A GROWING number of worshippers are going to Anglican churches in the Diocese of Oxford, bucking a national trend for falling attendance.

The rise in average weekly visits to Church of England services has been put down to local parishes making their churches more welcoming for families and the community.

Figures show the average number of people attending a service through the week in the Oxford Diocese has gone up by three per cent, from 55,400 in 2010 to 57,100 in 2011.

Nationally the average weekly attendance has fallen during the same period, with a 0.3 per cent drop across the country in the last figures available.

The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Rev Colin Fletcher, said: “These statistics are most encouraging and it’s quite nice to see the statistics demonstrating what I have been seeing for some time now. We have seen a large growth in work with young people and families.

“In the middle of a recession you realise that just getting more things doesn’t satisfy and people are asking bigger questions.

“I think people are looking for community, for something bigger than themselves.

“In Stadhampton they are turning the church into a village hall, so it is at the centre of the community. Weston-on-the-Green has added coffee-making facilities and that’s part of a much more welcoming trend.”

Oxford’s diocese – which covers Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire — now has the second-highest figures for church attendance in England after London.

Over the previous decade, there had been a steady decline in attendance in the diocese — from 62,300 in 2001. But the recent rise is the largest increase in six years and only four dioceses in England have seen a larger rise, all of which are in the north of the country or the Midlands.

Only Carlisle, Liverpool, Ripon and Leeds, and Southwell and Nottingham had higher increases, making Oxford’s the largest in the south of England. The Rev Bob Wilkes, the priest-in-charge at St Michael at the Northgate Church in Cornmarket Street in the city centre, said: “I think churches generally are working very hard to offer facilities to the community. We are open every day for people to find a bit of quiet.

“That, for some, is a way into worshipping with us and becoming part of the congregation.”

Anne Stead lives in Stadhampton, where a village hall space is being added to St John the Baptist Church at a cost of about £280,000. She said: “Stadhampton does not have a village hall and we have got an ageing population.

“There have been a couple of attempts to build a village hall but they have fallen through for various reasons.

“When we spoke to the church, we found they had a declining attendance and they long had dreams of having facilities such as toilets and a kitchen.”

The Rev Andrew Bunch is vicar of St Margaret’s and St Giles in Oxford. He said: “Here we introduced a more informal service over Christmas and that was very well attended and some of the Easter figures for one of my churches were absolutely brilliant.

“There are different reasons for different people and there will not be one single reason. But there is a change in culture going on from a materialist-based one.”

One church in the city where the congregation is growing is St Aldate’s. During term time, about 1,200 people attend services on Sundays.

Three years ago, a second service was introduced in the evening to accommodate an extra 200 worshippers.

Rector the Rev Charlie Cleverly said: “People are spiritual and atheism has shot its bolt.

“It has become unsatisfactory for people – they know it is not true – and there is a hunger for God.

“About 500 people attend the morning service on a Sunday, another 450 attend at 6.30pm and about three years ago we added the second evening service which starts at 8.15pm.

“The late service has been very fruitful and in all our services the highest achievers are interested, as well as the most desperate in society.

“The Church needs to be flexible and devise different strategies for reaching different people.”

Mr Cleverly added that the church’s charity Aldates Community Transformation (ACT) reaches out to the marginalised in Oxford and supports a number of causes, including ex-prisoners.

FIGURES from the 2011 census show Oxford has the highest percentage of non-believers per head of population in the country.

According to the statistics, 50,274 people declared they had no religion, compared to just 32,075 in the last census in 2001.

More than 72,000 of Oxford’s 151,906 population defined themselves as Christian — 47 per cent.

Oxford’s Muslim population has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 5,309 to 10,320 — and Islam is the second most popular religion in the city.

The census showed 709 Oxford people listed their religion as Jedi Knight.

IN 2011, an average of 57,100 people went to church in Oxfordshire during a week, the latest full figures available.

This is the second highest in England after London, where 78,000 people went to an Anglican church.

Like most dioceses, Oxford saw a spike on Easter Day and Christmas Day, when 73,200 and 158,300 Anglicans went to church respectively.

About 12 per cent of babies born in the diocese were given a Church of England baptism and 41 per cent of funerals were Anglican. These both represent the second highest number out of the 43 dioceses in England.

Attendance at Catholic masses is about 72,500 in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, which covers a wider area with a population of about five million.

The Oxford Mail was unable to get attendance figures at the Central Oxford Mosque and the Oxford Synagogue.