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Archbishops take comfort from small signs of growth in church attendance

20 May 2024

But figures still well below pre-pandemic levels, preliminary figures suggest

Diocese of Portsmouth

The Archbishop of Canterbury attends a family service at Christ Church, Gosport, during a visit to the diocese of Portsmouth, last October

The Archbishop of Canterbury attends a family service at Christ Church, Gosport, during a visit to the diocese of Portsmouth, last October

AVERAGE all-age weekly attendance at C of E services rose by 4.7 per cent last year — but was still well below pre-pandemic levels, preliminary figures suggest.

Attendance figures are assembled each year and published in the Statistics for Mission report in the following autumn. This year, however, preliminary figures were released by Church House on Monday. They provide “a snapshot of the overall picture”, and are based on returns from more than 11,000 churches, a statement said. “The totals could be revised as further figures come in and checks continue.”

The returns received so far suggest that average all-age weekly attendance, which includes Sunday and midweek services, increased from 654,000 people in 2022 to 685,000 in 2023: a rise of 4.7 per cent. The number of children (defined as anyone under the age of 16) attending weekly rose from 87,000 in 2022 to 92,000 in 2023: an increase of 5.7 per cent.

In 2021, average all-age weekly attendance was 605,000 people, compared with 345,000 people in 2020 (when churches were closed during periods of national lockdown), and 854,000 people in 2019 (News, 9 December 2022).

“While total attendance is still below 2019 levels, the last year before the Covid-19 lockdowns, the analysis suggests in-person attendance is drawing closer to the pre-pandemic trend,” the Church House statement said.

The trend is worked out by drawing a straight line through the attendance figures from 2014 to 2019 to plot what attendance might have been last year had there not been a pandemic.

In the decade from 2009 to 2019, most key measures of attendance fell by between 15 and 20 per cent, and by three per cent since 2014 (News, 16 October 2020).

The statement continued: “In 2021 all-age Sunday attendance was 22.3 per cent below the projected pre-pandemic trend, but the new figures reveal that the gap had narrowed to 6.7 per cent last year.

“All-age weekly attendance rose to within 8.3 per cent of the trend last year, compared with 24.1 per cent in 2021.”

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said that the preliminary figures showed that the Church’s evangelistic efforts were working.

“This is very welcome news and I hope it encourages churches across the country,” Archbishop Welby said. “I want to thank our clergy and congregations who have shown such faith, hope, and confidence over recent years to share the gospel with their communities.

“I’m especially heartened to hear that more children are coming along to church, and I’m grateful to everyone involved in that ministry.

“These are just one set of figures, but they show without doubt that people are coming to faith in Jesus Christ here and now — and realising it’s the best decision they could ever make.”

Archbishop Cottrell described the figures as “very good news. For the first time in a long time, we have seen noticeable growth.

“Of course, we don’t yet know whether this growth is a trend, but I take it as a great encouragement that our focus on reaching more people with the good news of Jesus, establishing new Christian communities, wherever they are, revitalising our parishes, and seeking to become a younger and more diverse Church, making everyone feel welcome, is beginning to make a difference.”

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