It is hoped that some twenty thousand people will return to church with a friend this weekend (Sunday 30 September 2007) as part of a major co-ordinated effort by the Church of England to pack the pews in around 2,000 participating churches.
Today bishops from Exeter to Peterborough and Manchester to Oxford - representing half of the Church of England’s dioceses - will swing into action by taking to the skies in planes, launching podcasts and unveiling advertising campaigns. The unprecedented co-ordinated activity aims to encourage churchgoers to invite a friend, who has stopped going for whatever reason, ‘back to church’.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has personally backed the initiative, commenting: “Millions of people remember and love church, but perhaps they've just drifted away for a while. Back to Church Sunday is a chance for church people to invite a friend to come back and see what they've been missing, and to help them reconnect with God in special services of welcome across England.”
In anticipation, local churches have ordered Back to Church Sunday boxes, sponsored by Traidcraft, packed with special invitations, posters and T-shirts, and have been preparing special ‘open day’ style services and improving their welcome techniques at summer workshops.
The idea builds on research that recently revealed three million people (six per cent of the adult population) would come back to church if they received a personal invitation. This type of opportunity for churches formed the basis for the idea of Back to Church Sunday, which began in the Diocese of Manchester in 2004 and has been growing steadily ever since - with more dioceses taking part every year.
Organisers predict that this year’s event will see 20,000 people return to church this Sunday, based on an average figure of ten people returning to each church that has previously taken part in the event.
Church attendance figures have fallen dramatically in the past forty years. But they have been relatively stable since 2000, with weekly and monthly attendance falling by one per cent or less between 2004 and 2005 - says the C of E's statistical office. This followed two years in which the numbers increased or held steady, it suggests.
The latest figures indicate that around 1.7 million people attend Church of England church and cathedral worship each month, while around 1.2 million attend services each week – on Sunday or during the week - and just under one million each Sunday.
Jonathan Bartley of the religious think-tank Ekklesia, told the Guardian newspaper that while he applauded the efforts to reconnect people with the life of the church, more fundamental change was needed.
He said: "A church that appears at worst bigoted and at best unable to agree on issues of private morality is not going to hold on to new communicants for long.
"There is growing resentment that church schools, although funded by the taxpayer, give priority in admissions to Christians. At the national level the fundamentally undemocratic arrangement with 26 unelected, exclusively male, bishops sitting in parliament by right, undermines any stands for justice the Church may seek to make.
"The ongoing rows over homosexuality confirm that the Church must get its own house in order before it can seriously invite visitors who have previously walked away - often with good reason - to return."