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Analysis, Church of England


By Rev. Dr. David Goodhew
January 8, 2024

COVID was bad for the Church of England. And new data show just how bad. Overall, the church lost one in five of its Sunday worshipers during COVID. For children at worship, it's worse.

Canterbury Cathedral makes the CofE appear impressive, but appearances can deceive. The Diocese of Canterbury had 1,600 children in Sunday worship in 2019, before COVID. By 2022 it had 1,000 children in Sunday worship. That's nearly a 40 percent drop.

Long-term decline coupled with COVID has left much of the church in deep trouble. Yes, there are wonderful pockets of vitality, but their number is shrinking. The new data show that, during COVID, the condition of much of the church has moved from serious to critical.

The End of Sunday

The latest C of E data are just out, covering 2022. Here are the overall figures for Sunday attendance in the Church of England since 2000.

Usual Sunday Attendance (all ages)

2000 950,000
2010 799,000
2019 680,000
2022 549,000

Sunday attendance has nearly halved since the millennium. A church that had long been declining has seen the decline dramatically speed up during COVID. The latest data, covering 2022, are crucial because they give us a clear sense for the first time what COVID did to the church. The data from 2020 and 2021 were so affected by COVID they cannot easily be used. By 2022 most churches were doing in-person worship, and those who wished to attend could do so. The evidence is that those who had not come back by 2022 were not going to come back in significant numbers.

Online worship? The figures for this are rightly described as the wild west of ecclesial data-gathering. It is impossible to know exactly what they mean, and church leaders cannot put too much weight on them. The advent of online church has value, but has proved compatible with dramatic congregational decline in the C of E and elsewhere, and there is no reason to think that this will change.

What this Looks Like on the Ground

Here are figures for a handful of dioceses, which give a sense of the effects of such decline on the ground.

Usual Sunday Attendance 1990 2019 2022

Bath and Wells 33.5k 16.9k 14.3k

Manchester 35.1k 18.4k 14.0k

Ely 17.7k 13.6k 11.2k

Southwark 40.5k 31.6k 25.2k

London 51.8k 53.6k 43.4k

You can see the deep fall in Sunday attendance over recent decades and how this sped up since COVID. All dioceses have lost between a fifth and a quarter of their Sunday worshipers, between 2019 and 2022.[i] And this accelerated deep pre-existing decline. Some dioceses, like Bath & Wells and Manchester, have lost 60 percent of their Sunday congregations since 1990. Some, like London and Ely, have done less poorly, but all have seen a sharp drop since 2022.

There are other metrics for measuring attendance. They have their virtues, but also their vices. The great virtue of "usual Sunday attendance" is that it offers a long run of years of data. And it is easy to collect. There are other measures, but they generally offer shorter runs of data and, in some cases, are highly complex to calculate, raising concerns about the reliability of data. And the other metrics support the attendance trends given above.

Here is "leveling down" in action. For several decades, the Diocese of London held out against the rest of the church and actually grew (modestly). At last, it has come back into line. London is now declining as fast as everywhere else. London used to be an embarrassment for many C of E bishops. Why did it keep growing, when every other diocese was shrinking? This is an issue no longer. Every single C of E diocese is shrinking.

Beyond that, there are wider trends. Some of the smaller rural dioceses have shrunk less. But don't be fooled. This is because they already had a tiny number of children and families. And it is children and families who have been most likely to stop attending during COVID.

The most spectacular falls are in some urban dioceses like Manchester and Liverpool. Both have half the number of Sunday worshipers now, compared to the beginning of this century.

Here's one intriguing shift: The Diocese in Europe used to be regarded as a minor player in Anglicanism. But, post-COVID, the dioceses of Worcester, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Hereford, Truro, and Carlisle are all smaller than the Diocese in Europe in their Sunday attendance.

The End of Children in the C of E

The data are worse when you look at children. Sunday attendance for children is 23 percent down, overall, between 2019 and 2022.

But the figures in some dioceses were much worse. As noted, the Diocese of Canterbury had 1,600 children in Sunday worship in 2019. By 2022 it had 1,000, nearly a 40 percent drop. Many other dioceses are not far behind. Hereford "only" dropped from 500 to 400 children, across all its churches, 2019-22. Hereford has 399 churches. In 2023, it is likely that Hereford has more church buildings than it has children inside them, on an average Sunday across the entire diocese. Whilst the average fall in English child Sunday attendance is 23 percent, many C of E dioceses lost a significantly larger proportion of children in Sunday worship during COVID.

The bulk of adult believers come to faith in the first decades of life. Things were bad regarding children in worship before COVID. In large swathes of England, the church now has no children in its churches on a Sunday. This is moving beyond decline and toward extinction.

This bleak picture is backed by other figures. There is a measure called average weekly attendance. This tracks worship with children that happens both on Sundays and other days of the week. Child average weekly attendance across England dropped 28 percent between 2019 and 2022, decline of over a quarter in three years. By the average weekly attendance measure, the number of children in the church halved in the decade up to 2022.

The net result is that the church has markedly aged since COVID. Those that are left are, on average, old. Worshiping communities markedly aged during 2019-22, with 36 percent of the church being over 70, whereas 13.5 percent of the population of England are over 70.

Where Next?

Where the C of E goes next can be seen by looking at other denominations in England.

The United Reformed Church was the main home for Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England. It is leading the trend of mainline decline. In 1972 it had 192,000 members. By 2022 it had 37,000 members. In 50 years, it has shrunk by over 80 percent. The bulk of its existing churches are small and elderly. This is what ecclesial collapse looks like. British Methodism is on the same path.

The trajectory of the church will take a little longer, but in many places it is the same trajectory.

As congregations age, they struggle to fill key posts -- wardens, treasurer. They stop being composed mostly of people in their 70s and become composed mostly of people in their 80s -- and then they stop. There comes a point when decline tips over into being unviable and that point is at hand for many congregations.

This won't happen everywhere immediately, but it is happening and at speed. Remember that in 2000 there were nearly double the number of Sunday worshipers in the church compared to 2022. In 2006, there were roughly double the number of children on Sundays in church, compared to 2022.

Don't be deceived by the splendor of Canterbury Cathedral. The 40 percent fall in the number of children at worship in the Diocese of Canterbury shows the underlying reality.

Decline existed before COVID, but COVID has put it on steroids. It led to the largest fall in C of E attendance in the last 100 years. The damage is particularly marked with regard to children and families. This vital sector has been hit hardest.

The British Government is conducting an inquiry about lessons to learn from COVID. The church has not followed suit. There is a sense that no one wants to face just how bad the figures are.

Following the comments of Dean Kelley and Tim Keller, I would argue that churches decline when they allow the heart of the gospel to be obscured by other matters -- however laudable those other matters may be. Church leadership has spent the last year focused on sexuality. This is a major issue, but it has allowed avoidance of the bigger, existential, question the organization faces. The church cannot claim to have put its primary energy into leading people to faith in Christ and building people up in that faith. And the church has managed, thus far, to skate over the fact that it has lost one in five of its Sunday participants since 2019.

[i] There was a modest rise in attendance between 2021 and 2022, but this was to be expected, as some of those kept away by lockdown chose to return. The more important measure is the comparison between 2019 (before COVID) and 2022 (when most churches were open for in-person worship). In that case, all dioceses were substantially smaller in 2022 than in 2019.

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