with churches resuming their previous number of services. We found that the limited supply of church services was a more important explanation than any fall in demand for them. Average attendance per service was almost back to 2019 levels but there were fewer services.

    https://oxford.anglican.org/post-covid-19-trends-patterns-and-possibilities.php

    My early analysis of attendance in October 2023 in Oxford Diocese showed a further small recovery.
    https://oxford.anglican.org/october-attendance-2023.php

    I would be delighted to discuss this work further.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Bev – and the report you did with Bob, which is excellent.

      I readily agree that a minority of churches have bounced back (or even grown since 2019). However, they are massively outweighed by the overall trend.

      My fear is that many in the current CofE is trying to ignore the scale of the loss since COVID. And the failure to look seriously at the impact of COVID on the CofE underlines that fact. The really important question is what helps churches bounce back – something for which your work is very helpful.

      I hadn’t seen your most recent work on Oxford’s 2023 figures – whilst good to hear of further recovery, I am struck at its smallness. Does this suggest that, even in one of the larger and more imaginative dioceses, the damage of the COVID years will prove permanent, unless something big changes ?

  4. Dear David

    Thank you for this. Is there any way we can discern specifically / uniquely Chuch of England issues in terms of decline (including children)? My experience of the RC church in England suggests a very similar trajectory. Of course that’s not a good thing either but it would be helpful to discern if there are specific issues for us.

    • Thank you for this, Nicholas – totally agree, but I would expand your point further.

      We need to know not only how CofE decline during COVID compares to other Christians churches (and I would be very keen to know how we compare with ‘non-mainline’ churches as well as the historic denominations), but also how we compare to entities like trade unions, political parties, sports clubs, choirs and the like. Have those entities done better/worse – and can we have a stab at working out why? Then there is the unpleasant but necessary question of whether some CofE dioceses or types of churches have done worse/better than others.

      Bev Botting’s recent survey of Oxford suggests that smaller congregations did better, but that could be because they have fewest children/families and they are the grouping most liable to drop away during COVID.

      Overstretched dioceses and central church staff don’t need extra work. Equally, my guess is that there are researchers out there whose work we could draw on to answer these questions – and it is vital that they are answered.

      • Conversely, one might wonder if smaller congregations have done better than larger ones as they engender a sense of commitment to the “church family”. Large churches can be more impersonal – while some people value this, there’s perhaps less of a sense of ‘belonging’.

  5. Thank you David. I wonder if any research has been done on those churches which decided to remain closed after the ‘Christmas’ lockdown of Dec 20/Jan ‘21. We were ’allowed’ to reopen for ‘distanced’ worship (& no singing or communion) but many decided to remain shut until Lent or even Easter, which felt like the last straw for some. It’s just a hunch but my suspicion is that those that did so will have ‘lost’ more long-term worshippers than those that re-opened soon after Christmas. Hopefully they were mostly only lost to other churches, but inevitably some will have ceased regular worship altogether.

    • I am a Baptist minister in Wales (where the lockdown periods were slightly different to England). We reopened – cautiously! – about a month after this was permissible, in summer 2020. Thereafter we remained open for worship throughout except during the November 2020 “firebreak” and for six weeks in early 2021 when we deemed it too perilous to do so. At all times we maintained social distancing, masks, careful cleaning, no singing, continual risk assessments etc. Our denominations (non-mandatory) guidance was more cautious but we felt it important to continue. We lost a few people, either because they got out of the churchgoing habit or because Covid led to mental or spiritual crises, but generally we’ve done OK. Thankfully no-one died of Covid. Conversely I know of some churches in another denomination which remained closed from March 2020 to Easter or even Pentecost 2021. I cannot say though how they fared.

  6. I recently visited a church, where there were tapestries and mannequins dressed in historic clothes, but the only sign of it being a Christian church was an ancient carving of the Lord’s Prayer on the wall. Even the book on display was far removed from what you would expect. A tourist could see it as a museum, and walk out having not been introduced to or hopefully convicted by ‘Sword of the Spirit’ and the One who said, ‘I am the light of the world.’

