THE average weekly attendance in the Church of England has dropped below one million people for the first time.
In 2013, the number of adults and children attending a service at a C of E church during an average week was 1.004 million, but in 2014 (the most recent year covered by the statistics) it fell to 980,000.
Over the past ten years, the average weekly attendance has declined by 12 per cent — although a change in the methodology from 2013 onwards means that exact comparisons are difficult.
The new figures were released on Tuesday in Statistics for Mission 2014, the annual report that pulls together statistics from parishes. This time, 85 per cent of parishes submitted data.
Commenting on the report, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said: “The 2014 figures are not in any way a surprise. Whilst the recent trend of the past decade continues, it has been anticipated and is being acted on radically.”
The Church was taking action through the Renewal and Reform programme to stem the losses, the Bishop said, but he expected the headline numbers to keep going down for a time. “Given the age profile of the C of E, the next few years will continue to have downward pressure, as people die or become housebound and unable to attend church.”
Another measurement, the usual Sunday attendance, shows a similar decline to 760,000 people. Since 2004, this figure has dropped by 13 per cent. This means that C of E services attract approximately 1.4 per cent of the population of England on a Sunday.
When this statistic began to be collected regularly in 1968, it stood at about 3.5 per cent of the population.
Attendance at Christmas and Easter services have also continued to decline gradually. About 2.4 million people attended a C of E Christmas service in 2014 — 4.3 per cent of the total population — which was fractionally more than in 2013, but fewer than attended a decade earlier. At Easter 2014, 1.3 million people attended services; 1.5 million attended in 2004.
Baptisms, marriages, and funerals have also declined. In 2014, C of E ministers officiated at 130,000 baptisms (12 per cent fewer than in 2004), 46,000 marriages (19 per cent fewer than 2004), and 146,000 funerals in churches and crematoria (29 per cent fewer than 2004).
An average C of E church in 2014 had 40 people attending worship each week, with 31 on a usual Sunday; it had 58 people at Easter and 82 at Christmas, and carried out five funerals, four baptisms, and two marriages.
Bishop James said that simply looking at attendance statistics did not tell the whole story. “There are many things that churches do that are not included in these data, from running homelessness services and hosting foodbanks, to educating a million children a day in our schools, to providing welcome and accompaniment to the least, the last, and the lost in our society.”
In his own diocese, one church had grown from 50 people to 450 in just two years. “The story is not one of inevitable decline,” the Bishop insisted.