It’s not just the Census. Everywhere you look, the CofE is withering.

Posted: Mon, 12th Dec 2022 by Keith Porteous Wood

It’s not just the Census. Everywhere you look, the CofE is withering.

By every measure membership figures for Church of England are in freefall – and the church's increasingly outdated values are partly to blame. There is no justification for it to remain the established church, says NSS president Keith Porteous Wood.

The 2021 Census showed the proportion of people of England and Wales identifying as Christians dropped to 46% from 59% just a decade earlier. In effect 6 – 7 million have moved from defining themselves as "Christian" to "no religion". That's around a fifth of Christians and 12% of the whole population.

The Bible Society believes the shift away from Christianity happened some time before the past decade, but few continue to claim a faith they do not hold simply to court social approval.

This first Christian minority in the Census prompted numerous calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England – including, of course, from ourselves at the National Secular Society. But another perhaps even more compelling case for disestablishment came hot on its heels in the CofE statistics on mission 2021. Normal Sunday CofE attendance for all ages represents just 0.9% of the English population, some way short of the 46% of Christians in the Census.

The Church's accelerating decline in attendance, a decline which has continued for well over a century, poses an existential threat. The archbishop of Canterbury told the BBC's Sunday Programme that CofE attendance had been declining "at a rate of about 1.5% since the 1950s …. and inevitably you drop below 50% at some point", seemingly conflating the very low CofE church attendance with the population's Christian affiliation. By my calculations, the compound decrease in the decade from 2009 to 2019, approximately Dr Welby's tenure, was nearer 2.5% per annum.

Extending that to twelve years, 2009 to 2021, during which period CofE attendance dropped from 895.000 to 509,000, the compound annual decrease reached around 4.5%. Covid is largely to blame for this. Or put another way, Covid accelerated that decline by a decade, as at 2.5% per annum the decline to 509,000 (the figure in 2021) would not have been reached for a further ten years.

(These calculations rely on the only published figures available and assume that few who stopped attending over Covid will have returned in 2022, although the CofE – and doubtless Dr Welby – are expecting "further bouncing back".)

It does not seem to have occurred to Dr Welby that some of his actions could have contributed to the decline. The NSS would fight for the Church's freedom to determine its own doctrine, however unpopular, provided it did not impinge on human rights. However, in my opinion the Church continues to pay a heavy price in reduced attendance and affiliation for metaphorically marching the Lords Spiritual through the "nay" lobby in the Lords on popular human rights measures.

The Church was not alone in opposing the assisted dying bill, but its forced abandonment will have caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering and indignity. It will also have boosted the market for single tickets to Dignitas in Zürich for those going prematurely, while they still have the strength.

And on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, the bishops did not just unanimously oppose it despite it imposing no obligations on the Church whatsoever: they unforgivably abused their parliamentary positions, and indeed democracy itself, by attempting what the Church Times described as a "wrecking amendment" that if successful would have prevented parliament from even debating the issue.

The average age of congregations, and the speed with which any increase in age takes place, is also crucial to long term sustainability. Significant long term rapid rises in age result in a decrease in energetic helpers and disproportionately greater declines through mortality.

In 1979 the average age of congregants was 36; younger than that of the population. Over the next 19 years, it rose a further nine years, then in the following nearly quarter century, it rose a further 16 years. The archbishop of York recently stated that it was "61 — that is 21 years older than the average age in the population".

Given the Church's acknowledgement of congregations being 21 years older on average than the population, the over 75s will obviously be significantly over represented too, as the many white hairs testify. Many play or have played key roles such as churchwardens and contributed generously to the church. But of those who survived Covid and have returned to church, for how much longer?

They are not being replaced by the young or even middle aged. NatCen found "the sharpest decline … has come among the middle-aged…. the percentage of 45 to 54-year-olds who told the researchers that they were C of E in has fallen from 35 to 11 per cent". Only 1% of 18 to 24 year-olds regard themselves as belonging to the CofE, and only a small proportion of them actually attend.

So it is little surprise that in 2021 the median sized church had an average attendance of 22 adults and one child, and over the whole year two baptisms, one marriage and four funerals.

When the interviewer asked Dr Welby whether his Church "is facing irreversible decline" he emphatically retorted "absolutely not". Yet, six months ago, the Church Times published the predications of a statistician who had analysed attendance data from 2000 - 2020. He concluded that "the Church of England faces extinction within 40 years because the faith it proclaims is not "contagious" enough. … "[it] will cease to be a national Church, and the Churches of Scotland and Wales will disappear by the middle of this century."

How many of could now argue in good conscience that the rapidly declining CofE so at odds with British values still deserves (if it ever did) to be England's established church and hence that of the British State? The bishops must be removed from the House of Lords, and then the process of disestablishment must be completed as soon as possible.

Photo by Jay Chen on Unsplash

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