Is there a statistician in the (Catholic) house?

Professor Stephen Bullivant has written recently of the Church of England’s latest set of national statistics. It is a lot to get through and Professor Bullivant pulls out a few points of interest to him. The Executive Summary has some bracing moments (with a little commentary):

  • The C of E “Worshipping Community” in October 2016 was 1.1 million, made of 930,000 attending “Church of England churches” each week, and 180,000 attending “services for schools” each week.

    180,000 sounds like school pupils with not a lot of choice in attendance at services so this figure needs to be considered with this is mind. Moreover the category of “Church of England churches” includes cathedrals, and these attract a large of number of people who are not Anglicans and attend for the beauty of the cathedral liturgy—aesthetic-liturgical tourists as it were. These two caveats n.

  • Sunday attendance at “Church of England churches” averaged 740,000, with the same balance between adults (86%) and children (14%).

    This seems far closer to what might be a meaningful understanding of the numbers of practising Anglicans, though this two would include a good number of aesthetic-liturgical tourists in the cathedrals (and Oxbridge colleges if they are included in the tally). This is not to dismiss aesthetic-liturgical tourists, as getting people into a church is a first-step to evangelizing them; but it is not accurate to count them as part of a stable “worshipping community” unless Anglican membership is now a very fluid thing indeed.

  • 1.2 million attended “Church of England churches” at Easter 2016 and 2.6 million at Christmas.

    Sadly, as no doubt often happens in the Catholic Church, attendance increases at Christmas for socio-aesthetic reasons, a suspicion that seems reasonable given the 1.4 million extra who attend at Christmas over Easter, the latter being the central and crucial season of the liturgical year, and of Christian faith in general.

  • On most indices there was a decrease of between 10 and 15% between 2006 and 2016, though in 11% of parishes “usual attendance” increased (but in 38% it decreased, the other 52% having “no clear trend”).

    As the summary itself states, the “overall pattern is one of gradual decline”. The word “gradual” is barely justified. I would suspect “inexorable” is more justified.

  • Of the 1.1 million who make up the “worshipping community” of October 2016, 20% were aged under-18, 49% aged 18-69, and 31% were aged over 70.

    The 18-69 age group is almost statistically meaningless, as it hides (I am almost certain) that the majority of this 49% are aged in the upper third of this range, maybe even the upper quarter. What it hides is the biological bomb, namely that with such an ageing “worshipping community” the viability of the Church of England beyond the short-term is very fragile, as things stand today.

What is admirable is that the Church of England openly shares these statistics. It is honest and transparent. Even more, it is healthy. It seems to me that while statistics can be abused and manipulated, of course (like that 18-69 age group!), reviling statistics is not always useful. While Christianity is not a numbers game, nevertheless decline is not acceptable if the Church is serious about evangelization, or even maintenance of the current flock.

In the Anglican statistics above, what really interests me are those 11% of parishes that experienced an increase in “usual attendance”. What is the magnitude of such increase from parish to parish? (I will trawl the statistics to see if I can found out.) What sort of parishes are they—traditional anglo-catholic, strict evangelical? In other words, what (if anything) can the C of E learn from those parishes that are actually pulling more people in?

However, this set of annual statistics raises a more fundamental question for the Catholic Church—where is a similar set of official statistics for the Catholic Church in England and Wales that can be openly accessed and studied? There is nothing I can find at the website for the bishops’ conference, but we know that individual dioceses collect statistics on Mass attendance and sacramental practice. Professor Bullivant found only one diocese that had statistics available, namely Hexham and Newcastle.

There is something on the national Church at the Faith Survey website, which uses the report produced by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, itself based on a larger, secular, British Social Attitudes survey (and so are not official Catholic statistics). From these we learn that:

  • 27.5% of adult Catholics attend church once a week or more (as against 8.9% of Anglicans, 19.8% of Methodists and 58% of Baptists).
  • Adult Catholics make up 8.3% of the population (as of 2014). With a total population of 45.2 million in England and Wales in 2014 (as estimated by the Office of National Statistics), this means that (to use the Anglican terminology) the “usual attendance” of adults at Catholic churches each week is 1.03 million.
  • Only 17.1% of cradle-Catholic adults attend church weekly.

