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Cathedral visitors halved by long Covid

24 March 2023

Numbers of worshippers and tourists also down in 2021, statistics show


Renaissance, a new sound-and-light show curated by Luxmuralis, is running this week at Exeter Cathedral. The show invites visitors to become immersed in the greatest paintings and artworks of the Renaissance period

Renaissance, a new sound-and-light show curated by Luxmuralis, is running this week at Exeter Cathedral. The show invites visitors to become immersed ...

THE Covid-19 pandemic “undeniably” continued to affect visitor numbers, events, and worship attendance at Church of England cathedrals in 2021, the latest statistics from Church House show.

There were 4.56 million recorded visitors to cathedrals in 2021, down from almost ten million in 2019. Of all 2021 visitors, one third (1.45 million) made donations.

And, while 15,800 people attended Sunday and midweek cathedral services in 2021 — up 22 per cent from 12,900 people in 2020 — this was almost two-thirds lower than the 37,300 recorded in 2019 (News, 25 March 2022).

The figures were published in a report from the Church’s data and statistics department on Friday. It covers the activities of the 42 cathedrals in England, plus Westminster Abbey, from 1 January to 31 December 2021. Nine cathedrals did not return data for 2021, for which an estimation was carried out by researchers based on previously held data.

With lockdown restrictions still in place at the beginning of the year, and the threat of the Omicron variant looming towards the middle, it would be “unrealistic to expect a return to pre-Covid figures so soon”, the report says.

Generally, cathedral visitors and attendance figures were unchanged or increasing slightly, pre-pandemic. Sunday service attendance at cathedrals had been steady since the mid-1990s, the report shows. Midweek attendance (Monday to Saturday) had been increasing yearly since it was first recorded as 7000 people in the year 2000, peaking at 19,900 in 2015. But this line plummeted in 2020 owing to the national lockdowns, which included the closure of church buildings.

In-person attendance at “regular” cathedral services — ones that occur once a month, such as school services or fresh expressions — remained almost 50 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels. In 2021, 254,800 people attended these, compared with about 502,800 in 2019.

One-off attendance at special public or civic services (such as diocesan, episcopal, and specially arranged school services, and services held away from the cathedral on its behalf) was 257,800 in 2021 — about one third of the 826,000 people who attended these services in 2019.

Festival services were also lower than pre-pandemic levels, by similarly large margins.

Reported in-person attendance at Easter Sunday services in 2021 was 12,400, of whom 69 per cent received communion. This is compared with 52,000 people in 2019, of whom 54 per cent were communicants. About 39,700 people attended cathedral services during Holy Week in 2021, compared with 93,000 in 2019.

In 2021, 65,800 people attended a Christmas Day service (of whom 17,400 were communicants) — half the 132,000 reported in 2019, but triple the 21,200 people who were able to attend in 2020 (amid restrictions).

Similar percentages were reported for Advent (including carol services, concerts, and nativity plays). In 2021, 270,400 people attended Advent services, down from a record high of 665,000 people in 2019.

Cathedral weddings and funerals, on the other hand, bounced back to 93 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. In 2021, 230 marriages were conducted in cathedrals (compared with 240 in 2019, and 70 in 2020). Thousands of weddings were postponed during national lockdowns in 2020 (News, 6 July 2020). In the decade pre-pandemic, cathedral weddings had decreased by almost a quarter (23 per cent).

In 2021, 340 funerals took place in or on behalf of cathedrals — 93 per cent of the 360 funerals recorded in 2019; 300 funerals were recorded in 2020.

Baptism numbers were not so strong. A total of 320 were conducted in cathedrals in 2021, compared with 740 in 2019. Just 90 were conducted in 2020.

Volunteers decreased from 16,000 in 2019, to 14,700 in 2020, and again to 11,700 in 2021. Cathedral roll numbers (those who would be counted on the electoral roll if the cathedral were a parish) remained at about 13,300 in 2021, as they have done since 2019 and through the pandemic, decreasing by just 200 in that time.

Choir numbers were also similar in 2021 to pre-pandemic. Visiting choirs, however, took a hit: there were 280 in 2021 compared to 970 in 2019.

Although all lockdown restrictions had ended by October 2021, most cathedrals (94 per cent) were still providing live-streamed or pre-recorded online services (compared with 97 per cent in 2020). A few cathedrals continued to provide telephone, dial-in, and email services in 2021, alongside hand-delivered service sheets, but these were fewer than in 2020.

Commenting on the latest figures, the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith, who chairs the College of Deans, said that it was “encouraging to see the beginning of recovery” in cathedrals in 2021. The figures, he said, demonstrated “the resilience of the cathedrals and their importance to local communities in the face of adversity.

“We have adapted to the changing circumstances throughout the pandemic, and some of what we have learnt is here to stay. This includes the gift of online worship, with many cathedrals reaching new congregations, together with those who would prefer to join services from home.

“As we look to the future, and continued recovery, we remain committed to supporting our whole communities, particularly those in need, providing a place of worship, prayer and sanctuary for all.”

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