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.[1] 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

2000    950k

2010    799k

2019    680k

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)[2]

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.”[3] 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[4]

“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[5]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4 (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2021), 2.5; P. Brierley, UK Church Statistics 1, (ADBC, Tonbridge, 2011), 4.4

[3] 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.

[4] 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’.

[5] Brierley, UK Church Statistics 4, 12.5; 12.8.

About The Author

David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England.


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12 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    One of the obviously distinctive challenges is church property/number of church buildings/care for these. The CofE has no clear analogy here anywhere else in the Communion. Given the demographics, are 5% of these properties needed? 10%?

    I am a regular reader of Thinking Anglicans. The problem is universally acknowledged and some very knowledgeable proposals have been put forward. It is a special challenge for the CofE.

  2. Mike O'Leary

    Issues of “church”,

    Before I go into the thoughts God has given me I want to explain that this is not aimed at anyone particular person or any particular church.

    Some denominations may fit into all of this and some may just have a partial fit but I do think it’s a huge problem we have to sort to ensure that we are all far more efficient in our Faith.

    Let’s imagine the church, as a whole, as a pine tree. Jesus is the massive truck with deep roots and we are all branches. Congregations are the lower branches spread out wide, then the church leadership are the next set of branches, with the upper denominational leadership are the top set of branches. If you are a single church with no outside leadership then its lower branches are the bottom branches, deacons etc are middle and the church leader is the top.

    What does your tree look like? Is it bottom heavy? Top heavy?

    So why, just a look at a few issues, is the church struggling?

    A top heavy tree could just be one issue, too many at the top. Are we “promoting” others just because we can? Are we promoting self worth?
    We must remember that, whatever role we have in church, it is a calling NOT a job. We must find the place in the tree that God wants us to be at and NOT what we want to be at.
    I shall touch a little into finance here and expand later on. Our calling should provide us with a wage to live but it should not be one where we are taking away food from the church. This I shall expand on later on as well.

    In no way am I saying or suggesting that sacking people who are in the section of the tree where it is currently unbalanced. I am suggesting a look at a deep look at the structure of the tree and where our resources are best used.. It may require a sacrifice of job role, move etc. but we do need to look at the bigger picture, Gods picture!

    What else has caused the issues we have in church today?

    A lack of support from top to bottom of the tree?
    A Complacent culture (This has been passed from generation to generation)
    Lack of progression (This is how we have always done it syndrome)
    Lack of discipleship/investment

    Support from top to bottom!

    In the bible a congregation are those who God has placed into the church building that you are placed in. With upper leadership it is the area or those on the few branches below that you are to invest in. With this mindset and culture then the branches below become unhealthy.
    Failing to invest into those will and have developed a number of issues, ill feeling, lack of trust, animosity, resentment and anger. This also can and will damage the church and any outreach it tries to do.
    Church leaders MUST be given all the tools required to answer their calling. Not just sunday preaching but a full on discipleship of the congregation.
    Once again, a failure on this will result in a stagnant church and a revolving door church. It will also result in church leaders burning themselves out!!
    No one should be burning themselves out at any level. Our tree should be a strong supportive tree!

    Investment should be a financial element as well. It must be thought thru and not a “throw money at it” solution at any cost. It has to be an investment whereby its a balancing act of funds against “result” (Yes I know in church we do not see a whole result as what we do has an effect on hearts. Also that it is a piece of the bigger picture God has planned for that person or people). We do not measure “success” by an increase in congregation numbers. If we do then we need to change the way we look at things. God does not care about how many are in the church building but how many hearts are changed in the community, town, city, country and world for Him.

    Those at the top of the tree must invest into discipleship of those below and this MUST filter downwards. Supporting the church minsters into discipleship of the congregation is so key. Empowering the congregation and sending them out into the community in outreach will change hearts. It will not only grow the congregation in their faith and deepen their love of God but it will also spread the Light into the community. It will spread the Gospel in the same way Jesus did, A face to face, heart to heart and hand holding way. .Whether it is just 1 person at a time or 10 people it does not matter. It is a change of heart, spreading of the Light and removal of darkness This also gives a community the knowledge that the church is not just there for those within the building. The “Them and Us” way of thinking.

    A congregation that is discipled will also then support the church leader (if they are called by God to) which will release the leader to expend their energy and focus into answering their calling.