  7. I am old, one of those dwindling congregations. I find the blind belief that covid is somehow responsible for decline in
    believers astonishing. I taught, about 15 years ago a comprehensive school asked its pupils, maybe year 9 to research different religions. Afterwards, they put their findings together and came to the conclusion that all religions are mumbo jumbo. It was like finding a football team. Furthermore, religions are responsible for many wars. I was not the teacher involved in this project but of the firm belief that young people and adults in UK feel like this today. It is not covid but the dying of belief. The King, as Prince Charles, expressed his belief that he wanted to be head of all faiths. At the Coronation he promised to uphold the Church of England. If this planet is to survive we need to find common ground between faiths. We need to inspire the young.
    .

  8. Dear David, the concentration on attendance and statistics is muddying the clear waters of the Faith.
    The CofE’s failure to acknowledge that Non-conformity has gone before for example, in Women’s ministry – and outstandingly, in the Priesthood of all believers (or at least in the efficacy of Lay-consecration and Lay-administration of the sacrament of Holy Communion) has led new believers to leave the parish churches, so tied up with a ritualism which during Covid ceased to bother any (including God) when everyone watched a streamed service, and partook of tea and a biscuit. In its recent efforts to blend with Societal demands, the CofE has forgotten to refresh its shared theology (Are we one in Christ? Or not?). It is ignoring its primary calling to be reaching out to those who don’t yet know and who are struggling, and instead expects to reinstate itself as somehow still relevant and demanding of respect.
    Your statistics reveal that it is too late! – and why should God rescue the CofE anymore than any other struggling denomination or sect?

  9. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

    The believing public has weighed Christendom and found it wanting. The bitterness of wars and their glorification by Christendom can be weighed against the Sermon on the Mount. WWI, WWII, Vietnam, the never ending wars in the Mideast. Particularly the former two for UK and the later two for the US

    In a sense, the ultraconservatives are right. Christendom depended upon suppressing the larger middle and lower classes, glorifying war, ignoring the hypocritical political and sexual behavior of the upper classes.

    The only criticism I have for the author of this excellent article is that the world’s peoples throughout have decided to have fewer and fewer children – there may be fewer children staying home and missing church than he implied.

    A side note, and my drumbeat, often mentioned in comment sections of the Living Church. No one takes Darwin seriously. There is a collective refusal in the believing world and the unbelieving world to apply the insights of Darwin, O E Wilson and other wise men and women.

  10. I am an Episcopalian in the U.S.. There are big mega churches with tens of thousands of members. Siphoning off mainline Churches. These mega churches are not really churches. I attended a few of these churches. They sell coffee, and other things before the service. Not for me. I would give anything to attend church at Canterbury Cathedral and some of the other fantastic Cathedrals! Perhaps we can share with the Church of England what is working and what is not. Do not give up! Revival can break out at anytime!

    • What’s happening in TEC is also occurring in the other mainline denominations (rapid decline), whereas the evangelical or confessional counterparts are either slightly growing or stagnating. While some of these evangelical churches are contemporary mega churches, others are in historic or traditional church buildings. My conclusion is when your theology looks like what the world is preaching, why stay?

  11. I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised that the CoE (not the same as the Church IN England) died of COVID.
    It shut it’s door with undue haste and so achieved what neither the plague nor enemy bombing ever did in a single city let alone the whole country.
    In their hour of need and succour the population found the church absent and in turn either got out of the habit of going to church or lost any ‘faith’ in it whatsoever.
    In rural Norfolk I preach out two village chapels which have held that congregations steady (at 20) the village parish church is however defunct.

