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The C of E’s unsung success story

31 March 2017

Mark Hart detects a significant, but hidden, area of growth — among the over-65s

Graph: a breakdown by age of C of E churchgoers, using data from Peter Brierley

Graph: a breakdown by age of C of E churchgoers, using data from Peter Brierley

WHEN the 2014 Church of England attendance statistics were published a year ago (News, 15 January 2016), the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said in the accom­panying press release: “We lose ap­proximately one per cent of our churchgoers to death each year. 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.”

My delayed reaction is to wonder whether, because of the Church’s high average age, and given the na­­tional mortality of 0.8 per cent, the C of E death rate might be expected to be considerably higher than one per cent. If that is so, it may be surprising that the attend­ance fig­ures are not declining faster.

It is possible to make some estim­ates. Based on the 2015 figure for adult usual Sunday attendance (uSa), 650,000, and using various sources of data for the age profile of members of C of E congregations, together with published national mortality rates by age, the expected annual loss to uSa due to death is about 15,000 or 2.3 per cent. This may be corroborated using the “worshipping-community” data from the 2015 statistics which report a loss of 2.5 per cent due to death or illness, or 16,000 from uSa.

Next, we may estimate (again using age profile data) that the C of E congregants who reach age 18 each year add 3,000 to the uSa. Combining this with the 16,000 loss due to death or illness results in a net loss to uSa of 13,000 p.a. The uSa drops steadily by only 9000 p.a., however, which means that each year the net inflow of adults from outside the C of E adds 4000.


IT IS worth saying that again. Setting aside loss through death or illness, and gain through growth into adulthood, we can see that C of E services are gaining more adults than they lose, to the extent that a contribution of 4000 p.a., or 0.6 per cent, is provided towards the uSa. This is not a group of 4000 specific members of congregations, but the net annual addition as a result of changes in the habits of many more people. Attendance patterns are complex: people leave or join at different stages in life, and attend at different frequencies.

It should be emphasised that these are rough estimates because of significant uncertainties in the data; but fortunately cross-checking is possible, because the veteran reli­gion researcher Peter Brierley has just published a breakdown by age and denomination of churchgoers in the English Church Censuses from 1979 onwards, and a projec­tion for 2015. The figures for the C of E are shown in the graph above.

While the 2015 data are a pro­jection, the total uSa is spot-on com­pared with the 2015 attendance statistics, and the age profile com­pares well with the results of the C of E’s 2014 Everyone Counts survey.

Immediately obvious, alarming, and well-known is the steep decline in the numbers over time in the younger age brackets. Less well known are the increasing numbers of older people. As a percentage of the number of people in England aged over 65, the uSa number of over-65s in 2015 is hardly changed from 1979. That is a remarkable statistic when, in the same period, across all ages, the uSa as a proportion of the population has re­­duced by 45 per cent.

It does not work to suppose that all the older people have attended regularly throughout their lives. After making some assumptions, it is possible to track age cohorts from one census year to another. This shows that the attendance numbers of people aged 30-plus can have been maintained only if there has been a steady net inflow of new adults, weighted to older ages, at a rate that adds 5000 p.a. to uSa.

This conclusion corroborates the earlier calculation. While I find it plausible, and it is supported by my own limited experience, it is neces­sary to remain cautious, since this is a calculation of relatively small differences between already uncer­tain numbers. We cannot be abso­lutely sure, but it appears likely that this net inflow is real and significant.


SO LET us, for the sake of argu­ment, accept the result. It means that possibly ten per cent of current adult uSa is due to this kind of growth. The element due to immigration, while signi­fic­ant in some dioceses, is likely to be small overall, because the proportion of minority-ethnic groups is low
in the Church, and showed no increase be­­tween diver­sity audits seven years apart.

It is more likely that this is well-dispersed growth, the result of un­­spectacular ministry in thousands of parishes over decades, and un­­noticed and unsung, because the bottom line has shown only decline. It gives perspective to any ministry that may not yield immediate nu­­merical growth, especially among children and young people, because seeds are planted that may ger­minate in later life.

Understandably, some rapidly grow­ing church-plants of recent years, with their high proportion of young people, make the headlines, and are noted as signs of hope. But the Church may not have recog­nised its one area of consistent and sus­tained growth: among older people. To embark on a programme of cul­ture change in the Church, Renewal and Reform, without pay­ing atten­tion to this strength may cause the unintended consequence of putting it in jeopardy.

Given the projection from the Office for National Statistics that over the next two decades in Eng­land the num­ber of over-65s will increase by 48 per cent, compared with just a three-per-cent increase among the 20-64s, that would be unfortunate.


The Revd Mark Hart is Rector of Plemstall and Guilden Sutton, in the diocese of Chester.


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