England goes to pray: Bright spots and gloomy weather

NEWS  |  John Sandeman

Friday 15 January 2016

There’s no way to spin it as good news: weekly attendance in the Church of England has dipped below a million according to the latest official figures released this week.

The latest figures for weekly attendance is 980,000 and the Sunday attendance is 764,000 for 2014, down 3 per cent on the previous year.

The figures reflect a steady decline of about 1 per cent a year since World War Two.

In contrast to Australia, the Church of England attenders remain a dominant proportion of the churchgoing public. In England, the Church of England Sunday attendance is more than double the number of Pentecostals, while in Australia the position is almost exactly reversed.

However the Census figures in both countries show similar percentages of the population claiming to be Christian: 59.3 per cent in Britain and 61.1 per cent in Australia. (Both are 2011 figures).

But to concentrate on the overall Church of England figures conceals a more complex reality. A graph in the latest The Economist magazine (which is normally skeptical of religion) reports that significant parts (Dioceses) of the Church of England are growing. London, which has welcomed church planting, is growing. The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990 according to a report by academics at Cranmer Hall, a theological college in Durham, entitled Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present.

More liberal parts of the church have not seen growth, with the exception of Cathedrals, a bright spot for non-evangelicals.

The percentage of evangelicals in the Church of England may be 50 per cent, according to Peter Brierley a church demographer quoted in The Economist. This is up from 26 per cent in 1989.

The Economist cleverly provides an anecdote of what church growth in Britain looks like: “To see the future of Christianity in Britain, go on a Sunday morning to an old Welsh Congregational chapel off the Pentonville Road in Islington. The building has been bought by a Pentecostal Ethiopian church; the congregation raises its hands in a show of unEnglish ecstasy to praise God in Amharic. A few hours later, something unexpected happens. A congregation of mainly white members of the Church of England start their service. This group, known as King’s Cross Church, or KXC, has grown from a handful in 2010 to 500 now.”

To movements revitalizing the Church of England and the mostly Pentecostal immigrant churches can be added the church planting by the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (conservative evangelicals similar to the local Australian group with the same name) and Pentecostal church planters.

The reverse missionaries of the black majority Pentecostal churches are the key movement. “Redeemed Christian Church of God alone has started 296 new churches in the UK in the last five years, the largest number for any single denomination,” according to Christian Today.

The Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present report also revealed there are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any. At least 5000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher. There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities.

The future of Christianity in England will depend on whether the churches in decline Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and Catholics, are matched by the churches that are increasing in attendance: Orthodox, Pentecostals and New Churches. According to Brierley’s Faith Survey site, church membership in England is steady with the growth of churches offsetting the decline in the Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics.

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