The real deficiency of these figures is that they only count adults. None of them is an acceptable substitute for official statistics based on counts taken at parish/chapel level, including university chaplaincies. What would be wonderful to see are official statistics that show how many attend Mass in reality, what their age spread is, and where there has been decline or growth and for how long. This latter category would allow us to see what parishes/chapels attract increasing numbers of Catholics and hold on to them, which would allow us to investigate why they do.

Of course, the danger of such statistics is that they would confirm what is the reality inescapable to all except those who will not see: the implementation of the Council (including its mis-implementation and non-implementation) in practice has coincided with a dramatic and consistent decline in the sacramental practice of Catholics. What these statistics would also show, I have no doubt, is that those places which offer a more traditional liturgy and a vibrant and practical social outreach consistent with the faith of the Church—these are the ones which have experienced growth.

The conclusion would be hard to bear for many: that things have gone seriously wrong since the Second Vatican Council, and that the Council’s implementation needs to be re-examined. Given that the Council was expressly aimed at dealing with the world of the 1960s, and given that the world of the 1960s has long since passed away long ago, a valid conclusion might be that it is time to move on from Vatican II, and using such tools as statistics, to discover afresh and anew the timeless qualities of the Catholic faith that have sustained it and allowed it to flourish over two millennia.

So if we look at the Hexham and Newcastle statistics referenced above, we can see that Mass attendance in the diocese has plunged from 100,019 in 1981 to 36,661 in 2013, a decline of 63%. Over the same period baptisms have fallen by 26%, marriages have fallen by 70% and confirmations have fallen by 80%! Between 1972 and 2014 the number of active priests in the diocese fell by 67%. Today 45.7% of its priests are aged over 65, and four active priests are over 80.

Hexham and Newcastle’s transparency is admirable. The plight these statistics reveal is dire. It is no good blaming it on changes in society and culture; these have always occurred, and by standing clearly against what was negative in such changes the Church maintained its vigour even in the face of secular disdain. Now, as we seem to court secular approval these last 60 years, the bottom has fallen out of the Church.

What has happened in the north-east would no doubt be seen as replicated across the country. If we had similar official statistics openly available from each diocese we would be able to confirm or refute that suspicion. Either way, we could better see where the green wood of the ecclesial vine is to be found, and where its dying, or dead, branches. With that knowledge, perhaps we could make the changes needed to make the Church great again.



Join the Conversation

  1. Given the lack of clear statistics for the Catholic Church, I don’t how well this applies, but for much of the Church of England, the decline goes a lot farther back than the 1960s, and perhaps a response to the First World War is a better candidate for the cause of the trend than anything more recent.

    On what basis are you attaching it to the Council? As you present it here, it looks more an ideological link than one that is being made on the basis of statistical evidence?

    1. The C of E was in decline long before the Catholic Church. It’s decline was inevitable not least because its established status, which made it the cheerleader of the state rather than the embassy of God.

      It is some analysis of what statistics are available, done by Dr Joe Shaw, that give me confidence to speak what I, in a non-scientific way, know to be true. These statistics tell a story themselves. A bigger story lies in the statistics we have not seen.

      My aim is not to score points; it is to fix the mess we have inherited from the Woodstock generation.

      1. “My aim is not to score points; it is to fix the mess we have inherited from the Woodstock generation.”

        In fairness, it cannot all be blamed on the Woodstock generation (Boomers and younger Silent Generation Catholics). These are people who were only in their teens or, at most, twenties in the 1960’s; those in power – the bishops, seminary rectors, senior pastors, theology professors, lay administrators – were all by necessity older. They were the ones who had fought in the war (even the Great War in some instances) and survived the Depression. And they were the ones with the power to push this revolution through.

        Those Catholics are all gone now, or nearly so; but it is the 60’s generation which keeps the project going now. And when *they* are gone, there will not be many left behind them.

        1. Fair call. That was dashed off in excess haste, though in fairness I said “from” not “by”more a time reference than a personal one. I will try to massage it when I get a moment. Pax.

