The Church of England is losing young people - and fast

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Attendance by children in Church of England churches is plummeting. Might that indicate that the push by revisionist bishops to ditch the Church's traditional teaching on marriage and sexual morality is not persuading young people to join C of E churches?

Andrew Selous MP, who fields questions about the established Church in the House of Commons as Second Church Estates Commissioner, has revealed that the number of children attending C of E churches on an average Sunday has halved since 2003. 

In a written answer on April 12 to a question from fellow Conservative MP Neil O'Brien about the average weekly attendance across the C of E in each year since 1994, Selous said the Church "first started collected data centrally in the autumn of 2000; as a result it is not possible to publish data for the period 1994-1999".

But the data he gave O'Brien showed "the longest period of comparable figures available, from 2003-2022". These figures showed there were 154,000 children under the age of 16 in C of E churches on an average Sunday in 2003. By 2022 that had declined to 70,000.

That figure was up from 62,000 in 2021 when Covid restrictions were still impacting church attendance. In 2020 when the government imposed the lockdown there were 24,000 children in C of E churches on an average Sunday, down from 94,000 in 2019.

In 2003 the average adult Sunday attendance was 802,000; by 2022 that had declined to 477,000. In 2019, there were 619,000 adults in C of E churches on a usual Sunday. That fell to 272,000 in 2020 and rose to 447,000 in 2021.

As a parish vicar from 2000 to 2019 in a South Yorkshire village, I can testify that the average Sunday attendance figure is the key one. In the church I was privileged to serve, the people who attended the usual Sunday services - as distinct from the people who came only at Christmas or Easter or on Remembrance Sunday - were the core congregation. They were the committed Christian people who gave financially and who took on the voluntary roles without which a local church cannot function.

Those among them with children brought them to church. Without those Christian parents, the church would not have had any children on a usual Sunday.

Would the church have attracted more young people if I had not taught the traditional Christian sexual ethic? The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, who was my bishop in Sheffield Diocese from 2008 to 2016, has since suggested it might have.

In December 2022 he became the most senior C of E bishop to call for the Church to allow same-sex marriage services. He set out his stance in a paper, Together in Love and Faith: "In paying attention to our prevailing culture, particularly as expressed by the under forties, I am aware of their sense of this manifest unfairness (in the Church forbidding same-sex weddings), and of anger and alienation among a whole generation.

"If the Church believes this clear injustice, the argument goes, then what does this say about the rest of the beliefs of the Church? Is this an organisation that is to be taken seriously at all as a moral and ethical force in the 21st Century?"

But the contention that the traditional teaching on marriage and sexual morality has been putting off the younger generations in the new Millennium raises the question: given that the majority of clergy are now in favour of ditching the traditional Christian sexual ethic, according to a survey by The Times newspaper in 2023, why has this not led to a rise in attendance by young people in their churches?

The further question arises: why is it that evangelical churches that uphold the traditional teaching are attracting young people?

In a study published in February 2023, Churches with the largest youth groups teach Biblical sexuality, Christian Concern (CC) looked at the online presence of 33 C of E churches listed in 2019 as having the largest numbers of under 16s, along with the public views of their leaders. 

The analysis found that 61 per cent of the churches "could be clearly identified as supporting the church's historic view that sex is reserved for one man, one woman marriage". With the remainder of the sample not revealing their public view on the issue, CC noted: "None of the churches listed, nor their leadership, were publicly supportive of a change to the C of E's doctrine or other views that indicated opposition to conservative beliefs on sexuality and gender."

CC commented that its analysis showed that the Bishop of Oxford's "fears are unfounded – if anything, young people are drawn to teaching that says something different to the society around them".

CC published its analysis just before the C of E's parliament, its General Synod, voted for a motion in favour of introducing services of blessing for same-sex couples. The overwhelming majority of bishops were in favour but the motion passed by narrow majorities in the Houses of Clergy and Laity.

With their dioceses deeply divided over the blessings, the bishops have become less gung-ho for the services than they were in February 2023. Several bishops who voted for the original motion have since withdrawn their support

Might not the fact that the Church is fast losing the younger generation lead to even more episcopal disillusion with these divisive services and prompt more bishops to conclude that they are more trouble than they are worth?

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