By David Goodhew
Whither the Church of England (C of E)? The numbers make bleak reading, for the most part. Take the diocese of Bath and Wells. In 1990, around 34,000 people attended its churches on Sundays. By 2019, less than 30 years later, Sunday attendance had halved to around 17,000 people. Not every C of E diocese declined as much, but all, apart from one, have dropped substantially. Moreover, the figures have worsened in recent years. And that’s before factoring in the impact of COVID.
This article charts the C of E’s recent trajectory and offers reflections on ways forward. Not all is lost, yet. Of course, Anglicanism is much more than the C of E, but the C of E plays a crucial role within the Communion. And C of E trends mirror those elsewhere, notably in the U.S. So its current and future trajectory deserves study by wider Anglicanism.
What has happened?
Assessing the data needs care. Some C of E data is dodgy. Some exists for so short a run of years that no firm conclusions can be drawn from it. The most useful metrics are those that exist over a long period. One other thing: watch the trend, not the precise numbers.
Church of England – Usual Sunday Attendance
Church of England Sunday attendance has dropped by nearly a third since the start of this century. For baptisms, the picture is worse.
C of E Baptisms (total) C of E Infant Baptisms (infant = under 12 months)
2000 161k 114k
2010 135k 82k
2019 86k 49k
C of E baptisms dropped by almost half overall, 2000-2019. And infant baptisms more than halved. English Anglicanism used to be a quasi-ethnic faith, in which large swathes of the country routinely had their children baptized, even though they showed little interest in Christian faith the rest of the time. In much of England that has largely ceased, hence the deep drop of infant baptism figures.
Other metrics, mostly, tell a similar story.
What will happen next?
Ecclesial prediction needs doing with care. But some clear truths stand out. First, decline is long-term and large-scale. Second, carrying on as before means that much the same can be expected to happen. It is a sign of madness to do the same things and expect a different result. Third, all the signs are that COVID has made the many fragile congregations of the C of E more fragile. Most dioceses currently face severe financial pressure and are likely to cut the number of parochial clergy, which is a recipe for further decline.
Not all gloom
This is a deeply serious picture, but the degree of seriousness varies. Below are five different dioceses, tracked across almost thirty years, and the rate of decline within them varies dramatically.
Usual Sunday Attendance 1990 2019
Bath and Wells 33.5k 16.9k
Manchester 35.1k 18.4k
Ely 17.7k 13.6k
Southwark 40.5k 31.6k
London 51.8k 53.6k
All have shrunk, except one — London, whose Sunday attendance has grown, modestly.
Here are the same dioceses, using a different measure — “electoral roll.” Electoral roll is the nearest thing the C of E has to adult membership figures. It is a measure with flaws in it, but its virtue is that it has been measured consistently over many years, so long-term comparison is possible.
Electoral Roll 1990 2019
Bath and Wells 47.3k 25.7k
Manchester 39.3k 22.2k
Ely 23.8k 16.3k
Southwark 46.1k 37.3k
London 45.1k 61.3k
Sunday attendance and electoral roll figures paint a similar picture and are backed by other data sources. We can be confident they depict what is really happening.
London stands out. It has grown when every other C of E diocese has shrunk. Some dioceses — like Manchester and Bath and Wells — have nearly halved in the last 30 years. Some have shrunk, but by “only” 20 to 30 percent, like Ely and Southwark. Indeed, London is the only Anglican diocese in either the USA or England to have grown in the last 30 years. You do not need to be Albert Einstein to see that, based on pre-COVID trends, in another 30 years some C of E dioceses will cease to exist.
Most interesting is the long-standing contrast between the dioceses of London and Southwark. London covers the northern half of the city of London, Southwark covers the southern half of London. Demographically they are much the same, yet London has grown and Southwark has shrunk. London’s resilience is, partly, a reflection of the rapidly diversifying population. But only partly. Southwark has the same demography, but nothing like the same vitality.
You might have thought that, given the dire straits of the C of E, many would have been trying to understand what London got right. You’d be wrong. There has been only limited interest and even a degree of hostility. The C of E needs, urgently, to get over such dog in the manger mindsets.
Why has London been different ?
First, London prioritized congregational growth over decades. That might sound obvious. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to evade the obvious. Large sections of the C of E see the growth and multiplication of congregations as unnecessary or impossible. In the last decade there has been more rhetoric about growing churches, but all too often it is accompanied by minimal action, or ineffectual action. Prioritizing growth means serious focus on sharing faith and multiplying congregations — and a willingness to use hard metrics to face up to what is happening.
Second, London protected and sought to increase the number of parochial clergy, encourage younger vocations to ordained ministry, and minimize situations where incumbents had charge of multiple churches. The C of E has for many years expanded the geographical area and number of churches a single incumbent is expected to oversee — and assumed this had no serious effect. If you ask a teacher to have 40 kids rather than 30 in their class, you know the quality of education for those kids will fall, however talented the teacher. Exactly the same is true of clergy. Parish priests are central to the work of the Church of England. Plans to cut their number and increase their workload guarantee further decline.