    • I wrote the first comment about recently visiting Canterbury Cathedral, and I have enjoyed and learned from all your comments. Here are other thoughts from the comments:
      1). I was so inspired by (then) Dean of Canterbury’s Robert Willis’ constant morning prayers streamed on YouTube from the beginnings of Covid until his retirement in the summer of 2022. I grew and learned so much in our Garden Congregation. I went to visit the cathedral because of him. But of course it is not about a building, it is about a community.
      2) I recently went through a course on St. Benedict, reading several books, including one by Rowan Williams. While many things of the Rule as written may not apply to the 21st century, the message that has stuck with me is community.
      3) There is a new documentary out about the author who wrote “Bowling Alone.” The movie’s name is “Join or Die.”
      The church which brought it to my region advertised it as about loneliness, but it is about community and its demise and what we can do.
      4) And that is my new commitment–I doubt I can do much about massive church losses, but I am certain that if I work to build community in small ways and in my different life experiences and out-reaches, and if others will do the same, a lot of things will be so much healthier and better. And our churches will find the Holy Spirit in the middle of true community.

    • Exactly this. Churches are supposed to be places of sanctuary in times of “disaster” (and the government and the media were certainly telling us we were in a “disaster”). I was also appalled at the complete silence by the Church of England on the very obvious damage which lockdowns were causing to communities, children, education, mental health: not a single word from the church. Their silence implied huge complicity in the government treating the public very badly indeed. See also the absurdity of “singing spreads the virus”, followed by “now you can sing, but put your mask back on when the hymn is over”, and the comments by no less an authority than the Archbishop himself: Jesus would have got vaccinated, a suggestion that it was “immoral” not to get vaccinated. I very nearly left my own church over all this. I wrote to my vicar to let him know my thoughts, he told me that actually he agreed with me on many things, but he couldn’t say much publicly, and it’s sad that the days of bishops being outspoken against the establishment are long gone.

  12. There’s a certain fatalism to this article. No acknowledgement of the terrible mistakes that were made during COVID.

    I attended my local Anglican Church in March 2022, and my two sons went to Sunday School. What was astonishing to me was that the Anglican Church wholly embraced it, they didn’t have the institutional wisdom to see that there was something very wrong with what was being proposed. Because it’s the ‘established’ church it has cosied up to the NHS – as I tried to explain to my vicar, the NHS is the enemy. They represent secularism on steroids.

    One of the other vicars in our church was a former NHS surgeon. I was disgusted when he prayed for vaccines for the Third World.

    Things came to a head when the Archbishop of Canterbury said Jesus would have taken the vaccine. Soon after that the vicar seemed to take gleeful pleasure in performing a Nativity Play with all characters in masks. It was all a big joke. I took my sons out of Sunday School, cancelled my direct debit and left. I felt my decision was vindicated when they cancelled all Christmas services in 2021, because of Omicron. Totally pathetic.

    I remember witnessing a vicar perform the Eucharist in plastic gloves using sanitiser. There was something very creepy about it. The Anglicans were delighted to adopt the grotesque rituals and pseudo-religion that emerged during the panic.

    So it’s not just the sad decline of a tradition, it’s a direct result of the acts of the church.

  13. There are two things about this article I would take issue with, one fairly major, the an irritation.
    There is an assumption here, and I have seen it elsewhere, that ‘covid’ caused the recent decline or was a factor in it. ‘Covid’ did not cause anything; it was the RESPONSE to Covid that was at fault. An earlier correspondent (Michael Womack) mentioned this and it ought to cause no surprise that after shutting the doors with, as Michael said, ‘undue haste’ church attendance would decline sharply. ALL of the denominations were guilty of this. In previous ages Christians would visit the sick without any thought of their own safety, but in this day and age we abandoned all that.
    The damage that has been done is immense and still continues; there are still some people at our church (which is one of the thriving ones) that take the wine at communion via intinction and there are other churches where this has become ‘normal’. As some sort of protest I NEVER wore those disgusting face-nappies in church, I NEVER used the hand gunk, always sang and shook hands.
    To reiterate, it was the RESPONSE to Covid that was wrong, covid itself did nothing.
    I said there was a second point that was more of an irritation. Why is it necessary to use those revolting American spellings?

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