Via Integra

Fr Mark's progressive Anglo-Catholic take on European Christianity

  • This is my collection of material about the current state of the churches in Europe. I am interested in looking at how they are dealing with the pressing issues of our time: the issues of gay people and women in ministry/ leadership are particularly pressing at the moment, as is the area of declining church attendance.

    I would like to see how Europe's traditional religious institutions are coping with the new Europe currently being forged, in which public opinion and ethical attitudes are becoming inceasingly pan-European, and are evidently presenting a series of strong challenges for the churches.

European church attendance

It is incredibly difficult to find accurate figures for church attendance in Europe. There are two basic ways in which the data are skewed: 1) Europeans tend to overestimate the number of times they go to church; and 2) the churches (with the notable exception of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches) are very reluctant to be realistic or open about their numbers problems (or indeed anything which may be construed as negative with regard to their structures and organisation). Having said that, I am attempting here to post up reports that reflect the reality in Europe: everyone agrees that church attendance for the traditional mainstream churches is in decline across the continent.

The questions, how much?, where?, and why? are surely ones that the churches must face honestly if they are ever to begin to deal with the situation. Putting their heads in the sand will not help. Numbers are not everything; but any organisations faced with evidence of prolonged massive decline need to ask themselves some hard questions, and, where the decline is rapid, the evidence needs facing soon, lest the decline become terminal.

I am trying to find accurate reports reflecting the real state of churchgoing across the denominations in contemporary Europe, and will add to this summary as I post them up on the site.

Roman Catholic practice is apparently falling at the moment in Italy where a report suggests there may be as few as 15% of Catholics attending Mass every Sunday; as also in Spain , where the hierarchy’s stand against same-sex marriage appears to have been something of a disaster for their credibility; the percentage of those calling themselves Catholic in Spain has fallen from 82% to 71% of the population in the last decade, and Mass attendance from 19% to 13%, according to this report .  In The Netherlands a report claims that 23% of Catholics attend Mass weekly. In France, the figure of 10% of Catholics attending Mass regularly is quoted In Germany, Mass attendance fell from 28% of Roman Catholics in 1988 to below 14% in 2008  There are reports of large numbers of German Catholics leaving the Church in 2010 as a result of the clergy child abuse revelations there The number of Austrian Roman Catholics fell from 6.35 million to 5.58 million over the same 20 years  and large numbers of Austrians are reportedly leaving the Church in the wake of the clergy child abuse scandals . In 1950, 90% of Austrians described themselves as Roman Catholics; in 2001, this figure had fallen to 66% Polish Mass attendance fell from 50% in 1991 to 43% in 2004 Portuguese Mass attendance was reckoned at 26% in 1991  and at 20% in 2010, with the average age of the clergy standing at 62 In Malta, the Church’s own statistics showed a decline of 11% in Mass attendance over the ten years to 2005 , though the total percentage was still high at 53% of the population.

The Greek Orthodox Church was reckoned to obtain a Sunday attendance of 20-25% of its members in Greece in 1994

The number of members of the Estonian Lutheran Church fell by a third between 1991 and 2007

Denmark has one of Europe’s lowest proportions of churchgoers, at about 2.5%, though the percentage has been stable for a long time now . Similarly low percentages of the population attend church in Sweden  and Norway . Oddly, the countries with the lowest church attendance are also the world’s highest per capita aid donors Also, the Scandinavian monarchies have unusually high numbers of infant baptisms, confirmations, declared adult church members, and attenders at Christmass, compared with most other European countries.

 In the British Isles, the number of Sunday worshippers at Church of England services in 2006 was half of the number it was in 1968 (despite a large increase in the total population, including many hundreds of thousands of Christian immigrants, during the intervening period) ; on current trends, a further 90% drop in attendance over the next 40 years is predicted Churchgoing across the denominations in Wales in also expected to decline by 75% over the next 40 years, on current trends Roman Catholic Mass attendance in England and Wales has also fallen dramatically: from a peak of over 2 million on the 1960s, it was down to 1 million in 2000, despite a large number of immigrants to the UK from predominantly Roman Catholic countries in the meantime. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, according to no less a commentator than Mary Kenny, has apparently been losing significant numbers of its members to the Church of Ireland

6 Responses to “European church attendance”

  1. john said

    When I was at a Classics conference in Odense (down your way) in April, my paper was scheduled for 10 on Sunday, so I looked around for church services. The only ones before 10 were RC masses for Vietnamese (don’t know the connection) and the Protestant churches looked pretty moribund (though there are some excellent church organs in Odense, a city with a distinguished musical tradition). In the afternoon attended an organ recital in the impressive Lutheran Cathedral – say about 100 present. Music was mainly religious (Messiaen et al.) but not exclusively. After that attended mass in RC church – perfectly decent, good-sized congregation. My general impression was that the Protestant churches were not doing well, the RC ones rather better, though there are so many variables here (size/number of churches, etc.). Of course, I have no Danish and the conference hosts were resolutely secular.

    • Fr Mark said

      Yes, I think the Scandinavian countries have Europe’s lowest church Sunday attendance figures – though, oddly, virtually everyone here seems to get their children baptised and confirmed, to get married in church (if at all) and go at Christmass.

  2. john said

    So, the question then is (it always is): how do you actually fashion ‘an attractive, modern Christianity’ which will actually attract people in? No easy answer, etc. But the question remains. If you are an oppressed minority, gay (purely for example),then energy is created by resistance to ogres such as Tom Wright or Joseph Ratzinger (amused to read, on one of your cited Italian blogs, allusion to ‘the wolves of the Vatican’). But when that is removed, as it largely is in Protestant and even – increasingly – in Roman Catholic Europe, and largely is within English (and British) Anglicanism, it’s still a huge struggle. You’re the Father, tell me. I certainly believe we need something better than Alpha or Emmaus (though Steve Croft is a very nice man and quite the best preacher I have ever heard).

    Best, John.

    • Fr Mark said

      I think you’re going a bit fast here, John… it was only a few weeks ago that the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote his document saying, basically, that gay people aren’t wanted as representatives of the Church of England. It’ll take many years before the strong negative vibes the churches are sending out become dissipated and forgotten. Here in Scandinavia, the churches have also dragged their feet with regard to women and gay people by comparison with the rest of society (it’s just that the rest of society got there ahead of the UK): we are not yet in the post-discriminatory stage of any church’s development.

      Of course, treating everyone decently doesn’t mean that they’ll all crowd into church (though it is an indispensable part of creating a predisposition to, I think). Getting loads of people into church isn’t my remit here: I’m just trying to help with honest analysis of what’s going on, really.

      Personally, I’ve lots of ideas about the way forward, mainly involving a more cuddly form of Anglo-Catholicism: I think the purpose of the church is more to provide access to spirituality than exercise moral control systems.

  3. john said

    Yes, probably was a bit fast. I live such a secular life among academics where the matter certainly isn’t an issue.

    Much agree with second half of your last sentence (not that I mind the first half).

    Rather good letter in this week’s Church Times of C of E woman priest’s experience of RC priests in (I think) Portugal. Might be worth your while. Really seems that large majority of RCs actually like women priests.



    • Fr Mark said

      Thanks for this, John: I’ll search out the CT letter. I’ll try to add a good deal more on women priests on this site as time allows: there seems to be a lot more happening across Europe than some hierarchies will admit to.

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