A BOOM in online services triggered by the pandemic may be offering a different answer to the Church of England’s prayers over the steady decline in attendance, which continued last year.
The annual Statistics for Mission report for 2019 was published by the C of E’s Research and Statistics department on Monday, alongside a report on digital figures for 2020 (so far).
“And the geeks shall inherit the earth”
In the decade since 2009, most key measures of attendance have fallen by between 15 and 20 per cent, and by three per cent since 2014, the mission report says. In 2019, the worshipping community who regularly attended C of E services (not including Christmas and Easter) was down to 1.11 million people, of whom 20 per cent were aged under 18 and 33 per cent were over 70. In 2018, this figure was 1.12 million with the same breakdown in age (News, 18 October 2018).
Usual Sunday attendance fell by two per cent to 690,000 in 2019. The average weekly attendance in October 2019 also dropped by several thousand compared to the same month the previous year (from 871,000 to 854,000). Easter attendance dropped by 30,000 to 1.18 million people (of whom 72 per cent received communion). Christmas attendance dropped by 220,000 to 2.33 million people (of whom 34 per cent received communion).
Church-led marriages, baptisms, and funerals in 2019 were also down by several thousand each, the biggest decline being funerals, which decreased from 128,000 the previous year to 114,000.
In his summary of the report, Dr Ken Eames, from the Research and Statistics unit, acknowledges that the coronavirus, which closed church buildings and encouraged priests to livestream services from their homes, may have permanently changed the way attendance is recorded in future.
“As I write this, in early September 2020, it is unclear what further closures — either local or national — there will be, and when, if ever, churches will return to ‘normal’.
“I am certain that the 2020 Statistics for Mission report will take a very different form, as it tries to describe the work that churches have done in 2020. I know, from the rigorous research carried out in recent months by the Research and Statistics team, from personal experience, and from speaking to other researchers and church leaders, that churches have adapted to the pandemic and to the lockdown in diverse and imaginative ways; many have been offering worship in new forms, either online, or via email, or telephone, or post.”
For the 2019 report, churches were asked a one-off question about social action: 77 per cent of churches reported being involved in one or more forms of social action. Of the 35,000 projects that churches were involved with, about half (15,000) were run by the churches. These included foodbanks, hospitality for older people, and parent-and-toddler groups.
Dr Eames continued: “Since July, many churches have gradually begun to reopen for services, albeit with social distancing and restrictions on what activities are permitted. Many churches are currently offering both services in person and worship in other forms. On a personal level I find the work that churches have done in recent months incredibly impressive and rather moving.”
The separate digital report for 2020 states that, so far, churches have added more than 17,000 services or events to the church-finding website AChurchNearYou.com. Many churches have reported high viewing figures for these services — much greater than the average Sunday attendance — although it is unclear what proportion of these viewers watch for the whole service.
The C of E’s national weekly online services have been viewed nearly three million times since they were introduced in March.
Church leaders have also been brushing up their technical skills to meet demand, the report says: 4200 people attended a digital training webinar this year — more than four times the number in 2019. New music resources, including from the Royal School of Church Music were downloaded 210,000 times.
The C of E’s Alexa skill had been asked more than 250,000 questions; the LiveLent and Easter Pilgrim social-media content was seen about three million times; and the Time to Pray podcast had been downloaded almost 200,000 times.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: “At a time when many have felt isolated and fearful, Church of England parishes and clergy have broadcast thousands of online church services and events, seeking to bring comfort and hope to their communities.
“We know that tens of thousands of those tuning in will never have had contact with their local Church of England parish before and may never have heard the Christian message. Their welcome presence is a sign of the great hunger we all have for spiritual meaning in our lives.”