Ignore the cheerful spin - the Church of England is in unrelenting decline

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The Church of England is presenting its preliminary attendance figures for 2023, announced on Monday, as a growth story but it omits to mention the 169,000 worshippers it has lost since 2019.

"Weekly Church attendance up five per cent in third year of consecutive growth," the official press release proclaims in its headline.

The statement says: "Overall, all-age weekly attendance at Church of England churches rose to 685,000 last year, from 654,000 in 2022, an increase of 4.7 per cent. The number of children attending weekly increased from 87,000 in 2022 to 92,000 (up 5.7 per cent).

"The full Statistics for Mission report is due to be published in the autumn as usual but these preliminary figures, published for the first time, aim to provide a snapshot of the overall picture."

The all-age average weekly attendance figure across the C of E's 11,000 churches includes the Sunday attendance and also people turning up to mid-week church services such as Holy Communions and events for children such as Messy Church.

The statement admits that "total attendance is still below 2019 levels, the last year before the Covid-19 lockdowns", but claims "the analysis suggests in-person attendance is drawing closer to the pre-pandemic trend".

The harsh reality is that the C of E has lost 160,000 attendees across an average week including Sundays since 2019 when 854,000 people attended its churches. Since 2003, the all-age average weekly attendance has declined from 1,126,000.

With the population of England now around 67 million, 685,000 worshippers in 2023 means barely 1 per cent of the people living in the nation are turning up to C of E churches.

The C of E is an institution with enormous advantages over other Christian denominations and religious groups in the UK. It is the Church by law established in England with 26 of its bishops entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Its Church Commissioners manage an endowment fund worth £10.1 billion. It has 16,000 buildings across England and 4,630 schools teaching about 1 million children.

Commenting on the annual increase since the pandemic in the preliminary attendance figures for 2023, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: "This is very welcome news and I hope it encourages churches across the country."

"I'm especially heartened to hear that more children are coming along to church and I'm grateful to everyone involved in that ministry," he added.

But again the harsh reality is that the number of young people attending C of E churches in an average week has plummeted by more than half since 2003. At that time, 218,000 under 16 year olds attended C of E churches in an average week, compared with 92,000 in 2023. In 2019, there were 120,000 children attending C of E churches in an average week.

Also commenting on the 2023 figures, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said: "This is 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."

Arguably, the attempt by the C of E's higher-ups to spin the story of denominational melt-down as a vindication of the Archbishops' growth strategy is even sadder than the figures themselves. Did they seriously think that journalists would fail to notice the 160,000 disappearing worshippers since 2019 and the 441,000 since 2003?

The C of E now faces an uphill task in justifying its 26 bishops in the second chamber of the UK legislature. Labour back in 2022 announced that its election manifesto would include a commitment to reform the House of Lords.

The bishops in the Lords may well have shown themselves to be reliably left-wing particularly in opposing the Conservative government's plan to fly illegal migrants to Rwanda but that does not mean that they will escape a cull in the likely event that Labour wins the 2024 General Election.

If a Labour government's reform of the House of Lords involved allocating a proportion of places in the second chamber to representatives of religious groups with those seats awarded according to the number of active members, the C of E could well lose out to the Muslim Council of Great Britain, the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, and the Elim Pentecostal movement.

No amount of episcopal spinning can disguise the phenomenal growth of Islam in the UK. A statistical question to the Church House, Westminster, press office in 2050, potentially yielding a news story, would surely be: how many former C of E buildings have been converted into mosques over the past 25 years?

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Lancashire.