The 2024 Easter Vigil at Westminster Cathedral: the first of several good years?

By Stephen Bullivant

May 9 2024

More people were received into the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Southwark this Easter than for over a decade. There are signs of recovery and new growth across parishes in Britain – yet there is no evidence that the steady fall in Mass attendance is being reversed. A leading sociologist examines the apparent paradox.

In May 2022British newspapers carried articles warning that Catholicism in Britain faced “extinction” – literally zero people in the pews – by 2062. Two years later, the press seems full of stories about Gen Z flocking to midweek Latin Masses and Easter Vigils packed with record numbers of adult receptions. So which is it? Is the Church entering end-of-life care, or showing definite signs of perking up?

First up, the bad news. Mass attendance stood at roughly 829,000 across England, Wales and Scotland on a “typical Sunday” in 2019. In itself, this is not a small number of churchgoers (it’s roughly equal to the numbers attending professional football matches, if that helps). Then again, it is a good deal fewer than the 1,264,000 who were there in 1999, or the 1,975,000 two decades before that, in 1979. Post-pandemic, in 2022, Mass attendance in England and Wales alone was 503,000 – 71 per cent of the 2019 figure. Assuming a similar “Covid hit” for Scotland, that would yield a Britain-wide 2022 Mass count of around 594,000. (Figures for 2023 aren’t yet available.)

Awkwardly, the prediction that the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist Churches in Britain would be “extinct by 2062” (taken from a report by Dr John Hayward, a fine scholar whose work I’ve been citing and teaching for years) was based not on the post-Covid figures but on the still-dismal-but-comparatively-far-less-so trend from before the pandemic. Updated with the new data, and if present trends continue, our churches ought to be empty even sooner.

Here’s the thing, though. They won’t be. Not even close. And here’s why.

First offthe one thing that “present trends” rarely do is continue indefinitely. Or rather, they rarely do so for very long. If present trends continue, the US will be “majority Amish” some time in the 2100s (their numbers have doubled every 15-20 years for the past century). If present trends continue, the UK will have six more Tory PMs in the next 10 years (we’ve been averaging a new one every 1.67 years since 2019). Okay, these are glib examples, but you get the basic idea. Mass attendance may well keep falling for a good while longer (I suspect it will), but there’s no plausible foreseeable-future scenario in which the present trend continues all the way down to zero.

Why not? Well, several reasons. Most obviously, 2062 isn’t all that far away. I certainly hope to live that long, and I plan still to be going to Mass by then. I expect a good number of the current 594,000 or so will be planning to as well. To be sure, a lot can change in four decades. But even on the most pessimistic prognosis, surely some of us will still be there. Add to that the extra people the Church initiates each year, and will keep doing so in every one of the next 40 years. Not all of them, of course, will go on to become regular Massgoers indefinitely. But equally, not all of them won’t. And add to all this the fact that immigration shows no sign of abating (unless one of those six new PMs finally succeeds in reining it in). Brexit will certainly have dampened down the inflow from some major contributors – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia – to Catholic parishes. The war in Ukraine, God willing, won’t go on for ever. Nevertheless, Britain’s Catholic churches will continue to be refreshed by new immigrants, as they have for the past two centuries or more. The NHS’s hunger for doctors and nurses from India and the Philippines, for instance, seems fairly insatiable.

To put it frankly, rumours of the Church’s death – albeit four decades hence – have been very greatly exaggerated. There’s a big difference between “not dying out” and “bursting with new life”, however. British Catholicism might be the former, but that needn’t mean it’s anything close to the latter. And while the Mass attendance data noted above might not imply an actual death spiral, it’s not – to put it mildly – terribly encouraging.

Maybe though, just maybe, there is something – and perhaps even something very significant – going on “underneath” the topline trends. The encouraging reports, from up and down the country (and from other countries too), about a bumper crop of adult receptions this Easter are one sign. It will be a good while before we get firm statistics, so I’m wary of laying too great a stress on this. But I also assume that priests know what “normal” looks like. So when those at big churches tell me (as one recently did) that “we certainly experienced a dramatic increase in attendance at the recent Easter festivities”, and “it certainly felt at least as busy as it ever was, if not more so”, I’m inclined to believe them.

Back in those strange first weeks of lockdown, I wrote a little book called Catholicism in the Time of Coronavirus. One thing I pointed out there was that major periods of upheaval often result, once the dust has settled, in an uptick in religiosity. I didn’t (and still don’t) expect any major Great Awakening-style surge, but it wouldn’t be surprising if some people’s lives were set off in a radically new direction by a sudden change to the status quo. I thought then that a fair few future conversion and/or vocation stories would identify the pandemic as having been a pivotal moment. Bear in mind that most conversions, Paul on the Damascus road notwithstanding, tend to be a slow burn. Just possibly, the 2024 Easter Vigil may be the first of several good years.

More broadly, it’s plain that certain areas of the Church’s pastoral life are not just surviving but thriving. You see this, for example, in university chaplaincies and CathSocs up and down the country. To be a late-teen or early-twentysomething who goes to church each Sunday is, these days, to be a social deviant. So to find one’s tribe of a couple of hundred other such deviants at one’s own uni, and to be connected to thousands of others through diverse movements or big events – Youth2000, Evangelium, Juventutem, pilgrimages to Chartres or World Youth Day, the March for Life – can be powerful. It takes a living thing to swim against the stream, G.K. Chesterton once noted. It takes a living faith too.

You can see it in many of our diasporic communities. Monthly “Second Saturdays” conventions in West Bromwich with thousands of attendees, organised by AFCM (formerly Sehion UK), a Keralan charismatic movement. The annual Tamil pilgrimage to Walsingham that became such a strain on the local infrastructure – with upward of 20,000 pilgrims – that the Shrine’s calendar now has separate days for “Tamil One” and “Tamil Two”. Packed divine liturgies at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral (top tip: it’s just minutes from the Disney Store in London’s Oxford Street, should you wish to lure naturally suspicious children on a “Daddy Adventure”), drawing 2,500-3,000 each Sunday and double or treble that at Easter. There are many such cases, mostly invisible to their fellow British Catholics.

You see it in parishes too. Not everywhere, admittedly, but not nowhere either. And not necessarily where you might guess. Central Swindon has probably the best attended ordinary parish church in the country, for example. (“Ordinary” in the sense of not being Westminster Cathedral or one of London’s several Polish parishes, that is. It’s otherwise pretty extraordinary.) Absolute numbers alone aren’t the only measure, either. Preston’s two huge Latin Mass churches, St Walburge’s and English Martyrs, once risked closure thanks to having double-figure Mass counts but seven-figure repair bills. Starting from scratch, the Institute of Christ the King – one of several congregations founded in Africa doing stellar service in our “reverse mission” territories – has built a stable congregation of c. 200, and is working hard to save some of British Catholicism’s architectural treasures. Secularisation in Britain is, admittedly, a complicated concept. Put simply, it is best summed up by Steve Bruce’s blunt words: “Christianity was once powerful, persuasive and popular and now it is none of those things.” But whatever else is might be, secularisation is a process. There must logically come a point of “peak secularisation”, when there’s little or nothing left to secularise. We’re not there yet, not quite. After 60 odd years of secularising (if not much longer, on some historical assessments), though, we cannot be so very far off. As we have seen, that end point won’t be “extinction” or anything really close to it.

It is worth Christians considering what might then happen afterwards, and what we might be doing now to lean into (and learn from) those areas of the Church displaying signs of regrowth already. To quote a hymn kids in even non-faith primary schools learned 30-odd years ago: “Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain / Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain …” – The Tablet