      2. Hello Fr Hugh,

        Technically your statement *was* correct! We (those of us Gen X or Y or younger) *did* inherit all this from the Woodstock/Silent Gen/Boomer generation, because they were our parents (or at most, grandparents). And they are the ones still disproportionately in the senior ranks of the Church, right now.

        But it is important to also realize that they, in turn, inherited it from the generation before them, even if they did mostly embrace it with real zeal. The Greatest Generation was in many ways the place where the rupture really first got started.

      3. The statistics are about, but in varied places and need collating. Dr Shaws analysis was interesting but did rather assume causation from correlation. The better question was less ‘why the drop after the ’60’s’ but ‘why the peak of the 60’s’ which may have had more to do with the wars or other societal factors than we expect (since the liturgy had been the same for centuries beforehand).
        To be honest though, we know that decline, however defined, has ocurred. It doesn’t really help to know whether that decline is x percent or y percent. The ‘why’ is the factor that would help reverse it, and of course numbers such as are found in directories do not give us that information (however much we try to read causation into them).
        What does help is study of the why. The Hexham and Newcastle project not only looked at numbers but also at some of the whys and whats. There are two reports covering that aspect, accessible from this link:
        The two documents are ‘Challenges and Hopes’ and ‘The way we see it’. Neither document gives ‘answers’ but they do cast more light on the ‘why’.

        1. Thanks for those links. They are interesting but predictable. The fall into the error, easy enough for any of us given its prevalence in the modern age, of assuming that leadership should be directed by surveys and opinion polls. If the youth surveyed had mostly professed a preference for the Extraordinary Form, that would have been of cheer only if their reasons had been made manifest. If they were to say they found it more fun or entertaining, my heart would correspondingly sink. If they were to say they found in the EF the true spirit of worship and contact with the transcendence of God I would be greatly cheered.

          It seems of limited value to me to survey youth, most of whom do not darken the doors of a church except when they have no choice. A young chap, for example, may know well his taste at that point in time, but it is in the nature of youth that six months later his taste may have entirely altered. Should the Church be adjusting its liturgy and practice to suit the
          ephemeral whims of youth?

          Likewise the other survey was of interest but beside the point in some ways. What people prefer as a matter of taste or ideology is worth knowing, but only to a degree. What is preferable is for the local Church to study its foundational charter and documents, scripture and tradition, and the latter extending back beyond 1962. Without a clear sense of its raison d’etre a local Church is as inconstant as the tastes of youth.

          It is right to warn of conflating causation with correlation. However, that warning is all we ever hear. What we do not hear is exactly why we should not accept causation with the correlation. The arguments for accepting causation have empirical, if not always systematic, observation to support them.

          Once we accept what causation lies in the Church’s control, only then can we begin to do something about it. Blaming society, cultural change, militant secularism, “a different world”, is a cop out that reduces us to wringing our hands and mouthing the refrain, “Oh dear, but what can we do?” Insofar as these are real factors in ecclesial decline, they need to be named and fought against, not accommodated to. Accommodation to the world has always neutered the life and witness of the Church. I am not sure this is the sort of eunuch our Lord desired.


  2. “attendance increases at Christmas for socio-aesthetic reasons”
    Quite so, Father: and in parishes where there is a reputable Catholic school, I have noticed it bulge dramatically at the very beginning of each September, for socio-pedagogic reasons…:-)

    Since most PPs make a point of letting attendant parishioners know they’re ‘being counted’ at certain times, the statistic for each Catholic diocese must surely be known? So why not made readily available? (It would be difficult to break down the attendance at different kinds of Mass, though, and the results might not be representative – if one EF Mass is held at 8am on a Sunday morning, it will necessarily not bring in the crowds; in fact a cynic might think that is the intention of holding it too early for all except those residential in the immediate area…

  3. you know Father—I would imagine part of the uptick in attendance in some C of E parishes might be the now openly inclusiveness of the Church—whereas sin is not seen as sin but rather opportunity….and yes it is an opportunity to repent and turn ones heart—but the Anglicans and their cousins the Episcopal Church of America are each embracing the notion of what ever you’ve got going on is a okay, so come one come all…as in all inclusive…
    but I could be wrong.

