A RISE in church attendance at Christmas should prompt the Church to consider whether the strengths of these services — high-quality music, more formality, and “a sense of mystery” — can be replicated during the year, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has suggested.
The report 2017 Statistics for Mission, published by the Ministry Division this week, largely tells a story of continued decline, including a collapse in the number of children attending services.
Since 2007, adult average Sunday attendance in Church of England churches has fallen by 15 per cent, and child average Sunday attendance by 24 per cent. Adult average weekly attendance has fallen by 12 per cent.
Since 2016, all-age average Sunday attendance has fallen by three per cent.
Occasional offices have fallen, too: baptisms and thanksgivings by 22 per cent, marriages and services of prayer and dedication by 27 per cent, and funerals by 28 per cent. Attendance at Easter has fallen by 16 per cent, and now stands at just 1.25 million.
Christmas attendance has bucked the trend. Although it has increased overall by only one per cent over the decade, a closer look at the figures shows a dip in the first four years followed by a steady rise in the past five: 13 per cent since 2013. The present figure, 2.68 million, is the highest since 2006.
Separate figures published alongside the report indicate that the Church has more than doubled its monthly reach on social media: from 1.2 million in 2017 to 2.44 million this year. Its Advent and Christmas campaign last year was four times bigger than in the previous year, with the number of people reached rising from 1.5 million to 6.8 million.
On Tuesday, Dr Walker said that his survey of people who attended Christmas services at cathedrals (Comment, 18 December 2015) had suggested that half of these attending went to church fewer than six times a year.
It was wrong, however, to suggest that they were seeking merely a “cultural or aesthetic experience”.
“They are looking to meet God, not just good music. They want the music to be good and the ambience to be compelling, but these are things they believe will enable them to engage with God.”
While some people preferred occasional attendance — and it was important to recognise that “there can be real religious faith underlying that” — he suggested that there were lessons to be learned from the popularity of Christmas services.
It was possible, he said, that “we have slightly narrowed the range of appeal” of weekly services. “There is a kind of a reserve at times about the formality of a Christmas service in a cathedral that makes it bit different from a family service or typical eucharist in a parish church at that time of year. . .
“Particularly in terms of people’s personality type, a lot of what we do on a Sunday tends to disproportionately appeal to feelings. Some of the things we put into the Christmas service are more reflective. People can engage with them with their minds a bit more.”
Church of England Ministry DivisionChurch of England Ministry Division
Churches could consider how to “experiment with something that is deliberately aimed to appeal to the kind of person who comes to Christmas events,” he suggested. “There is scope for reflecting on how we might, from time to time, do things that build on the strengths of Christmas: very strong musical quality, a sense of mystery, of being drawn into that. . .
“Sometimes we assume that the way to succeed in church is to ‘do what I like doing and do it really, really well’. It’s a hard ask, for PCCs in particular, to want to put energy into things that are for people who like things differently from what they like.”
Statistics notes that the trends over the past decade are consistent with what has been happening for the past half-century. In no diocese is average Sunday attendance higher than it was in 2013, although 18 report a growth in the size of the “worshipping community”.
“We live in an age of rapid social change affecting all aspects of life — right down to people’s working patterns and how they spend their weekends,” the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said. “It is really striking to see how churches are responding and evolving in the face of that.
“While there’s a downward pattern in Sunday attendance, the fact that ‘Worshipping Community’ figures are stable shows that, for many people, being part of the Church is more than just a matter of what they do on a Sunday morning.”
Worshipping Community is a figure supplied by churches asked to calculate how many people attend church regularly (once a month) or would do so if not prevented by illness or temporary absence. In 2017, this was 1.14 million: barely changed since 2014, despite recorded falls in attendance. It equates to about two per cent of the population.
The report contains caveats about the measuring process. Churches reported that more people joined than had left; this highlights, the authors say, “the record-keeping challenge”.
Another discrepancy concerns age. Churches have reported that 20 per cent of worshipping communities are aged under 18, 49 per cent aged 18-69, and 32 per cent aged 70 or over. But a national study, Everyone Counts, suggested that only around 12 per cent were under 18, and almost 60 per cent aged over 66.
On Tuesday, Ali Campbell, a youth and children’s ministry consultant, and a former youth adviser for the diocese of Chichester, said that he was not surprised by the steep decline in children’s attendance.
“The decline of adults is through death,” he said. “The decline of our children is they are leaving. . . We lost half-a-million children in the 1990s, and barely reacted to that.”
The Church’s priorities were wrong, he suggested, “still stuck with preserving an institutional set of functions: buildings, clergy, even our structure. . . None of that lends itself to children and young people participating.”
There needed to be a focus on participation, and discipleship, he said. “One of the challenges the C of E has got is for a couple of centuries we relied on people passing on faith. . . People would come and they would stay. They are stopping coming earlier and earlier — I would say because we are not engaging in the whole life of the Church. . .
“Unless we invest in the home, we are not going to pass on faith (Comment, 12 January).”
In next year’s survey, churches will be asked to report on their youth provision and “Christian enquiry and Christian basics courses”.
On average, 895,000 people attended services each week, with a usual Sunday attendance of 722,000. A total of 197,000 people attended services for schools in churches in an average week in October, when statistics are gathered, up from 126,000 people in 2013.
On Tuesday, Dr Walker said that he tended to use statistics “as a diagnostic tool: they help me to understand better some of the questions I ought to be asking. . . Numbers on their own are never the whole story.”
He was cautious when asked about the fruits of the Renewal and Reform programme, and when the effects of the strategic development grants might be reflected in attendance figures. He suggested that there would need to be “longitudinal data” on the specific locations in which grants had been made. The sustainability of growth would also have to be evaluated.