During 2013, as agreed at the General Synod in 2012, the Church of Ireland undertook a parish–based Census exercise with a view to enabling dioceses and parishes to plan ahead for spiritual and numerical growth on an evidential rather than anecdotal basis.
The Census was based on a postal paper questionnaire returned by parishes and average Sunday attendance figures were gathered over three Sundays in November 2013 (excluding Remembrance Sunday).
The census figures were analysed and evaluated by Dr Bev Botting, Head of Research and Statistics of the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, and presented by Dr Botting to members of the Church of Ireland Standing Committee.
The figures provide ‘first time’ baseline statistics and the Census is a useful initial engagement with data collection for mission which will be built upon through further census exercises every three years (with refinements to the survey instrument and mapping likely).
In presenting the figures, sincere thanks were expressed to all those who participated in gathering the data, not least clergy and Diocesan Secretaries across the island for their strong commitment to it – the response rate was over 90 per cent.
The most recent national Census statistics in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland show that c.378,000 people claim affiliation with the Church of Ireland – 249,000 in Northern Ireland (13.7% of the 1.8m population) and 129,000 in the Republic of Ireland (2.8% of the 4.6m population). Of these, 72,000 are ‘Vestry persons’ (resident and accustomed) – 25% of the Church of Ireland population aged 20+.
Average attendance at worship on a ‘usual’ Sunday, based on the 2013 exercise in November, was 58,000 people – 15% of those reporting as Church of Ireland in the 2011 national Censuses.
Of those attending worship (November 2013) the proportional distribution by age was: 15% aged 0–11; 7% aged 12–18; 6% aged 19–30; 14% aged 31–45; 19% aged 46–60; 24% aged 61–74 and 15% aged 75+.
Proportional distribution of attendance by gender is 57% Female, 43% Male.
A feature of the data collection was recording attendance at the major Christian Festivals of Christmas Eve/Day and Easter Day. On Christmas Eve/Day 2012 108,000 people attended worship – 29% of the population; on Easter Day 2013, 76,000 people or 20% of the population attended Church of Ireland worship. (The figures for Christmas do not capture celebratory services preceding Christmas Eve/Day.)
The Census also asked for returns on ‘occasional offices,’ figures which show the extent to which the Church of Ireland is involved in key milestones in life: based on returns, 3,700 Baptisms; 2,300 Confirmations; 1,300 Weddings and 3,500 Funerals take place in Church of Ireland churches across the island each year.
In welcoming the availability of these new statistics, the Archbishop of Armagh, The Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke, said: “As I conveyed in my address to the General Synod last month, we need to think clearly about “long–term” church and how best to make a positive witness and contribution to the community in all parts of Ireland over, say, the next twenty years.
“It is better to begin this process based on reality rather than wishful thinking. This first–round census data allows us to think about how best to do so, looking to the future by developing strategies based on a realistic assessment of where we stand now. The statistics present the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us, one which we embrace with hope.”