    I agree that a bit of transparency in the Church, particular the Church in Rome…might be seen as more of a good thing—as in “we’ve got nothing to hide” as so much of the Protestant church thinks that the Catholic Church is hiding a gazillion skeletons in the proverbial closet.


    This as I received an email the other day from a Baptist blogging friend who told me that he took offense with me for having mentioned in a reply comment following the post I’d written regarding the Reformation, that I was more Catholic then Protestant and more Orthodox than Evangelical….etc….and he had taken offense and chided me for even making mention of encouragement toward Catholicism….
    I didn’t really know what to say….

    I’m just worried Father—worried for the Christian flock as a whole as the Progressive left and the Post Christian era is setting in its teeth and the faithful flock is being scattered and divided….as Satan love the divide and conquer notion….

  4. Fr Hugh,

    1. I share your sense that – admirable as the CofE is for being so transparent here – these statistics considerably inflate the actual, stable attendance they have. I might add also (and I am sure you would agree) that such as the numbers are, they are propped up by Commonwealth immigration – likely the explanation for more than a few of those few communities which reported growth.

    That doesn’t make the immigrants any less Christian, but it helps obscure the gravity of the problem, because these are families who are notably *not* formed by the CofE, or at least not to the same extent.

    2. But even on the CofE’s own reported stats, it is a grim demographic picture. They’re ageing out. They have few children, and almost none of them attend church. There is a good reason why Archbishop Carey a few years back warned that the CoF is “one generation away from extinction.”

    3. And (most of) the Catholic Church in England, Scotland, and Ireland – and many other places in the West! – seems determined to follow that same path, because its leadership was essentially colonized by like-minded people in the second half of the 20th century (and this was starting to happen even before the Council). But they are not so transparent with their data. Nonetheless, you can get that data, if you’re determined enough – as you did with Hexham and Newcastle. Just imagine how much worse the Catholic numbers (whatever they are) would be without Eastern European workers.

    1. Let me give an example of even WORSE data from the United States. This is from Ralph Martin, “The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis: The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas,” Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2013): 57–75 (link: He provides these stats over just a ten year (!) period (2000-2010) in the Archdiocese of Detroit:

      Infant Baptisms 42.4% decrease
      Adult Baptisms 51.2% decrease
      Full Communion with the Church 43.6% decrease
      Catholic Marriages 45.3% decrease
      Interfaith Marriages 52.7% decrease
      Funerals 9.2% decrease
      Parishes 12.8% decrease

      The number of diocesan priests in Detroit has dropped from 823 in 1966 to 348 in 2013 – and this is accelerating now because the mean age is so high.

      I can attest that the numbers are even worse in many other Midwestern and Northeastern dioceses. And now it is resulting in downsizing which can no longer be hidden. Just this year, the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced it is cutting from 190 parishes to just 48(!); the Diocese of Hartford announced that it is merging or closing 150 of its 200 parishes. There are much bigger closings yet to come from some other dioceses before long. They have no choice.

      It is offered as an excuse that the economy in many of these places has not been very good in recent decades, causing out migration. This is often true; but the actual number of baptized Catholics in places in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Hartford has actually been pretty stable. The problem is, far fewer attend Mass or participate in the life of the Church, and most of those who do are in older cohorts. However it happened, there has been a catastrophic failure to pass on the faith to younger generations.

      Those who want to insist that the paradigms adopted post-1965 had nothing or virtually nothing to do with any of this have a mighty burden of proof for such self-exculpatory explanations. Those who want to blame it on the Church’s sexual teachings (which are hardly ever taught any more) must explain why Anglican churches in the UK, Canada and America are in even greater states of free-fall despite aggressively signing on to the Sexual Revolution.

  5. The Diocese of Westminster publishes parish by parish statistics in each year’s Directory. I am sure Dr Bullivant could use these to plot the trends, though it may be an untypical diocese.