    With a solid method of discipleship built into the church foundations of its life it will ensure that those who enter the church for the first time will be mentored and discipled in a way that will ensure they do not fall between the cracks and part of the revolving door people.

    Yes I am aware that not alot of people are called to be at the same church for their lives and most are there for a season.

    So with correct discipleship we can then see Gods calling for them. Prayer, Facilitator or Sent.. Then we can really focus on their calling and grow it accordingly. Yes I am also aware that people can be called into 2 groups and sometimes God can move them around. We, with correct prayer etc, can acknowledge this and facilitate it.

    Congregation —-> Discipleship —> Growth —-> Outreach —> Changing hearts (inside and out of church building)

    Being on the battlefield (the community outside of the building) we are fighting evil that has sown lies into the hearts of generations of people.

    We need to really change the way we view things, as someone who has not been a “Christian” all his life, I still have the outlook as I did back then of how a church is functioning from the outside view.

    Like I have said earlier, it is NOT about throwing money into a situation to fix it.. This is a problem that has to be solved with a restructure of the tree and a restructure of how we are in our lives to the greater good of Gods plans for us and His Kingdom.

    I am not saying I have all the answers at all. Also not saying it is an easy solution but the changes we make, inline with Scripture and Gods calling, will be for the goodness of our Faith, those within the church and, most important, Gods Kingdom!

  3. Donald Link

    As a Roman Catholic, it would be improper for me to give organizational advice to another Church. However, by education and avocation I have some competence in Western History. It is my observation that there seems only four choices available to those in the Anglican communion who see the present organizational components as not meeting their needs. They can remain as they are and hope for a renewal of tradition as they understood it to be before 1930 Lambeth. They can remain and resign themselves to going along with the direction the Church seems now headed. They can remove to a fully Protestant denomination and all that would entail both theologically and organizationally. Finally, they can consider the Pope Benedict invitation to consider the Ordinariate for those wanting an English Church under the conditions prior to 1535. I hasten to note that those of the Anglican communion are not alone in the search for direction during these times. There is no guarantee that members searching for answers will find exactly what they seek. I sincerely wish the best for all concerned.

    • C R SEITZ

      Thank you. My own considered plea (see Convergences 2020) would be that the Catholic Church consider further ways to encourage catholic relationships. The Ordinariate may be one of these, though it often appeals to a certain kind of liturgical antiquarian (the liturgy of the present Catholic Church is virtually indistinguishable from that of Anglicanism, for obvious reasons of ecumenical work in the last century). Anglicanism has become more, not less, fractured since Vatican 2. But there are also much easier ways for the Catholic Church to identify fellow travelers within the AC of today.

  4. Nic Tall

    Interesting that the article takes a view over the last 30 years. If you look at the five years up to the pandemic (the most recent data over “normal” times) and use “Worshipping Community” it is a slightly different picture. There is still an overall decline, but there are 15 dioceses who have either maintained their position or grown. The leading dioceses in terms of growth are Hereford (15.5%), Lincoln (10.2%), Southwark (10.1%), Sheffield (8.9%), St Eds and Ips (7.3%) and Ely (5.0%). All very different as places – urban/rural, north, east, south and west, so it’s hard to pick out any common factor on why they are growing. It is impossible to take the model from one diocese and roll it out nationally – whatever they are doing right in Hereford and Southwark will be specific to those local areas.

    London, on the other hand, had a 3.3% decline in worshipping community over the period 2014 to 2019. The article, in talking about factors in London’s apparent growth over 30 years (although it has been declining in the 2014-19 figures, whether you look at the 3.3% decline in worshipping community, the 5.3% drop in USA or 6.7% drop in ASA), did not apply the obvious one of demographic change. Decline in attendance by white British worshippers has been offset by incoming worshippers from outside the UK. Historic Anglican links to the Caribbean, Nigeria, etc. have brought in new people and they have sought continuity through Anglicanism as they settle into their new home. This effect will clearly be more pronounced in more multicultural areas with inward migration from specific communities than in others, and London clearly has an advantage here over rural areas with much lower minority ethnic inward migration. It was good that this pointed was raised in comparing different denominations (Orthodox/Pentecostal/Methodist/Presbyterian) but it also needs to be considered in differences between dioceses. As an approach in Chelmsford where Barking Archdeaconry is around 60% UKME it is highly significant, as a strategy in Bath & Wells (UKME population 2%, mostly in Bath) it would have less traction.

