Belfast Telegraph

Church of Ireland faces shrinking congregations crisis

By Alf McCreary

The leader of the Church of Ireland has said "we may as well close the doors now" if it cannot solve the problem of falling attendances.

Archbishop Richard Clarke made the comments after it was revealed in a survey that only 15% of Irish Anglicans attend services on Sundays.

This represents just 58,000 out of a total of 378,000 who claim affiliation to the church.

Commenting at the General Synod in Armagh last week, the Primate said: "The statistics present the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us as a church, but nevertheless it is one that if we cannot embrace it with confidence and hope, we may as well close the doors of our churches now.

"We must relate to reality, and we must relate to the future ahead of us." He also admitted that the survey was flawed because the church did not know if it was the same 58,000 who attended on each of the three Sundays.

"This seems unlikely, but we would be unwise in the extreme to assume that there was little or no overlap," he said.

The latest figures also show that only 13% of those attending are between the ages of 12 and 30.

The largest numbers are from the older age groups, with 19% between 46-60 and 24% between 61-74.

The figures also show the gender breakdown, with 57% female and 43% male.

The statistics showed greatly increased attendances at key points of the church year, with 108,000 people attending Christmas Eve/Day services, and 76,000 people going to Church on Easter Day.

One particularly worrying statistic for the Church of Ireland is the narrow gap between baptisms and funerals. The survey recorded 3,700 baptisms, just 200 more than the 3,500 funerals, with 2,300 confirmations and 1,300 weddings each year.

These latest results were contained in a special Church of Ireland parish-based census taken over three Sundays in November 2013, at the request of the previous year's General Synod.

Attendance figures in the Methodist Church were not available but President-designate, Rev Brian Anderson, said: "It is fair to say that the numbers attending church have reduced generally, and there are more mature congregations in Northern Ireland.

"We are not complacent, and many churches are engaging with those who have no local church connection through some excellent work in the communities they serve.

"However, the trend is the opposite in the Irish Republic, where many of our congregations are growing through the influx of foreigners settling in Ireland and who find a welcome in the Methodist churches."

Meanwhile, a survey in the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor, the largest in Ireland, showed an average church attendance of 21% for Sunday Mass.

The Diocesan Living Church Review, published in May 2014, revealed that the estimated Sunday Mass attendance in Down and Connor is 72,000 out of the estimated Catholic population of some 350,000.

The age range of younger people attending is broadly similar to the Church of Ireland, with 16% between the ages of 12 and 25.

There is a similar pattern of greater attendance among older people, with 14% between 26-40, and 45% between 41-75.

The gender breakdown also reflects a striking similarity to the Church of Ireland, with a higher proportion of women worshippers (56%) compared to 44% of men.

Comparative figures were not available from the Presbyterian Church, which surveys its members differently.

However, the latest figures indicate only a marginal drop in members from 237,408 in 2012 to 234,579 in 2013.

Belfast Telegraph

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