The Church of Ireland has a claimed membership of 378,000 on the island of Ireland, yet a reliable census of those attending worship on three Sundays last November revealed that only 15 per cent of this number were in the pews.
The Church undertook a parish-based census exercise with a view to enabling dioceses and the various parishes to plan ahead for spiritual and numerical growth on an evidential rather than an 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.
Average attendance at worship on a ‘usual’ Sunday, based on the exercise, was 58,000 people – 15 per cent of those reporting as Church of Ireland in the 2011 national censuses on both sides of the border.
These census statistics in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland show that 378,000 people claim affiliation with the Church of Ireland – 249,000 in Northern Ireland (13.7 per cent of the 1.8m population) and 129,000 in the Republic of Ireland (2.8 per cent of the 4.6m population).
Of those at November worship, the proportional distribution by age was: 15 per cent (aged 0-11); seven per cent (12-18); six per cent (19-30); 14 per cent (31-45); 19 per cent (46-60); 24 per cent (61-74) and 15 per cent (75-plus).
Gender attendance was 57 per cent female and 43 per cent male.
A feature of the Church of Ireland census data was also recording attendance at major Christian festivals. On Christmas Eve/Day 2012 108,000 people attended worship, and on Easter Day 2013, 76,000 people were present.
The census also showed Church of Ireland involvement in key community milestones: 3,700 baptisms; 2,300 confirmations; 1,300 weddings and 3,500 funerals take place in the church each year.
Church of Ireland Primate the Rev Dr Richard Clarke said: “We need to think clearly about our long-term church and how best to make a positive witness and contribution to the community in all parts of Ireland in the next 20 years.
“We must begin this process based on reality rather than wishful thinking.”
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 this week.