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Church of England mission statistics record ‘another anomalous year’

06 December 2022

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THE devastating effect of the pandemic on church attendance is apparent in new figures for 2021, released by the C of E’s data analysis team on Tuesday.

Although weekly in-person attendance at services were up more than one third from 2020 levels, they remained almost one third lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The figures, in Statistics for Mission 2021, are based on a questionnaire about attendance in October 2021, sent to all the 15,622 churches in England, 76 per cent of whom responded.

In 2021, almost all churches offered in-person services, it says. The average all-age weekly attendance, which includes Sunday and midweek services, was 605,000 people, compared with 345,000 people in 2020 and 854,000 people in 2019.

Most weekly worshippers attended a Sunday service: 509,000 people in 2021 (298,000 people in 2020 and 707,000 people in 2019). Average weekly attendance for adults only (18-plus) was 28 per cent lower in 2021 than in 2019; the average weekly attendance of children was 38 per cent lower in 2021 than in 2019.

All-age average weekly attendance for school services in churches declined more dramatically, more than halving from 182,000 people in 2019 to 89,000 in 2021.

Another category in the statistics proved more immune to the effects of the pandemic. The “Worshipping Community” recorded occasional in-person attendance (once a month or more) as well as online worship. Even here, however, there was a 13-per-cent decline from pre-pandemic levels: 936,000 in 2021, down from 1.113 million in 2019. Ten per cent worshipped wholly or predominantly at home.

The figure for the worshipping community represents approximately 1.7 per cent of the total population of England. A greater proportion of people over the age of 70 made up the worshipping community in 2021 (351,000 people; 36.4 per cent of the total) compared with 2019 (373,000; 33.5 per cent). This compares with 13.6 per cent of people aged 70 and over in the general population.

Church of EnglandChurch of England

The statistics record changes in the style of worship now offered by churches. In 2020, a year in which all — and then most of — C of E churches were closed during national lockdowns (News, 27 March), many began livestreaming or pre-recording services for the first time (or else offering worship resources by post or telephone). The proportion of the 10,362 churches which reported offering these alternatives declined from 71 per cent in October 2020 to 58 per cent in October 2021.

None the less, the report describes the adaptability of clergy, lay leaders, and congregations as “impressive and encouraging” amid challenging decisions about what to re-start and when, and what to discontinue, while “juggling the demands of people’s time and energy”.

The total number of marriages, and services of prayer and dedication after civil marriage (5.4 per cent of the total) was 26,500 in 2021, down from 31,400 in 2019. In 2020, when an estimated 20,000 weddings were postponed (News, 10 July 2020), this figure was 9200.

Similarly, the total number of people baptised, or for whom a birth or adoption thanksgiving service was held (3.2 per cent of the total), was 55,200 in 2021; 17,100 in 2020; and 89,100 in 2019. Owing to the postponing of baptisms in 2020, the age of children being baptised in 2021 was slightly older than in 2019 (predominantly one to four years, as opposed to infants under one).

Christmas services remained the most popular, but numbers were significantly lower than before the pandemic: middle-sized (median) churches recorded 58 people in 2021 compared with 80 people in 2019. This is compared with churches or cathedrals in 95th percentile for size (226 people in 2021; 567 in 2019). The average-sized church welcomed 65 people at Christmas in 2021, compared with 157 in 2019.

Communicants at Christmas and Easter were only slightly higher in 2021 than 2020, and remained much lower than numbers recorded in 2019.

The effects of the pandemic were “far from over” in 2021, the author of the report, Dr Ken Eames, writes. “It would be very surprising, therefore, if Church of England attendance and participation in 2021 returned to their pre-pandemic levels.

“This report should be treated as a summary of another anomalous year,” he advises, “indicating the extent to which things have ‘bounced back’ but noting that further bouncing back is expected.”

The Archbishop of York said: “2021 was a really challenging year with some Covid restrictions still in place but also many people reluctant to join public gatherings even by the end of the year. It is really heartening to see that in spite of this there was a sharp rise in the number of people attending church services.”

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