    (All data online at and taken from the Diocesan tables excel spreadsheet (particularly Table 4 – Worshipping community).

    • The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew

      Thanks for this, Nic. I appreciate your engagement with the articlem but would disagree with your analysis.

      ‘Worshipping Community’ as a measure is deeply flawed and cannot be trusted (see Mark Wigglsworth’s Durham MA from 2014 as to why – It runs against most of the other data. If the dioceses you cite are doing well, why are they falling by most other metrics?

      I would also beware a short run of data, such as five years. All the CofE data has problems and the longer the perspective, the more solid the conclusions.

      I agree with you as to the importance of minority ethnic communities, but feel you downplay them. They are now highly significant in all British cities (Sheila Akomiah Conteh’s recent PHD on Glasgow shows their significance there and if significant in Glasgow, how much more are they significant in, say, Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham) and increasingly of significance beyond cities (see Eric Kaufmann’s comments on the spread of UKME communities across the south of England).

  5. Benjamin Guyer

    The following doesn’t really make sense: “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.” Orthodox and Pentecostals have very different theologies. And while they might be conservative on certain matters – abortion and gay marriage, for example – “theology” is obviously bigger than hot-button moral topics. So, I’m going to question whether theology as such is key, or whether it is really about the fact that each group puts forward an understanding of life that is all-encompassing and clear-cut. IOW, the function of a theology might be more important than its content. So, the question then becomes, are there Anglican churches where theology functions in an analogous way (and this irrespective of the content of said theology)? If so, what are the main features of that function? I would love to see future analyses answer these questions, and what is more, offer some sort of quantitative analysis on point.

    • The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew

      Thanks for your comments, Benjamin. Working out how theology influences church growth and decline is such a hard topic. But I’d want to push back a little on what you say. Yes, Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism are diffferent. But they have very substantial areas of agreement on beliefs such as the incarnation, the atoning work of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the trinity, a high view of scripture, belief that God intervenes in human history. Contrast that with many ‘mainline’ churches where these beliefs are substantially diluted or even absent. Is the growth of one and the decline (mostly) of the other entirely due to other things? Or does theology have a role? I’d say the latter – but working out exactly what is at work – that’s a big task !

  6. Ken Eames

    Thanks for the article, David.

    I am the person responsible for collecting, checking, curating, and publishing the Church of England attendance & participation figures as part of the annual Statistics for Mission report. The latest edition is available here: Archives, going back to the 1960s, are available here:

    A few quick general comments for anyone who finds the information that my colleagues and I provide interesting, thought-provoking, or useful (David, thank you for encouraging me to post comments):

    1. Please use the information – it’s what it’s there for, and it’s why I argue every year for publishing this level of detail.
    2. Please read the methodology, and the sections discussing the pros and cons of the various measures of church “size”. All measures have pros and cons, so the “right” measure(s) for your work will depend on what you want to use the information for. If there’s anything that’s unclear, or you’d like to discuss in more detail, please get in touch with me or my colleagues.
    3. If possible, for any analysis you have in mind, use as many measures of “size” as possible. Taking them together – as David wisely does in the article – gives a fuller picture. Trends are often similar, and where they differ that can prompt useful avenues of enquiry.
    4. Work out whether you’re interested in the number or the trend, or both. Some things have been consistently measured for a long time, others are more recent. We’ve been counting electoral roll, usual Sunday attendance, Easter and Christmas communicants, baptisms, weddings, and funerals for decades (in some cases, for centuries). Average weekly attendance has been around (with a few tweaks) since 2000, worshipping community since 2012. Worshipping community, in particular, has taken a while to settle down.
    5. Please cite your sources. Making this dataset available takes a huge amount of work, mainly from clergy and lay people in churches, and from my colleagues in diocesan offices. Saying where your information comes from helps acknowledge that work, as well as being good practice (and good manners), and makes it easier for other people to engage with your work in an informed way.

    Happy to chat with anyone who would like to.

    Thank you to everyone who makes use of the figures we provide. Keep up the good work!

  7. Jean Némar

    churches are like karate clubs. no kids, no future. how many churches have non Messy Church real clubs for kids? Like football, or choir, or whatever, anything to get them in through the door? kids come and sing in church, parents come and listen. add rowan williams’ views on sharia law and now the church is living on borrowed time. 4 out of 5 churches will be shut and gone by 2035.


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