The latest local church attendance figures from the Church of England have shown larger falls than at any time in the last five years, despite initiatives such as Back to Church Sunday, and attempts to increase numbers at Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas.
The total number of adults, children and young people regularly attending local churches has dropped by five per cent in the seven years since 2001, with the latest 2008 figures showing a one percent decrease year on year.
It is the fifth consecutive year of decline in average weekly attendence (see graph).
In a statement today, the Church of England took as its base year 2002, when there was an unexpected dip in attendence. The Church highlighted a two per cent decrease in the last six years.
The overall decline in the five years from 2003 was three and a half per cent. The overall decline since 2001 is five per cent. There has been a ten percent drop since 2000, when the C of E began using a new system for its statistics.
The latest figures for 2008 show a drop of one per cent against the number attending on an average week in 2007, suggesting that the rate of decline may once again be increasing.
There was further bad news for the Church with the number of marriages taking place in parish churches falling by three per cent. The number of ‘infant’ baptisms (under one year old) fell by two per cent. The number of Thanksgivings for the birth of a child fell by five per cent. The total number of funerals conducted by the Church of England also dropped by three per cent.
The overall decline masks a boost in the figures amongst under 16s however. Many Church of England schools, which make up one quarter of primary schools require church attendence in order to gain priority in admissions. The number of under 16s increased by three per cent over the year, returning to two per cent below their 2002 level.
1.7 million people, just under three per cent of the UK, continue to attend Church of England services each month. Around 1.1 million - just under two per cent of the UK - attend church as part of a typical week.
The figures also show changing patterns of attendance. People continue to attend church on other days than Sunday. For every 50 people attending church or cathedrals on a typical Sunday, another 10 attend during the week and an extra 37 in total over a month.
The Rev Lynda Barley, the Church of England’s Head of Research and Statistics, tried to paint a positive picture, suggesting that the figures didn't give the complete picture.
“The figures released today, covering regular local church attendees, give an important but inevitably partial snapshot of today’s Church" she said.
"They paint a mixed picture for 2008. Alongside some encouraging signs, such as the number of under 16s in church increasing and growth in church attendance in 14 out of 44 dioceses, are some disappointments, with further small declines in traditional attendance measures. Excluded from these figures are Fresh Expressions (a joint initiative with the Methodist church), chapel services in hospitals, education and other establishments, some international congregations and the projects funded by the Youth Evangelism Fund.
“It is important to see these trends in the context of wider changes in a society where fewer people are willing to join and take part in membership organisations. Political parties have seen their memberships fall by around 40 per cent in recent years. Even in a general election year, almost double the number of members of the three main political parties taken together will attend a Church of England parish church on Sunday.”
Many campaigning groups have seen their memberships grow in recent years.
In a statement, the Church of England also pointed out that falls in marriages and funerals may have been affected by a decreasing UK mortality rate, and fewer weddings in wider society generally.
But Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia said: "The latest figures are part of a steeper decline than the Church of England is openly acknowledging.
"The Church is taking 2002 its base year and highlighting a two per cent decline since then.
"2002 was in fact a 'blip' in which there was an unexpected drop. There has in fact been a five per cent decline in weekly attendance since 2001 and a three and a half per cent decline since 2003. It's a ten per cent decline since 2000.
"The Church should acknowledge openly the true extent of the problem it faces. The current trajectory is unsustainable both financially and institutionally.
"This may be a snapshot, but taken alongside other figures from previous years it gives a pretty full picture. The long-term trend not flat. It is still down and hasn't bottomed out."
More than nine out of ten Church of England parish churches completed attendance counts, representing the highest participation rate ever. These have been verified across all 16,000 Church of England churches by the Research and Statistics Department of the Archbishops’ Council. The provisional figures can be seen on the web at: www.cofe.anglican.org/info/statistics/2008provisionalattendance.pdf.