  6. In looking at such statistics, one should not forget the movements of people within the churches. If a place is bucking the trend, it could simply be because people move from other parts of a church to this one. This is of course better than people simply leaving altogether, but it need not be a sign of healthy growth of the church. This is important, because such maintenance successes are unlikely to “scale up” in a missionary sense: they are limited to the number of people that are anyhow on the move internally.
    The number of baptisms is probably the best proxy for church health, both in general and for a local parish. It is a severely delayed indicator, because if someone leaves the church this will only show up decades later when their children are not being baptised. Nevertheless, it avoids the trap of counting older adults who are moving around but are not increasing the overall number of bums on pews (any longer). And it also tracks true adult conversions (of previously non-Christian adults), rather than “sheep-stealing” ones (from one Christian denomination to another, typically via confirmation).
    I have a much more cynical view of the decay of churches in the West. The West has become a collection of welfare states and/or hosts large numbers of secular charities. Clearly, this is due to the Christian heritage, but in the current post-Christian era in the West the needy basically do not need the church – it is one player among many. Therefore, the church is seen as socially superfluous. Furthermore, political power has been thoroughly secularised in the long wake of the French revolution. Those vying for power do not require religious blessings and endorsements (except for the USA, which in part for this reason lags a couple of decades behind in religious decay). As the socio-political role of the church is largely gone, it is thrown back onto its religious role.
    Consequently, we are now seeing what fraction of the population (1) considers religion of great enough importance by and in itself to devote significant time and resources to it, and (2) finds that the Christian religion specifically fills their spiritual needs best in a free marketplace of religions. Given these conditions, I think Christianity will halt its decay at about 5-10% of the population, and I would be amazed if any one Christian denomination could capture more than half of that (i.e., these small Christian numbers will still be fractured).
    What can reverse this trend? Socio-political catastrophe smashing the Western status quo, basically. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (And we are “rich” not just in terms of money and things, but also in terms of a legal system that protects us, of strong national states maintaining our realm, etc. Much of what riches used to buy for a person is now “systemic” and taken for granted by all.)

    1. This view of the societal decline of the church is I think close to the mark. In general the population is not so much antagonistic to Christianity as not seeing it as relevant. We have not helped ourselves here as I think you’ll struggle to find children leaving christian schools with any understanding of how society was shaped by the church, and why that was important, let alone any real understanding of the ‘why’s’ behind the teachings.

      1. Sadly, those deficiencies you identify have not been addressed by Catholic schools the last few decades, and therein lies yet another problem.


  7. Ingo B – To ‘move from one part of a church to another’ is a meaningless phrase to any Catholic. We don’t regard the Catholic, Universal Church as being ‘part of’ anything else, let alone ‘part of’ a so-called ‘Christian Church’: for the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, the one (and the only) True Faith – and it is immoveable.
    Of course, as far as is compatible with our Faith, we reach out to embrace dialogue with other Christians – but (for example) Anglicans and Protestants who convert to Catholicism are only too aware of the wide, deep gulf that separates their Catholic conversion and the reality of the Catholic sacraments and doctrine from their previous belief, and the partial truths and invalidity of the liturgy they have left behind. And for a Catholic to remove his/her adherence a Protestant church would not be a spiritual form of Pickfords, but apostasy. In all charity, we must be clear about these things with non-Catholics.

    And actually, I can’t see what basis there might be for your assertion that churchgoing will never fall below 5-10% of the total population: you have taken no account of clear and irreversible western European trends in immigration, birth rates and demographics. The maths point unambiguously in only one cultural and religious direction, one that surely need no longer be spelt out.
    (God can of course always supply miracles, but He does expect us to meet Him halfway 🙂

    1. “Ingo B – To ‘move from one part of a church to another’ is a meaningless phrase to any Catholic.”

      I think Ingo merely means a Catholic moving from one diocese (or parish) to another.

  8. Indeed, Richard Malcolm, that’s all I meant there. Thanks.

    mancunius, I am a Roman Catholic (and as it happens, an adult convert from no religion / Zen Buddhism over a decade ago). Someone who now switched from the RCC to a Protestant church would obviously not be an apostate, but a schismatic and heretic by RC lights (see Canon 751).

