Membership decline steepens

Photo:, Yuri A
Published May 1, 2024

Sharp drop during pandemic: stats officer

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a significant decline in church attendance, marking a “radical discontinuity” even with previous downward trends, the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistics officer says.

Canon Neil Elliot presented data from 2022 diocesan returns in a January report sent to bishops and diocesan executive officers based on parish statistics. The statistics officer said he did not collect numbers in 2020 and 2021 since COVID-19 shut down churches for much of that time.

Canon Neil Elliot

The figures show a decline on almost all fronts from 2019 to 2022, including a 12 per cent decrease in the total number on parish rolls, 26 per cent decrease in average Sunday attendance, and 17 per cent decrease in regular identifiable givers. The biggest drops came in the number of people attending services on major holy days: a 45 per cent decline in Easter attendance, 37 per cent for Pentecost and 47 per cent for Christmas.

Declines were also seen in the number of pastoral services, with 25 per cent fewer baptisms, 13 per cent fewer confirmations and 10 per cent fewer marriages—the only exception being funerals, which saw a very small increase.

“Attendance has been hit,” Elliot said. “I think that’s a really clear thing.”

Statistics for Easter and Christmas, Elliot said, are significant as an indicator of people from outside the regular parish community coming in for services.

Elliot said the pandemic has accelerated changes already happening within the church. From 1980 to 2019, he said, church statistics showed a straight line of decline. In a 2019 report to Council of General Synod, Elliot projected that based on that trajectory, there would be “no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.”

The figures from 2019 to 2022, however, show a change in that trajectory— specifically, an accelerated decline.

“What’s now happened is a radical discontinuity,” Elliot said. “What we don’t know is what will happen next.”

Statistics from Elliot’s report show declines in church attendance; numbers of parish members and regular identifiable givers; and in the number of pastoral services. Background: Mr Aesthetics

Asked about the impact of the pandemic on church attendance, Elliot said, “My thesis is that it has broken the habit of church for a number of people— people who were just in a routine of going to church. They went through the pandemic and then they decided, ‘No, don’t need to do this anymore.’ But there is no evidence for that.”

Comparing to other churches and denominations, the Anglican Church of Canada’s experience in this period has been typical, Elliot said. The Canadian church’s membership decline parallels those of the Church of England and The Episcopal Church, with its attendance decline sitting between the two. While the United Church of Canada has seen a much lower decline in average attendance, decline in Presbyterian church attendance exceeds that of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Conversely, in what the report describes as “genuinely good news,” provision of online services has been stabilizing, with about one-third of parishes offering them. The number of parishes with online services peaked at 749 in 2020—about half of parishes—then dropped to 562 (out of 1,486 total parishes) in 2021 and 548 (out of 1,498 total parishes) in 2022.

“Anecdotally, there were very few Anglican churches running online services before the pandemic, and the pandemic pushed us into running online services… Assuming that we keep at roughly that level, I hope that that means that we are doing outreach to a whole bunch of people who previously would not have been able to access a service of any kind,” Elliot said, offering the example of seniors who can now attend services online.

The latest statistics also offer a snapshot of the number of bishops, paid and unpaid priests and deacons, and paid diocesan workers which varies widely between dioceses. While numbers of lay readers and parish lay workers are falling, more than two-thirds of parishes have a paid priest, which Elliot said is encouraging. But he added, “We’re relying more on retired priests,” with almost one retired priest per parish.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson, assistant professor of liturgy and pastoral theology and director of Anglican studies at Saint- Paul University who studies Christian worship in North America’s changing religious landscape, said there was nothing especially surprising in Elliot’s report.

“I don’t think anything here is really out of line with what we would have expected based on past patterns and the way that research indicates that the pandemic has accelerated some of those patterns,” Johnson said.

Johnson pointed out that Elliot’s report only includes the raw numbers. “We don’t really know a lot about motivation or the factors shaping these numbers just from the data that’s here … To better understand that, we really have to speak with people about their experience of this time and how it has impacted their participation in Christian worship.”

The diocese of Toronto recently carried out conversations with clergy and lay people for Cast the Net, a visioning process to help guide the diocese in the next five years for which Johnson served as an outside consultant. Starting in fall 2022, the diocese held consultations and listening sessions to find out how the pandemic had affected people’s religious behaviour.

The consultations found COVID-19 placed significant stress on clergy as they attempted to find new ways to do ministry and greater stress on lay leaders, Johnson said. Both clergy and lay people were aware the pandemic had accelerated existing patterns, in terms of people not coming back to church or growing struggles to fill volunteer roles.

However, they also recognized that the pandemic demanded significant change from congregations on a quick timeline, such as shifting to online worship. “These shifts were generally experienced as fairly positive … There’s an appreciation for the innovation that was possible in the face of this crisis, which indicates a positive openness to change,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Cast the Net recognized the need for a shift in orientation. The measure of success is not trying to reverse trends such as declining attendance, she said, but “finding ways to live faithfully within them … to be the church in new ways in the context of these larger changes and to embrace the possibility for what it looks like to follow Jesus at this time, rather than focusing on maintaining institutional structures of the past.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

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