I have recently been reading David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters’ Covid by Numbers: Making Sense of the Pandemic with Data (Pelican, 2021). It’s chock-full of sound information and judicious interpretation on all manner of pandemic-related metrics. Missing, however, is one I’m sure has been uppermost in many Herald readers’ minds for much of the past two years: what will the likely long-term effects be on Mass attendance?
This seems a good time to embark on what, I hope, will be a regular segment in this august magazine. What I’d like to do is to use this column to (re)consider topics of real pastoral relevance, in an informed, interesting and perhaps even entertaining way. The French Dominican Yves Congar once wrote that “The Church learns from contact with facts.” It would be nice to prove him right.
Helpfully, parishes typically do what’s called an “October count”. This involves counting up everyone attending all Sunday Masses (including Vigils) on each of four consecutive Sundays, in (or in some dioceses, half in) October. These are, for reasons we needn’t get into, supposedly the “normalest” of the liturgical year.
The average (mean) of these four Sundays is then used to produce a “typical Sunday attendance”. Each year this is sent, along with other pastoral statistics, to some lucky person in each diocese to collate. These are then all ultimately sent to the Bishops’ Conference, which each year gets a pestering email asking if I might please have a copy.
There’s lots that one can learn from these kind of data, both for diocesan planning and with regard to the overall big picture. For instance, they tell us that, in normal times, there are roughly as many Britons at Mass each Sunday as attend a full weekend’s worth of professional football matches across England, Wales, and Scotland: 900,000, to the nearest 100k, in both cases. Well, there were in 2018, which is the last year for which I ran the numbers.
Those happy golden years of the late-2010s are, however, now lost in the mists of The Before Times. So how are things shaping up now, as we look ahead to the year 2 AC (Anno Covidi)? Surely we’re now starting to glimpse what the post-pandemic :new normal”. Just how bad is it?
The full figures won’t hit my inbox till well into next year. But, as a special Christmas treat for CH readers, I decided to pull in some favours from a friend of mine. Let’s just call him the Secret Statistician. From him, I have the 2019 and 2021 October counts for 92 parishes of his mystery diocese in England and Wales – basically, all those that sent in their figures before my deadline.
Using that sample, the average (mean and median) fall in attendance between 2019 and 2021 has been 40 per cent. That is to say, for every ten people at Sunday Mass in October 2019, there were six there two years later.
In truth, that headline figure covers a huge range. At the top end, two parishes gained parishioners over the pandemic, adding an extra 10 per cent or so to their 2019 figures (both of which were in the 300s). I happen to know the priests in question, and I must say, I’m not absolutely surprised. (And I know that they’re not alone. Outside of this particular sample, I’ve seen stats from other trend-bucking parishes too.) A further handful of parishes more or less held their own. Given the hand everywhere has been dealt, this is also a massive achievement.
At the other end, however, some parishes – about one in eight – have seen falls of over 60 per cent. Most parishes though, as those familiar with statistical distributions won’t be surprised to learn, cluster around the average, having lost somewhere between a third and half of the 2019 Mass-goers.
It’s important to stress that not everyone who’s coming back has yet come back. For example, the nearest thing my own 70-something parents have to a religious devotion is live theatre-going: they’ve not been back yet, and (understandably) have no immediate plans to. I imagine the same is true for a good number of otherwise regular Mass-goers.
Hopefully, the reinstatement of the Obligation a few weeks ago will have nudged a few of the “we’ll start going again next week” folks too (whom I suspect include a fair number of families).
Still, there’s a hard road ahead. As Spiegelhalter and Masters put it: “The shadow of the pandemic is cast far into the future.”
Stephen Bullivant is a theologian at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Send him your questions: [email protected]
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