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British Anglican

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By Victoria Combe, Religion Correspondent
TELEGRAPH,UK ISSUE 1632 Saturday 13 November 1999
 

ATTENDANCES at Church of England services have fallen below one million for the first time since records began.

The Church has kept its Sunday attendance figure under wraps for two and a half years, claiming that traditional methods of counting worshippers are deeply flawed. But yesterday it reluctantly released statistics for 1996 and 1997 which show the number of adults in its 16,000 churches on Sundays has dropped to 816,500.

The downward curve has been relentless since the Sixties with an average loss from the pews of two per cent a year. In 1968, 1.6 million went to church and by 1995, the last published figure, this had dwindled to 1.04 million. But the Rev William Beaver, director of communications for the Church of England, said the figures were an under-representation.

Alongside the "usual Sunday attendance" figures, Church House has also issued the results of an experiment in new ways of counting which show people are still going to church, but not as regularly and not always on Sundays.

Rev Beaver halted the publication of Sunday statistics soon after his arrival at Church House in 1997, saying they were damaging to morale. The new way of counting "gives a more accurate picture of our worldly well-being," he said. "The old method is inconsistent and does not take into account different patterns of worshipping."

Church House said the old statistics were collected by churchwardens, who calculated Sunday attendances in different ways. Some also tended to play down the size of the congregation, as this determined the "parish share" - a parish's financial contribution to the diocese.

The new model, tested in 19 dioceses over the month of October 1997, counted adults at all services, including midweek ones, and children in church and in Sunday Schools. The findings indicate that 27 per cent more adults go to church than the traditional statistics show, with most turning up for worship on the first Sunday of the month, when many parishes hold their family services.

On the first Sunday, an average of 445,600 adults in the 19 parishes went to church compared with 361,300 on the last Sunday. The average attendance under the new method was 392,700 compared with a count for usual Sunday attendance of 350,800.

The Rev Jonathan Jennings, of All Saints in Banstead, Surrey, said the concept of regular worship had changed since the Sixties. He said: "When I was a child, if you did not go to church every week you were not a regular worshipper. But now, if a family comes once on a Sunday and once midweek in a month we see them as regular worshippers."

A report by the Statistical Review Group is expected to recommend implementing the new method next year as a "tool for mission" and not for calculating parish share.