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Immigration and initiatives such as pub and café churches have slowed the long-term decline in church attendance across Britain, new figures have revealed.
An analysis of attendance across denominations in 2013 has shown that while the number of churchgoers remains in long-term decline, attendances have been boosted by immigrant chaplaincies, black majority churches and the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England.
Dr Peter Brierley, whose organisation Brierley Consultancy collated the statistics, told The Tablet: “You have a very interesting movement taking place in a decaying institution. There are several buds of life, sprouting more or less at the same time and vigorously for different reasons.”
The figures emerged as the director of the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Fr Alan Williams, predicted the highest number of pilgrims ever this year as a result of immigrant communities and “religious tourism”.
Fr Williams, who was recently named as the new Bishop of Brentwood, said that this July around 12,000 Tamil pilgrims will visit the shrine, which also attracts up to 9,000 Hindu and Buddhist visitors a year. He added that more young people were making pilgrimages to Walsingham inspired by the success of events like World Youth Day.
Dr Brierley’s figures showed that immigrants and the Fresh Expressions idea of informal gatherings organised by parishes are likely to push the level of decline back five years.
Total church attendance for 2015 across Great Britain – but excluding Northern Irleand – is now forecast to be 5,370,000 people, 4 per cent higher than 2010 predictions. Dr Brierley said that Fresh Expressions gatherings, with just half the meetings held in a church, tended to attract young families. “The genius of this is that you’ve got informality in an institutional setting,” he added.
Dr Brierley warned, however, that immigration numbers were falling and that this could have an impact on Catholic church attendance, which has been supported by migration. He cited the situation in Scotland, where church attendance and baptism rates in Glasgow were boosted by the arrival of Polish immigrants but then declined as they returned home.
According to the figures, if present trends continue, overall church membership will continue to decline by about 1 per cent every five years, reaching just 8 per cent of the adult population in 2025.
Clare Ward, home mission adviser to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said that a New Evangelisation conference would take place next year to try to find ways to engage people more effectively.
She pointed to initiatives such as Welcome Back Sunday, which is marked at Pentecost and encourages lapsed Catholics in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle to return, and the Spirit in the City initiative in Westminster.
“It is down to every one of us to ask ourselves – to complement the national, diocesan and parish initiatives already in motion – what can I, and am I, doing to contribute to the New Evangelisation where I live and work?” she said.
Bishop-elect Williams said that Walsingham is seeing more casual visitors from the United Kingdom who have come to the shrine because it is known nationally as “a spiritual place”.
He added that the shrine had recently appointed a Religious sister as its first full-time youth missioner.