    I did not make the assertion that “churchgoing” will hold steady at 5-10% of the population, I suggested that being (or identifying as) Christian will hold at around that number. Though I would also expect that as the total number of Christians drops further, the fraction of Christians who actively practice their religion will rise again. Basically, primarily non-practicing Christians are and will be leaving the churches. If there are two Catholics left, and one goes to church, that’s 50% of Catholics going to church…

    Do I have proper evidence that Christian numbers will hold at 5-10% of population? No, not really. It’s a guess based on what I observe among people that I know (in several post-Christian countries) over a couple of decades.

  9. It maybe of interest that the Catholic Church in Scotland does publish statistics for all parishes in Scotland. These statistics cover Mass attendance, number of infant baptisms, number of adult receptions, number of confirmations and number of marriages. These are available in the Catholic Directory for Scotland.

    1. Thanks Mike! I was deliberately restricting myself to England and Wales, but it is handy to know Scotland publishes its statistics, and indeed it is something of a challenge to the English and Welsh bishops.

      I will explore your links. At first sight, however, I wonder if there is a distinction that needs to be made between those who leave the Church (ie apostatize) and those who drift away from it (ie lapse). The former is interesting but it is the latter who are most germane to the issue I wish to highlight.


  10. There are plenty of statistics concerning the situation in the USA. There are obviously differences between the situation in the USA and the UK. For example, the USA has a massive problem with Catholics joining Evangelical sects. I’m not aware that this is such a problem in the UK. However, there are many similarities between the cultures of the two countries and those similarities are depressingly becoming greater. Here is an article about one survey:
    And here is Bishop Robert Barron commenting on the factors such surveys discover:
    And here’s an article by Bishop Barron:

  11. If I understand you correctly, there is a distinction between those who apostasise and those who lapse. But how can you tell the numbers in each case just by looking at statistics of Mass attendance, etc.? And why would you be more interested in those who lapse? Suppose, although I think it may be unlikely, that you found that the number who apostasise greatly outnumber those who lapse. Is it not the case that what we are trying to do is to stop people giving up the faith, for whatever reason? I am a member of a small group in my parish who are examining ways to encourage former Catholics (if I may use that term) to return. (I have some experience of this being a revert myself, of the apostasising kind.) I am interested in the return of both those who lapse and those who apostasise but I am even more interested in how we can prevent both apostasising and lapsing.
    Now, talking about statistics, there are statistics from Switzerland which suggest that a child’s chances of retaining their faith are considerably increased if the child’s father attends church.
    This is obviously not the be -all-and-end-all but if this suggestion is valid then it pushes the discussion on to how we can increase the number of fathers who come to church. For ideas on that topic there is:

    1. Well the obvious correlation to look for would be the statistics of other denominations: are they going up markedly as the numbers of active Catholics are going down? The answer is, pretty much, no. From experience there is very little apostasy and a great deal of lapsation. In either case, if the Church were doing what it should be—especially liturgically but also in its moral and social teaching—the both apostasy and lapsation would diminish significantly.

      I quite agree about the role of the father in the maintenance of religious practice, but I think when a child becomes an adult other factors take over. Conditioning is not insignificant as a factor but we are not trapped by our upbringing: free will is real!

  12. All very interesting. I have noticed that in the Catholic Church, decline in attendance is much more acute in working class areas. No doubt Hexham and Newcastle would illustrate this. I regret to say that in my opinion, over the last 50 years our hierarchy has neglected the working classes.

    The changes that followed Vatican II appealed much more to the middle classes than the working classes. However, no one listened to them The attitude was that WE know what is best for you, so shut up and listen. The consequences are now very evident.

    1. At interesting correlative to your point is classic Anglicanism. As a religion of the word over sacrament/sacramental, of lay power if not over then balancing clerical power, it appealed to the educated, that is, the middle class. Along came Anglo-Catholicism, with its recovery of the sacramental, the visual and sensual in general, and where did it forge new ground? The slums of London and elsewhere. Very telling. But I agree with your point. The religion of The Tablet is decidedly greying middle class. Pax!

  13. Fascinating. I’m an ex-marketer and such demographic data is invaluable. It’s clear from the article and comments that the causes and solutions are debatable. What’s needed – as you outline – is far more data, and to be a valid analytical tool, on a regular basis. Empirical evidence – i.e. the pews – says it all. Effective remedial actions based on clear, reliable evidence is what is needed.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.