Third, London was led by Anglo-Catholic bishops who supported often evangelical parish clergy. I’m not saying that is a guaranteed way to grow dioceses, but it is intriguing that when Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals work together, good things can happen. What is clear is that David Hope and Richard Chartres, Bishops of London for most of the years since 1990, were two of the most gifted Anglican bishops in the last 50 years. We should be learning from what they did.
Positive signs from elsewhere
The Diocese of London is not the only sign of growth in British Christianity. There are some good things happening elsewhere in the C of E. But most of the other signs of growth are to be found outside of Anglicanism.
Church Membership in Britain 1990 2019
“New” Churches 81k 163k
Orthodox Churches 185k 475k
Pentecostal Churches 147k 380k
Many churches in Britain are growing, But most of the growing churches are not Anglican. Immigration is a significant driver of growth, but not for every growing church. Alongside this, historic denominations such as Methodism and Presbyterianism are collapsing.
Church Membership in Britain 1990 2019
Methodist 447k 186k
Presbyterian 1,244k 622k
The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.
Alongside theology, a key factor is ethnicity. Put crudely, churches appealing to what the census enumerators call the “white British” are shrinking and those which appeal to a wider ethnic mix are growing. The “new” churches, Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches are far better at this than Anglicanism — but it need not be that way. There are some positive indicators. For example, translation of C of E liturgy into Farsi is a recognition of the spread of Christianity amongst Iranians who have moved to the UK.
But C of E work with Iranians is the exception, not the norm. Despite many pious declarations, the C of E has made limited efforts to encourage multi-ethnic congregations. Yet what are called (with decreasing accuracy) “ethnic minorities” are far keener on Christian faith than most of the “white British” and minority ethnic communities are expanding fast. Many British cities are now majority-minority. These populations are feeding into non-Anglican churches, but they could feed into C of E congregations too.
The Church in England will not die. Significant chunks of it are vigorous, even as significant chunks of the Church of England face oblivion in the coming decades.
I believe in Anglicanism. I believe in the C of E’s capacity to glorify God and bless England. The C of E has a continued future and, in places, can thrive. But I would be dishonest if I were to pretend the problems were smaller than they now are.
Most C of E dioceses have seen deep decline in recent decades. A handful of dioceses have suffered smaller, but still significant, decline. Only one diocese, London, has grown. Some dioceses will be operatively defunct by 2050, on the basis of current trends. Others will still exist, but be radically smaller. Only one looks robust. Unless something radically changes, large swathes of England will see Anglicanism effectively disappear by 2050.
It is therefore essential that members of the C of E learn from London and let go of any “tall poppy syndrome” whereby London’s different trajectory is ignored, or even resented. It is, likewise, vitally important that the C of E learn from the many non-Anglican churches that are growing in England — notably about ways of connecting with the burgeoning minority ethnic communities.
Anglicanism is more than the C of E, thank God! There are many provinces and dioceses across the Communion which are far more vigorous. But the C of E’s role as “mother-ship” to the Communion means its struggles cannot be viewed with equanimity. Moreover, many of the challenges it faces are ones faced elsewhere, not least in North America. Some of the more vigorous Anglican provinces have much to teach the C of E, if it can find the humility to learn from them. Ultimately, the Church of God is far stronger than any one branch of it. The C of E has glorified God and blessed many in England in the past. We need to pray that it continues to do so in the future.
The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University and vicar of St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough. He can be followed on Twitter @ccgr.
 This article is in no way a criticism of the Research and Statistics department of the CofE who do a remarkable job given the challenges of data collecting for such a large and disparate organization. However, Average Weekly Attendance (aWa) is, I would argue, a measure with serious problems due to the complexity of what it is trying to measure (making it difficult to collect), the variable competence of those collecting the data and changes made in the way the data has been analysed. “Worshipping Community” is a new measure which lacks the length of dataset to give perspective. It also suffers from being a complex measure (making it difficult to collect) and from the variable competence of those collecting the data. I would be very wary of basing conclusions on these measures.
 P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4 (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2021), 2.5; P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 1, (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2011), 4.4
 Electoral roll data has its flaws and is sometimes criticized for how it can be inflated by inclusion of nominal church members. It is important to note that electoral roll data is credible because the overall picture these figures paint is echoed by other metrics, such as usual Sunday attendance (uSa). Usual Sunday attendance shows London has grown and all the other C of E dioceses named have been shrinking, often on a large scale, since 1990. The growth of uSa in London since 1990 is lower than that for electoral roll, but it is substantial and the difference between the two measures has some obvious explanations — notably the way Sunday working and family commitments mean people are able to attend church less frequently in recent years and the growth of worship on days other than Sundays. These developments depress uSa but not electoral roll. It is also important to note that other metrics used by the Church (especially what is called the October count) have different, but major, flaws and only offer data for recent years, so cannot give a longer-term perspective. Beyond this, electoral roll data is as vulnerable to undercounting as it is to overcounting and is a valuable resource when handled carefully.
 Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4, 12.4; 12.6; 12.7. “New” churches are denominations which sprung up from the 1970s, originally called ‘House Churches’.
 Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4, 12.5; 12.8.