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The Church of England After COVID: Quo Vadis?

This essay is being published jointly with Psephizo.

The Church of England is beginning to recognize that the years of COVID had a hugely corrosive effect. The church lost a fifth of its congregation members in 2019-22; more, if we just count children and families. So, quo Vadis, where does the church go next? Well, there is bad news and good news.

The Bad News

The COVID effect is substantial and long-lasting. Drilling down, there is a further cause of deep concern: vocations to ordained ministry. During the pandemic, the number of people starting training for ordained ministry has fallen dramatically. It is about 40 percent down in 2023 compared to 2019.

For stipendiary ministry, the situation is close to collapse.

Stipendiary Ordinands Starting Training in the C of E

2017    370

2018    399

2019    403

2020    417

2021    321

2022    263

2023    229

The number starting stipendiary ministry was 417 in 2020, but only 229 in 2023. So, the number starting training for stipendiary ministry fell by nearly half in three years, 2020-23. Non-stipendiary (self-supporting) ordinand numbers have been hit less hard but have still fallen by about a third.

Stipendiaries tend to be younger and non-stipendiaries tend to be markedly older, so these figures mean a further aging of the clergy, who were hardly brimming with youth to start with. This dramatic fall continues. There is little sign of any post-COVID rebound. And the conflict over sexuality in is further depressing vocations, so the decline may grow worse in 2024.

The consequences will not be felt immediately, but in five to 10 years the collapse of stipendiary vocations is utterly toxic for local churches. Without a rapid rebound, these figures mean far fewer curates from 2025-26 and far fewer incumbents from 2028 onward. There are going to be some mighty short short-listing meetings in future. To mitigate this stark picture requires action, now, in 2024.

And there are other profoundly serious consequences.

There has been a large drop in those training full time, and the drop in full-timers affects theology. Those who train for ordination part time do a fantastic balancing act, juggling study with work and family commitments. But far fewer part-time ordinands have the time to learn Greek or Hebrew or dig deep into doctrinal or historical theology. It would be an entertaining, though depressing, exercise to discover how many current ordinands can spell Irenaeus, let alone articulate what he said. The church’s ability to replenish its ordained ministry is in steep decline, but so too is its future clergy’s ability to do theology.

Then there’s geography. The overwhelming majority of stipendiary candidates are training in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. Far fewer stipendiaries train in the midlands and north of England (where roughly half of the English live). Only 129 out of 592 (just over 20%) stipendiary ordinands were training north of Cambridge in 2022-23. It has long been more difficult to find stipendiary clergy to serve in the north of England; that is likely to grow much worse, since people tend to take up posts in regions nearer to where they trained.

The main causes of the slump in ordinand numbers is the combination of COVID with the profound divisions over the Living in Love and Faith program. Before 2020, ordinand numbers were gently rising and growing younger, on average. A church facing sharp decline due to the pandemic has torn lumps out of itself dealing with a profoundly divisive matter at the same time. We should not be surprised that the numbers of those offering themselves for ministry in that church then dropped off a cliff.

Before the pandemic, the church had been seeing a growth of ordained vocations and a slightly younger age profile of ordinands, so things could change in the coming years. However, the situation now is far worse than before COVID. The church is markedly smaller, markedly older, and markedly more divided.

The church faces a choice between finding some kind of modus vivendi on sexuality or the possibility that this near-collapse in stipendiary ordained ministry becomes the new normal. Any modus vivendi requires a recognition that the church is deeply divided and people of both integrities must have room to hear and follow a call. There is no point telling orthodox ordinands to become liberal or telling liberal ordinands to become orthodox. We have to find a way to respect the other’s theology and ministry and leave the future trajectory of the church to God. And we’ll need the structures to enable that to happen. And if we can’t do that, there may not be a future trajectory of the Church of England.

At a recent ordination of priests in an English diocese, the diocesan newspaper noted in passing that the average age of candidates was 70. This is where we are headed, if nothing is done.

Some may opine that we can get by with fewer, older non-stipendiary clergy. This is delusional. Stipendiary clergy, especially younger stipendiary clergy, are vital if the church is to connect with those under pensionable age, if the church is to arrest its decline and begin to grow. If the current trends persist, the church will, in most places, be a tiny remnant or be wholly absent in 20 years.

The Good News

Having spilt much ink on church numbers, I have to say that these data are as bleak as I have ever seen. But there are some reasons to be cheerful.

Let me take you to Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland and one of the largest urban areas in Britain. Church of Scotland parishes in Glasgow are shrinking dramatically, as are most other historic denominations (including Glasgow’s Anglican churches). Contemporary Scotland is cited by academics as an example of unprecedentedly rapid secularization.[1]

But a recent Aberdeen doctoral dissertation by Sheila Akomiah Conteh showed that 110 new churches were founded in Glasgow between 2000 and 2016. Their Sunday attendance is 9,000 or more people (incidentally proving that the current official attendance data for Scottish churches are a serious undercount).[2] These new churches are highly diverse ethnically and, in the main, growing. Most are more robust than many historic congregations, and look likely to be around a good while. Judging by the baleful trajectory of the historic denominations, these new congregations will become more and more significant for Christian witness in Glasgow as the years progress.

Alongside other studies of cities like London and New York,[3] Glasgow shows that what goes down can go up.

Quo Vadis

The Church of England took one heck of battering from COVID. It lost one in five of its Sunday worshipers. Children and families were hit even worse. That battering includes a deep decline in numbers of ordinands and the near-collapse of stipendiary ordinands, made worse by the division from debates over sexuality.

So, quo Vadis? One option is to treat decline as inevitable, as the result of ineluctable social forces over which we have no control. This has a seductive attractiveness. If we think we can do nothing about decline, we can lie back, with a comforting glow of martyrdom inside, relaxed in the belief that we are being faithful in unpropitious times.

A second option is to look hard at what has happened. There were many good things going on in the Church of England pre-COVID. They could sprout up again. We should also look hard at what is happening to the church due to the ongoing conflict over sexuality. The church’s infighting will lead to its oblivion in many places if it continues as it is. There are many keen younger Christians, who could lead churches. But they are likely to lead churches outside the Church of England or not offer for church leadership at all, given its current state.

And we should look hard at Glasgow and London and the many other places where congregations have proliferated in the late modern West.

We do not have to decline. We do not have to become a church of geriatrics. There is a path towards the flourishing of Anglican congregations in 21st-century England. IThe question for the Church of England is is that a path we dare to take? The church in England has a future; whether the Church of England has a future is more difficult to say.


[1] Professor Callum Brown has recently argued that this is making Scotland a profoundly secular country: “There’s been nothing like it in recorded history.”

[2] The thesis is available through the University of Aberdeen.

[3] See, for example: Mark Gornik’s The Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City (Eerdmans, 2011); David Goodhew and Ant Cooper, The Desecularisation of the City: London’s Churches, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2019).

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