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Christians share gift of faith with their friends this Christmas as thousands invited to congregate at nation’s cathedrals

More than 140,000 people are expected to attend a Church of England cathedral for a service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year, following a 7.5 per cent rise in worshippers between 2005 and 2006.

Last year, with many cathedrals close to capacity, worshipper numbers reached more than 130,000 in the 24-hour Christmas period - a 37 per cent increase since 2000. Across all Church of England parish services, it is expected that the total topped the 2.8 million seen over the same period in 2005.

In addition to the attendance statistics for last Christmas, other figures released today from a survey of three cathedrals conducted last year suggest that Christians are using these 'flagship' church buildings to encourage their friends to attend church, with more than a third of respondents saying they heard about the cathedral service from a friend, and a quarter of those surveyed saying they actually attended the service with friends or neighbours.

The study - conducted by the Church of England in York Minster, Southwark Cathedral and Derby Cathedral over nine Christmas services last year - demonstrates the magnetic draw of cathedrals at Christmas time for those who rarely attend church, with as many as half of those surveyed in the congregations saying they attend church less than once every three months.

One in four had been to a cathedral over the year to attend a service, but more than half of these Christmas congregations had visited a cathedral for another reason, such as sightseeing or quiet reflection.

Today's statistics will be the star on top of the tree for cathedral deans and their congregations, who have seen attendance throughout the year rise by 17 per cent since the turn of the millennium - a rate of three per cent each year. In an average week in 2006, 24,800 adults and 6,800 children and young people attended cathedral worship. All services across the Church of England parishes attract about 1.2 million a week.

Figures released earlier this year showed that attendance at cathedrals on Easter Eve and Easter Sunday increased to 52,400 in 2006 - an increase of nine per cent since 2000.

The Revd Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Church of England, comments: "Rumours of the demise of Christmas as a Christian celebration are baseless. It won't be the experience of the thousands upon thousands who will be attending Christmas services this week. There will be standing-room only at many cathedrals and churches, as the dormant desire to recapture a sense of the wonder of the Nativity, to share with others in singing and praying, and to glimpse something of the spiritual meaning of the Christmas story draws people from across communities towards churches across the country.

"The significant attraction of special occasions and major festivals is a welcome sign of the wider success of the year-round ministry of cathedrals. Many people feel an innate connection with their local cathedral as a symbol of the spiritual life of their community. The anonymity that can be maintained when worshipping with hundreds of other people within these historic buildings can act as a further pull for some people in deciding how to mark this special season of the year."

 The cathedrals of Canterbury, London, Norwich, St Albans and York each expect more than 5,000 adults, children and young people to join them for worship on Christmas Eve or Day this year. Across the country, the Christmas menu of events and services prepared by cathedrals is set to attract a wide range of worshippers, as deans and chapters lay on extra services and put out even more seats to meet demand:

  • At Chelmsford Cathedral, Essex, the Dean and Chapter have found that the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols is so popular that they are holding it twice this year - one on Sunday 23rd December and one on Christmas Eve. In addition, the cathedral hosts a total of nineteen carol services during Advent, including one for Essex County Fire and Rescue service and a service for the deaf.
  • This year at Wakefield Cathedral, situated in the centre of the town's historic market cross, the Dean and Chapter have begun holding lunchtime shoppers' carols on Tuesdays in Advent, with up to 100 people attending. The Cathedral also holds two 'Tree of Lights' services and a related concert with Wakefield Hospice, which a total of 2,500 people have attended.
  • At Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, as many as 400 people come to the Advent Procession on Advent Sunday each year to hear the Cathedral Choir as they process by candlelight through the building in full voice. Throughout the first half of this December, around fifteen different organisations held carol services in the Cathedral - including a special one where visitors arrive by steam train at Chichester Station. The Cathedral's own carol services are hugely popular, with as many as 900 people expected at each of the three events, two of which have already 'sold out', leaving just one unticketed service on Sunday 23rd December, for which the Cathedral's doors will open one hour before the 3pm start.
  • Durham Cathedral has organised two 'Carols for All' events in association with the city's Christmas Festival, attracting around 600 people to each service. The Cathedral also launched a Midnight Eucharist service for Christmas Eve just four years ago, and has seen congregations at that service rise from around 400 to 900 people in 2006.
  • In Truro, Cornwall, the Christmas Services and Concerts at Truro Cathedral are so popular that a system of free ticketing has been introduced for the first time this year. A recent review of the fire regulations means that the capacity seating is now limited to 900, and so the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, always one of the most popular events in the Christmas Calendar, is this year being performed twice. Even with that provision, all tickets had been taken up by the end of November. After the joy of 19 separate carol services, the Midnight Mass and Christmas Day Service, Sunday 30th December brings the Children and Pets Carol Service - which always attracts huge numbers of both - and is followed by Evensong and Carols around the Crib.
  • At York Minster, two Festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols are now arranged to meet demand - one on the 23rd December and one on Christmas Eve - with almost 3,000 people expected at each. A special Crib Service on Christmas Eve, where younger members of the congregation are invited to dress as shepherds and angels, sees approximately 1,000 parents and children enjoying being part of a 'living Nativity scene'.

An Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey conducted earlier this year suggested that four in 10 people went to church at some point during Advent or Christmas last year, broadly in line with figures seen in each of 2005 and 2003. The most recent figure (39 per cent) is significantly above that seen just after the turn of the millennium when, in 2001, ORB recorded a figure of 33 per cent.