The scale of the Church of England’s atrophy has been starkly set out by figures presented to its general assembly which show that church attendance will continue to fall for the next 30 years.
Previously, the church predicted its decline in numbers was likely to continue for another five years before recovering.
But John Spence, the Church of England’s finance chief, said yesterday that the decline was expected to continue for another three decades, with today’s figures of 18 people per 1,000 regularly attending church falling to 10 per 1,000. He added that an 81-year-old was eight times more likely to attend church than a 21-year-old.
“On all likely measures of success, given the demographics of the church, it is unlikely we will see a net growth in church membership within the next 30 years,” said Spence. “I could have given you other facts, but I think you get the point.”
The figures illustrate the challenge facing a church whose congregations are ageing as the millennial generation increasingly spurns organised religion.
The church said in January that the number of people attending Church of England services each week had fallen below a million for the first time, with Sunday attendances falling to 760,000. Projections suggest that Sunday attendance could drop to 425,000.
There are no comparative figures available for the numbers in Britain regularly attending services for other religions.
A church source suggested the 30-year prediction was “much gloomier” than previous forecasts. But it did not take into account the potential impact of the church’s emphasis on evangelism and its £72m programme of “renewal and reform”, the source added.
The programme is aimed at modernising the church and increasing by 50% the number of priests being trained, to 600 recruits a year. It also involves shifting funds away from struggling rural parishes with small and elderly congregations to urban churches which are regarded as having potential for growth.
The programme involved risk, said Spence, a former Lloyds Bank executive. He said that along the way some things would “not work”.
Arun Arora, a church spokesman, said: “The reference to 30 years is based on projections which assume no change, and underscore the importance of the renewal and reform programme. They do not factor in the changes being proposed. Most crucially, as the archbishop of Canterbury said this morning, we trust in the grace and transforming power of the spirit of God, who empowers and equips the church.”
In a separate session the synod called on the government to launch an independent review of the impact of benefits sanctions after hearing anecdotal accounts of hardship and humiliation from bishops, clergy and lay members.
Speakers acknowledged the need for checks on the benefits system to deter abuse, but said the sanctions system was punitive, aimed at the most marginalised and vulnerable, and that it created a climate of fear and anxiety.
Sanctions made many claimants feel under suspicion, said Malcolm Chamberlain, of Sheffield. The “highly punitive regime” led to people “begging, borrowing and stealing to meet daily needs”.
He cited a case of a claimant being sanctioned for failing to attend a benefits interview through being at a funeral, and another case of sanctioning when the claimant was being interviewed by police after his house was burgled.
Elliot Swattridge, of the church’s youth council, said: “The system is not just broken, but is cruel, even deadly.”
Catherine Pickford, of Newcastle, which hosts one of the UK’s largest food banks, said that for many claimants sanctions felt like “an arbitrary and dehumanising [punishment] for being unemployed”.
According to Simon Taylor, of Derby, the impact of sanctions lasted far beyond the period of withdrawal of benefits. “Sanctions are not removing dependency but perpetuating and increasing dependency. This is a counterproductive system.”
The former Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry urged the church to start a mass lobbying campaign of MPs over the issue of the state’s benefits sanctions. Meetings with MPs at constituency surgeries would generate correspondence from them to ministers and get questions raised in parliament, he suggested
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