Archbishops say Church faces 'urgent' struggle to fill pews

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The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says the Church must face the "urgency of the challenge" of dwindling attendances

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says the Church must face the "urgency of the challenge" of dwindling attendances (AFP Photo/Carl de Souza)

London (AFP) - The Church of England must face the "urgency of the challenge" of dwindling attendances, an ageing clergy and uncertain finances, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said ahead of a meeting of the body's leadership next month.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, also said the Church must raise its social media and digital presence if it is to grow.

"The urgency of the challenge facing us is not in doubt. Attendance at Church of England services has declined at an average of one percent per annum over recent decades and, in addition, the age profile of our membership has become significantly older than that of the population," they said in a joint statement.

"Finances have been relatively stable, thanks to increased individual giving. This situation cannot, however, be expected to continue unless the decline in membership is reversed."

The Church of England owns thousands of old buildings, but with falling visitor numbers, the burden of their upkeep "weighs heavily", Sentamu and Welby said.

Only 785,000 people attended services on a usual Sunday in 2013, with an average of six adults for every child attending, Church statistics show.

"The age profile of our clergy has also been increasing. Around 40 percent of parish clergy are due to retire over the next decade or so. And while ordination rates have held up well over recent years they continue to be well below what would be needed to maintain current clergy numbers and meet diocesan ambitions," the archbishops said.

The Anglican Church has struggled to adapt to modern social trends and has been riven by splits in recent years over women bishops and homosexuality.

In a bid to modernise and reach a wider audience, Welby and Sentamu called for more money to be spent on boosting the Anglican presence online.

"There is no central investment in reaching out into the digital and social media world. If the Church of England is to return to growth, there is a compelling need to realign resources and work carefully to ensure that scarce funds are used to best effect."

A programme for reform and renewal will be discussed during February's meeting of the General Synod