Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says a good vicar can still increase the size of their flock.
The Church of England must be realistic about dwindling congregations but a good vicar can still increase the size of their flock, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.
The Most Rev Justin Welby said the church would not find new worshippers “accidentally” and so had to set a clear target of filling more pews if it was to tackle the decline in church-going in Britain.
In comments that hinted at the language of corporate expansion, the former oil executive challenged his priests to turn the tide and draw new worshippers to the Anglican faith.
“The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,” he said.
The Archbishop said an initiative to engage with new worshippers by holding services in non-traditional venues like pubs and clubs had already swollen the church’s ranks by the equivalent of two dioceses.
He said he was “extremely hopeful” about the future of the Church of England and stressed that many local congregations were growing.
However, he admitted: “We are falling in numbers and there is a change in the attitude to the Christian faith generally across the country. That is unquestionable. We need to be quite realistic about that.”
The number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christian fell by 4.1 million, a drop of 10 per cent, between 2001 and 2011, the most recent census found.
The Church of England has been hit particularly hard, with the proportion of British people who class themselves as Anglican plunging from 40 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent today, according to the authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey.
Mr Welby, who formally became Archbishop in March, said the church could not simply assume that new worshippers would come if it did not make efforts to attract them.
“All the research we’ve got is that if we don’t actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of God and Jesus Christ, it doesn’t happen. It’s not a collateral benefit to existing,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The Archbishop cited the success of “Fresh Expressions” churches, set up in unusual venues to appeal to people who do not belong to any church.
“They will be in pubs, they will be in clubs, they will be in all kinds of strange places, they will be behaving differently. But they’re carrying the same message,” he said.
He admitted that there could sometimes be a “disconnect” between the Anglican leadership and local churches.
“We sometimes give the impression at the national level that we are obsessed with a small number of issues, whereas the reality that people experience in the church is of communities that are messy and untidy because society is messy and untidy, but which get on with the job that they’re there for,” he said.
“Of course there are churches that are doing better and churches that are struggling more, depending on area and on leadership.”
Mr Welby, who launched a crusade against payday lenders earlier this year, appeared to play down the Church’s role in campaigning on social and political issues.
“I think frankly that we are better at religion than politics,” he said.
The Archbishop voiced praise for the “extraordinary” Pope Francis, who was elected as head of the Roman Catholic Church in March, describing him as “my person of the year”.
In his first New Year’s message as head of the Church of England, Mr Welby quoted the late Nelson Mandela as he urged people to make a resolution to tackle poverty in their own communities.