Attendance at Sunday services has almost halved in 30 years, The Telegraph can reveal, as clergy warn that priests covering more than one parish have sparked a “loss of faith” in the Church.
The only region of the country to see an increase in the number of faithful is London, where the diocese sticks to the “one priest, one parish” model.
The other 43 dioceses have seen an average drop of 40% in the number of regular Sunday worshipers, according to a new analysis of Church of England data. Between 1987 and 2019, the number rose from around 1.2 million to 679,000. In London, during the same period, the number of worshipers rose from 52,700 to 53,600, an increase of 1.7 %.
Priests in rural areas are increasingly being asked to provide services in several towns and villages in the community, with some using lay people instead of clergy due to shortages.
Responding to the data, the Reverend Marcus Walker, who founded the Save the Parish campaign, said: ‘London decades ago decided to buck the trend in the rest of the Church of England and stick to a mock priest-a-parish. The fruits of this can now be seen.
He added: “There has been a loss of faith in the fundamental claims of Christianity – both in the nation and in the church.
“If we want to bring people back to church, we must first win people back to the God they would worship in our churches. For this we need priests trained in theology, integrated into their communities, with the time to know and love the people they serve.
Fears for churches in rural communities
The new data comes at a time when there are warnings the church could “collapse” in rural communities as many struggle to attract congregations and funds.
A church document leaked last year suggested the Covid pandemic was an opportunity for “radical change” that could result in the parish church model being lost in a bid to remain “financially viable”. He warned clergy to prepare for changes and cuts as officials prepare to overhaul the system, raising fears 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 that saw the biggest drop in the number of faithful between 1987 and 2019 was Durham, with the number falling from 26,800 to 10,900, a drop of 59.3%. It was closely followed by the Diocese of Liverpool whose faithful fell by 55.7% from 35,000 to 15,500 over the same period.
Two dioceses saw a slight increase in the number of regular Sunday worshipers between 2018 and 2019.
The Diocese of Coventry saw its number of regular Sunday worshipers increase from 11,100 to 11,200 and the Diocese of Worcester also saw an average increase of 100 Sunday worshipers, bringing its total to 8,900.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Leeds was created in April 2014, after the merger of the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon, Leeds and Wakefield. The number of regular Sunday worshipers for this diocese in 1987 – before the merger – was 50,000. However, in 2019 this figure has dropped to just 25,200.
Pandemic highlights ‘evolution’ of church function
The Ven Luke Miller, Archdeacon of London, said the reason 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 differ locally, broader societal changes over time have affected people’s lifestyles, whether in their work, leisure and family time, or in how they practice their faith.
“Comparing attendance at church services with historical data oversimplifies and overlooks other ways our churches have changed and responded. Sunday services continue to be an important part of parish life, but the Church of today reaches people in many ways.The pandemic has brought this evolution to light.
The Telegraph recently revealed that over 400 churches have been closed in less than a decade.