The Church of England has cast doubt over the ongoing viability of Sunday morning church services in a modern, busy world. Mid-week services are being touted as a more modern-life friendly alternative, as latest figures show that attendances at midweek services in cathedrals have doubled over the last decade, whereas Sunday attendance continues to fall.
According to Christian Today, mid-week attendance at cathedrals doubled between 2003 and 2013, from 7,500 to 13,000. On the whole cathedral attendance rose from 23,100 adults and 6,300 children in 2003, to 30,900 adults and 6,900 children in 2013, an increase of nearly a third of adult attendance.
And Sunday worship was also slightly up, from 15,600 in 2003 to 15,900 in 2013. Ironically, two of the largest rises occurred between 2005 and 2007, while Richard Dawkins’s atheist polemic The God Delusion was published in 2006.
“Peace and contemplation, worship and music and friendly atmosphere,” were the motivational factors associated with cathedral attendance, according to the Church of England.
Adrian Dorber, the Dean of Litchfield attributed the rise in mid-week attendance to busy pressurised lifestyles. “At the weekend you’ve got commitments with children doing sport, shopping, household maintenance – life’s run at the double these days and weekends are very pressurised and committed. Taking out half an hour or an hour every week is much more negotiable,” he said in a podcast on the subject.
For the Dean of York, Vivienne Faull, who is hotly tipped to become one of the first women Bishops, the appeal of cathedral attendance lay in its anonymity. “We do have the opportunity of allowing people to come in from the edges. If I take a Eucharist at 12:30 in the middle of the week in the nave of York Minster there’ll be a lot of people who just slide in from the side. It’s not so much about anonymity, there’s the feeling there’s a journey you can travel which doesn’t require huge steps – it just requires one little step,” she said.
But the fall in attendance of Sunday services hasn’t been experienced uniformly. The congregation of St Peter’s in Brighton, which had been recommended for closure in 2003, grew from just 20 in 2009 to 750 today, across five Sunday services serving families and young people. They also hold a service at the nearby University of Sussex which attracts 75 students each week.
St Peter’s was turned around by a church plant from the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton, which loaned £50,000 in seed money to get the church going, and donated 30 congregation members who moved from London to Brighton to plant the church.
The Reverend Archie Coats, vicar at St Peters said “[Brighton] is a fun, creative and informal place and we’ve asked ourselves how can we best reflect this in the way we are at church, and in our expectations – the bar is set fairly low as we don’t want any barriers to people feeling at home so, for example, dress code is extremely informal, and music very accessible to people – and there is food with almost everything. The test is, ‘would I bring my friend to this?'”
In a recent survey of attendance at St Peter’s, the average age for the morning services, which include an 8am Holy Communion and a 9.30am Family Service, is 43, whilst at the 6pm evening service which caters for students and young adults, the average age is 23. Ten percent of the congregation do not describe themselves as Christians.
A case study of St Peters, and another Holy Trinity Plant in Norfolk, conducted this summer found that the churches experienced growth thanks to their clear strategic vision, their ability to prioritise and stick to their vision, entrepreneurial leadership, and an outward focus. Good communication both internally and externally were also key, as was willingness to take risks.
Now St Peters is in turn planning on planting a new church in Hastings, a town 15 miles along the coast from Brighton. Rev Coates said: “It’s a biblical principle to grow, sow and reap, and not to look inwards and build your own thing. We have been invited by the Bishop of Chichester to plant Hastings and want to be a blessing there – it’s very exciting.”