Sunday church service attendance almost halves in 30 years, figures show

Sunday service attendance has nearly halved in 30 years, The Telegraph can reveal, as clergy warn that priests covering more than one parish has sparked a “loss of confidence” in the Church.

The only area of the country to see an increase in the number of worshippers was London, where the diocese has stuck to the “one-priest-one-parish” model.

All 43 other dioceses have seen an average decline of 40 per cent in the number of regular Sunday worshippers, a new analysis of Church of England data shows. Between 1987 and 2019 the number fell from around 1.2 million to 679,000. In London, over the same time period, churchgoers increased from 52,700 to 53,600 – an increase of 1.7 per cent.

Priests in rural areas are increasingly being asked to deliver services at several towns and villages in the community, with some using lay people instead of clergy due to shortages.

Responding to the data, Rev Marcus Walker, who founded the Save the Parish campaign, said: “London, many decades ago, decided to buck the trend in the rest of the Church of England and stick to a one-priest-one-parish model. The fruits of this can now be seen.”

He added: “There has been a loss of confidence in the core claims of Christianity – both in the nation and in the church.

“If we want to bring people back to church first we have to win people back to the God they would worship in our churches. For that we need theologically-trained priests, embedded in their communities, with the time to know and love the people they serve.”

Fears for churches in rural communities

The new data come at a time when there are warnings that the church could "collapse" in rural communities as many struggle to attract congregations and funds.

A leaked Church document last year suggested the Covid pandemic was an opportunity for "radical change" which could result in the loss of the parish church model in a bid to remain “financially sustainable”. It warned clergy to prepare for changes and cuts as officials prepare to overhaul the system, sparking fears that churches in rural towns and parishes will not survive.

There is also an ongoing debate about the future of the Church as it tries to attract more Christians in an increasingly secular society.

The diocese which saw the biggest drop in the number of churchgoers between 1987 and 2019 was Durham, with the figure falling from 26,800 to 10,900 – a decline of 59.3 per cent. This was closely followed by the Diocese of Liverpool whose churchgoers fell by 55.7 per cent, from 35,000 to 15,500 over the same period.

Two dioceses saw a small increase in the number of usual Sunday churchgoers between 2018 and 2019.

The Diocese of Coventry saw its number of regular Sunday worshippers increase from 11,100 to 11,200 and the diocese of Worcester also saw an average increase of 100 Sunday worshippers, taking its total to 8,900.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Leeds was created in April 2014, after the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon, Leeds, Sheffield and Wakefield were merged. The number of usual Sunday worshippers for this diocese in 1987 – before the merger – was 50,000. However, by 2019, this figure fell to just 25,200.

Pandemic shines light on ‘evolution’ of Church’s function

The Ven Luke Miller, Archdeacon of London, said the reason that the capital has seen an increase is because “churches have seen significant growth where they have engaged with communities in new and creative ways, often responding to local needs and changing demand”.

He added: “While experiences will differ locally, broader societal changes over time have affected people’s patterns of life, whether it be in their work, their leisure and family time, or in how they practice their faith.

“To compare church service attendance with historical data oversimplifies and overlooks the other ways in which our churches have been changing and responding. Sunday services continue to be an important part of parish life, but Church today reaches people in so many ways. The pandemic has shone a light on this evolution.”

The Telegraph recently revealed that more than 400 churches have been shut down in less than a decade.

Church numbers have declined in all but 3 of 41 diocese

Further analysis revealed that almost 1,000 have been forced to close in just over 30 years – 940 between 1987 and 2019. This means that the total number of churches left stands at around 15,496.

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