Mixed feelings over Church of England's ageing congregations

Will ageing congregations be the death of the Church of England? Some in its midst fear the answer to that question is yes.

Andreas Whittam Smith, the overseer of the Church’s investment fund, told General Synod yesterday that the Church was facing a “crisis” with its ageing demographic.

He likened the Church of England to large companies that “perfectly and impeccably manage themselves into failure”.

He suggested that not all Anglicans were fully aware of the scale of the crisis facing the Church.

“One of our problems is may be that decline is so slow and imperceptible that we don’t relly see it coming clearly enough.”

Another Synod member, the Rev Dr Patrick Richmond, from Norwich, warned that a “perfect storm” was brewing, as the number of adults and children attending services continues to decline nationwide.

He expressed concern that there would be no Church left as ageing members start to die out in the next few decades.

“The perfect storm we can see arriving fast on the horizon is the ageing congregations,” he said.

“The average age is 61 now, with many congregations above that.

“These congregations will be led by fewer and fewer stipendiary clergy.”

He added: “2020 apparently is when our congregations start falling through the floor because of natural wastage – that is, people dying.”

He suggested that 20 years from now the Church of England would be “no longer functionally extant at all”.

Some bloggers have offered their thoughts on how serious declining attendance is for the Church of England.

EChurch Blog writer Stuart James said it would take more than a recruitment drive to turn Church attendance around.

“Normally headlines are alarmist, but sadly I think one’s spot on,” he said.

“’Supervising decline’. I think this aptly sums up the situation many Anglican parishes find themselves in.

“I still find the decline of the CofE painful to contemplate. As to why this is happening, I have my theories and no doubt you do also.

“It’s easy to kick something when it’s down.”

The Vernacular Curate blogger, Fr David Cloake, was a little more optimistic, dismissing Dr Richmond’s comments as “grotesque pessimism”.

He said that the average age of church attendance had always “erred towards the ancient” because people tended to return to church in their fifties “once families and their immediate needs abate”.

“Unless there is a virus that Doc knows about that will wipe us nearly-forties out in the next twenty years too, then I would suggest that congregations are gently self regenerative," he wrote.

He also showed little concern over the fall in stipendiary clergy, saying that Dr Richmond had overlooked the thousands of Christians in accredited ministries.

He continued: “The Church of England will not be dead in twenty years … there are still many of us who expect to be around in thirty and forty years’ time (God willing).

“His words are, of course, one of the fashionable sneers we have heard about recently, and to my mind, unhelpful at best, harmful at worst.”