More than 400 churches have been shut down in less than a decade, The Telegraph can reveal, as senior clergy warn of the “shocking” threat to parishes as “the bedrock of the Church of England”.
Analysis of Church of England data by this newspaper found that 423 churches were closed between 2010 and 2019.
The figure signifies the downward trend regarding the number of churches in the country. Further analysis reveals that almost 1,000 have been forced to close in just over 30 years – 940 between 1987 and 2019. This means that the total number of churches left stands at around 15,496.
It marks the first comprehensive analysis of church numbers because the Church’s official data contained in its annual reports only cover individual years. Furthermore, the research does not take into account the impact of the pandemic, and as a result, clergy and lay people fear the total figure could be much higher.
The Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, who is one of the most senior Anglican priests, called the rate of increase in the number of church closures “shocking”.
“I share the concern of many people that the policies that lead to the closure of churches may also mean that we will be seeing more and more changes to the parish system, which is, after all, the bedrock of the life of the Church of England for England.”
Across the Church’s 42 dioceses, there are on average almost six per cent fewer churches, with the total falling from 16,436 in 1987 to 15,496 in 2019.
The Church of England defines a ‘church’ as “a building which is licensed as a place of worship within the parish system”. This can include former mission halls and less permanent buildings.
Officials said that of the 423 church closures between 2010 and 2019, 209 were traditional church buildings.
Durham and Manchester saw the greatest number of church closures over the period, meaning they now have almost 15 per cent fewer churches than they did 34 years ago.
The Diocese of Durham had 310 churches in 1987, but by 2019, that figure dropped to 264. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Manchester saw its total number of churches fall from 371 to 316 for the same period.
Only three dioceses buck the trend. Canterbury – the diocese overseen by The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who is the most senior member of the Anglican church – saw its number of churches increase from 325 to 360, a 10.8 per cent increase.
Coventry saw its number of churches rise from 240 to 242, an increase of 0.8 per cent, and the number of churches in the diocese of Worcester rose from 271 to 274, up 1.1 per cent.
The figures come as religious leaders claim that many church buildings are “in the wrong locations” as “communities have moved away and left the old infrastructure of society stranded”.
Last month figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that the number of Christians in England is close to falling below 50 per cent for the first time, as atheists now account for more than a third of “faith” groups in an increasingly secular society.
The Dean of Southwark Cathedral said that this issue is “not as simple as saying churches have closed so the church is dying”.
“In places the church is growing but in different ways. The truth has also to be faced that many of our buildings are now in the wrong locations,” he added.
“Take the northern industrial cities for instance where there was a church and a pub (or three) in every community. Often the pubs and the church have closed for similar reasons – communities have moved away and left the old infrastructure of society stranded.”
The Church faces a crisis regarding safeguarding the future of the institution amid dwindling church and congregant numbers, which have been further damaged by the pandemic. The Archbishop of York, the Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, is responsible for Vision and Strategy – his blueprint for the Church’s future over the next decade which aims for it to be “simpler, humbler, bolder”.
Last year, The Telegraph revealed that multiple clergy and laypeople had voiced fears over the “collapse” of the Church of England in rural communities.
Months later, a leaked Church document suggested that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for “radical change” within the Church which could result in the loss of the parish church model in a bid to remain “financially sustainable”.
The report, sent to the 42 diocesan secretaries, warned clergy to prepare for changes and cuts as officials prepare to overhaul the system, sparking fears that churches in rural towns and parishes will not survive.
A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “While there is always sadness when a church closes, the number of churches closing has fallen steadily.
“Between 2010 and 2019 there were 209 church closures across the Church of England’s 12,300 parishes – the lowest number for any decade in the last half century.
“It is a real tribute to the dedication of parish clergy and volunteers that we are able to maintain our commitment to being a Christian presence in every community.
“The parish system is the heart of the Church of England and the challenge now is to equip our parishes to serve their communities and reach out to the people of England with the good news of Jesus Christ which is needed now more than ever.”