As the UK becomes increasingly godless, clerics preaching to rows of empty pews have come up with a new tactic: they are inviting their parishioners to "bring a heathen". And, with a little help from the faltering economy, it seems to be working. The Church of England says it has added thousands of newcomers to its flock since the start of this year.
Back to Church Sunday, an annual service where parishioners take a friend to church, attracted 37,000 new congregants this year – double the number who attended in 2007.
Canon Paul Bayes, the Archbishop of Canterbury's adviser on church growth, said the invite-a-friend scheme was a remarkable success. "It works because it's very natural; it plays to the love that Christians have for their church, but also the love that they have for their friends. You're inviting someone you already know to something you already love."
He added that the economy could be part of the reason why so many were being attracted to church. "The fact that people are more open to going back to church and taking stock may well be down to the economy. Anything that shakes the structure of your life makes us think more about internal things, which makes it more likely to think 'I'll give church a try'."
At Chelmsford Cathedral in Essex, the congregation has grown by 7 per cent in one year. Last year 108,000 people came to the cathedral, but this year's figure is expected to reach 117,000 by the end of December. Pastoral assistant Tony Allen said the cathedral was holding a record 22 carol services. "We always have a whole string of carol services, but we have even more this year. When there's a difficult period, as now, people yearn for something greater than life."
At Canterbury Cathedral, a ticketed Christmas Eve service has already sold out, and an extra one has been laid on for the 23rd. Loudspeakers will be put outside so those unable to enter can listen to the service. Westminster Abbey also expects to be full this year.
At Southwark Cathedral in south London, the rush is not just for Christmas: numbers have been steadily increasing all year. A Sunday service in October had an unprecedented 1,000–strong congregation, usually not seen outside Christmas and Easter.
"It was extraordinary," said Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral. He believes this Christmas will be busier than ever. "My instinct says that the recession will mean we see more people this Christmas. We're putting on an additional choir service on a weekday before Christmas, as well as the Sunday afternoon service."
Church elders believe that the recession has prompted people to rethink their values. Dr John Preston, national stewardship officer for the Church of England and author of several books on Christianity and consumerism, said: "The downturn challenges materialism and people are finding meaning in alternatives; for some that's Christianity and God. It's undeniably true that the severity and speed of the economic downturn have challenged a lot of people to ask questions about where they place their trust."