Statistics published by the 22 Catholic dioceses of England and Wales give no direct indication of the numbers of rural Catholics. This article uses what data is available, together with arguments based on the author’s parish experience and discussions with others, to suggest in what numerical range (or of what order of magnitude) this population might be estimated.
On-line Data of Parishes and Mass-Centres
Diocesan information is available on-line which indicates where parish churches and Mass-centres are located. If these are sorted in terms of city/town/village locations, the following figures result:
|Diocese||City Mass Venues||Town Mass Venues||Village Mass Venues|
|Arundel & Brighton||17||107||50|
|Hexham & Newcastle||72||90||49|
Catholic Churches and other Catholic Mass Venues
Most of the 3342 venues where public Catholic Mass is celebrated in England and Wales are Catholic parish churches or chapels-of-ease (Mostly Roman-rite Catholic, but also Syro-Malabar, Ukranian, Lithuanian rites and churches of different language groups, e.g. Polish Catholic missions).
Institutions’ chapels (Universities, hospitals, Institutes, Armed Services Chapels) where the public may attend Mass make up 64 Catholic Directory entries. Religious communities whose Masses are similarly advertised make up 30 entries. A number of churches which are not Catholic also give hospitality, enabling Catholic communities to celebrate a weekend Mass (The directories list 26 Anglican churches, 6 Methodist, 1 URC, 1 Congregational, and 2 Ecumenical Churches). Seven weekend Catholic masses are advertised in community centres. Total Catholic Mass attendance (England & Wales)  is estimated as 890,000 There are 3342 venues currently given in Catholic on-line directories for Mass, so average number per venue is approx. 266 Mass-attenders per week.
What about village Catholic churches and other Mass venues?
In villages there are 579 venues which currently advertise public weekend Masses in Catholic directories of England and Wales. Of these 538 are Catholic churches or chapels-of-ease belonging to Catholic parishes. Fifteen are churches of other denominations who give hospitality to Catholic communities for Mass (12 Anglican, 2 Methodist, 1 URC). Fifteen are religious houses, 6 are armed services chaplaincies, 4 are colleges or institutes and one Mass is in a community centre.
How many Catholics attend Mass in villages?
This is not an easy number to estimate. Without doubt village-based Catholic communities are usually smaller than town and city communities. Unlike towns and cities few village Catholic churches have more than one Sunday Mass. From the point of viability, to maintain churches and clergy where the main source of income is from the weekly collection at Mass, there is often an economic minimum number of attenders, below which it is difficult for the Mass in a particular village to be maintained long-term.
The on-line dioscesan directories do not give individual attendance data for each church/venue. Using the hard-copy 2017 diocesan directory for my own diocese (Birmingham); of the 53 villages listed 30 give average Sunday Mass attendance figures. Numbers range from 41 to 370, with an average (mean) of 127 attending Mass at each of these 30 village venues. For the 53 venues overall, however, an average of 127 attenders is an over-estimate. I know that more of the 23 village venues who do not give figures have numbers below this “average” than above this “average”.
If the 127 attendance figure were to be used for estimating village Mass-attenders in England and Wales, it would give a total figure of 73 533 (579 times 127). Without doubt the 30-village sample is too small to use to scale-up reliably. My opinion is that the resultant number produced could be an over estimate by up to a third. My personal rough estimate would be that between 45 000 and 60 000 Catholics attend a Sunday Mass in villages in the 22 dioceses of England and Wales each week. So roughly one in every six venues where Catholics gather for Mass is in a village, but with village congregations being smaller than those of towns and cities only somewhere between one in fifteen and one in twenty of the practising Catholic population attends Mass in a village.
How many practising rural Catholics attend Mass in towns and cities?
Data is non-existant. One clear finding from the directories is that dioceses which are most rural do not have correspondingly larger numbers of village-based Masses. I was somewhat shocked to realise that between the three dioceses of (mostly rural) Wales there are only 30 villages where Mass can be found. Likewise figures from a rural county such as Cornwall show only 5 villages (plus one on the Silly Isles) where Mass can be found and only 8 villages in Devon. By comparison I live in Staffordshire which has 16 village-based Catholic church-communities. Further south in my diocese there are 6 in West Midlands, 10 in Warwickshire, 11 in Oxfordshire, 9 in Worcestershire, and 1 formerly in Oxfordshire but due to county boundary changes now in Berkshire.
England has over 16 000 villages, only 549 of which have a Catholic Sunday gathering – Wales has similar ratios, so clearly not all Catholics who live in villages have access to Mass in their own or in nearby villages. My pastoral experience, and discussions with priest friends indicates that many Catholic congregations in market-towns will draw up to a third of their numbers not from the town itself but from surrounding villages. It is not unusual to find such a Catholic parish with a geographical “parish area” of over 100 square miles and including a dozen or more villages, where 70 or 80 members out of a 250-strong congregation are coming in, often 10 miles or more, from this surrounding countryside to a Sunday Mass celebrated in town. This happens to a lesser extent in some city parishes. I was a in a city parish (Worcester) in 2001, the year of the foot and mouth outbreak. Parish boundaries stretched over 12 miles to the east of the city and included a number of villages. That year many parishioners suddenly became aware that our community included those whose farms were cut off for many weeks due to foot and mouth quarrantine. Of the 650 Mass-attenders in the parish, 50 or 60 were from the rural areas. In 2001 these became more pastorally prominent (and were helped with prayer and practical support). Being a small rural minority in the mainly city congregation, however, many of our city parishioners were previously unaware of their presence in our midst.
My personal estimate is that a third to a half of rural Catholics attend Mass not in local villages, but in larger centres of population further away. This is, however, a difficult figure to estimate.
Estimating numbers of rural Catholics in England & Wales
If my experience and instinct are roughly accurate, and data gives us a ball-park figure which isn’t too far from reality, then the total number of practising rural Catholics in England and Wales is between 68 000 and 120 000. This roughly equates to between one in seven and one in fourteen of the total number of Catholics in England and Wales who attend Mass on a weekly basis. Assuming that 21% of baptised Catholics are weekly attenders (percentage figure drawn from 2010 data) the total numbers of baptised Catholics living in rural England and Wales can be estimated as between 324 000 and 571 000.
A Note on Sources and Data Reliability
For data on churches and other venues three sets of source data were used: Diocesan websites, the Bishops’ Conference website search facility (directory.cbcew.org.uk/) and some parish/deanery websites. Data was accessed Jan-April 2017. Many anomalies exist. Churches seem to be currently closing at a rate of somewhere between one and two per week. The shortage of priests is also causing changes which aren’t immediately reflected in published data. Hence I would estimate that overall data numbers are accurate only to plus or minus 5% (and even this may be optimistic). The listing of places as city/town/village is from wikipedia sites (Places which are hamlets or private country estates are included in “village” numbers). A few villages are being amalgamated into nearby towns and so lose village status. This may not immediately show in published data. Wikipedia data overall, however, seems more reliable than Church data and I would estimate it to be accurate to plus or minus 2%.
Data which can be accessed at faithsurvey.co.uk/catholics-england-and-wales.html indicates the estimated total baptised Catholic population of England and Wales is 4,155,100, which represents 7.4% of the population. It also indicates that on average only 21% of these baptised Catholics are weekly attenders.
Fr Rob Taylerson June 2017