UK sees sudden surge in churchgoing after years of decline

The Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Christopher Chessun, dedicating a new church in BermondseyDiocese of Southwark

As many as six in 10 British adults visited a church, chapel or religious meeting house in the last 12 months, according to a new survey. The survey results counter the more usual narrative of perpetual decline that has dominated surveys in recent years. 

Although too soon to give certainty, the survey is one of the first to give affirmation that the more confident, outward-looking evangelistic strategies of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Pope Francis in Rome could be yielding tangible results.

Adults in the North East of Engand were the most likely to visit a church or chapel, with 64 per cent saying they had done so. Those in Wales were the least likely, but even there nearly half, 45 per cent, had done so.

While overall in Britain the number who went to church or chapel was 57 per cent, well over half, just one in five of these said they went for a non-religious activity such as a playgroup, cultural event, meeting or lunch club. The 57 per cent is an increase of nine per cent on the year before. 

Women were more likely than men to go for services such as  Sunday worship, weddings or funerals – 40 per cent of women compared to 34 per cent of men.

More than four in 10 said a friendly welcome would encourage them to visit. Provision of toilets, a café or refreshment were also important in encouraging visits, along with comfortable seats, useful visitor information and, especially for younger adults, wi-fi. 

The survey was commissioned by the National Churches Trust from ComRes, which found also that six in 10 adults believe the Government should provide financial support for churches, chapels and meeting houses in order to protect their heritage and history for future generations. 

Claire Walker, chief executive of the trust, said: "This poll shows that there is overwhelming public support for church buildings, despite the decline in the numbers of people in Britain identifying themselves as Christian in recent years. The British public thinks that churches, chapels and meeting houses are an important part of the UK's heritage and history and that they are also important for society as they provide a space in which community activities can take place, as well as worship.

"Looking to the future, our poll shows how even more people could be encouraged to visit churches. That includes making sure that visitors receive a friendly welcome and providing better facilities such as toilets, a café or refreshment area. WiFi was seen as particularly important by young adults." 

However, she added: "It's a fact of life that keeping church buildings open costs money, in most cases way beyond the means of congregations themselves."

There are around 42,000 churches, chapels and meeting houses in the UK. Faced with changing patterns of worship and demographic change, it is sometimes tempting to think that there are simply too many churches and that many should be closed.

Ms Walker added: "However, the huge support for churches demonstrated by this poll will, I hope, encourage local communities and church authorities to keep their buildings open. In good repair and with the right facilities to allow greater community use, churches, chapels and meeting houses can continue to play a vital role in the life and well-being of the nation for many, many years to come."

ComRes interviewed 2,038 GB adults online between December 16 and 17, 2015.