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Once more: whither the Church of England?

On Monday there was a (comparatively) early release of the 2023 Statistics for Mission, the results of the annual October collection of attendance numbers in Church of England churches. The headline was all about the good news!

Weekly Church attendance up five per cent in third year of consecutive growth

Average weekly attendance at Church of England services rose by almost five per cent in 2023—the third year of consecutive growth, preliminary figures show. Meanwhile weekly attendance by children was up by almost six per cent last year, according to an early snapshot of the annual Statistics for Mission findings. While total attendance is still below 2019 levels, the last year before the Covid-19 lockdowns, the analysis suggests in-person attendance is drawing closer to the pre-pandemic trend.

In 2021 all-age Sunday attendance was 22.3 per cent below the projected pre-pandemic trend, but the new figures reveal that the gap had narrowed to 6.7 per cent last year. All-age weekly attendance rose to within 8.3 per cent of the trend last year, compared with 24.1 per cent in 2021.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said “This is very welcome news and I hope it encourages churches across the country. I want to thank our clergy and congregations who have shown such faith, hope and confidence over recent years to share the gospel with their communities.

“I’m especially heartened to hear that more children are coming along to church and I’m grateful to everyone involved in that ministry. These are just one set of figures, but they show without doubt that people are coming to faith in Jesus Christ here and now – and realising it’s the best decision they could ever make. Renewing and growing the Church is always the work of God, and it’s our role to join in with what God is doing. As we gather in churches this weekend to celebrate Pentecost, let’s keep praying and working to invite more people to discover the love of Jesus Christ.”

It is worth spending a few moments actually understanding what these figures are saying. A note to the press release says this:

The projected pre-pandemic trend is based on a straight-line fit to published attendance figures from 2014-2019. A straight line is a good fit to that dataset, particularly for adult attendance.

That straight line is decreasing at almost exactly 30% over the last ten years, ie at 3% per year. The expectation (that this decline trend continues) means that the figures for 2023 were expected to be four years of 3% decline lower—that is, 12% lower than 2019. In fact, the figures are still 8.3% lower than this, which is therefore a drop of about 20%.

So we are celebrating being one-fifth smaller as a church (in terms of attendance) than we were in 2019.


Jesus meets Nicodemus in John 3 on Trinity Sunday

The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Trinity Sunday in Year B is the same as we had for Lent 2 in Year A—Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus in John 3.1–17—so I am reposting the article from last year for this week.

In Year A, this forms part of a four-week departure from reading Matthew’s gospel: 

Lent 2: Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3.1–17)
Lent 3: The woman of Samaria (John 4.5–42)
Lent 4: The man born blind (John 9.1-41)
Lent 5: The raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-45)
But for us now, this forms one of the many forays into the Fourth Gospel from the shorter gospel of Mark. It is still worth noting the place that this encounter has within the scheme of the Fourth Gospel as a whole.

These four encounters do not particularly stand out as a sequence in the Fourth Gospel (for instance, in connection with the seven signs or the ‘I am’ sayings) but they are highly characteristic of the gospel’s narrative style. Whilst the gospel contains more detail of the names of both places and people than the Synoptics, it also features these close-up one-on-one encounters between Jesus and individuals, in which all the details of place and other people fade into the background, as if we are in a cinematic close-up. Some of these one-on-one encounters are also connected with each other; thus Mark Stibbe (in his 1993 Sheffield ‘Readings’ commentary, p 62) notes the prominent contrast between Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and the woman, in chapters 3 and 4:

John 3 John 4
Takes place in Jerusalem Takes place in Samaria
Location is the city Location is the countryside
Happens at night Happens at noon
Focuses on a man Focuses on a woman
The man is a Jew The woman is a Samaritan
He is socially respectable She is a social outcast
Nicodemus initiates the dialogue Jesus initiates the dialogue
Nicodemus descends into misunderstanding The woman comes to faith
Nicodemus fails to see Jesus as the world’s saviour The woman and her village see Jesus as the saviour of the world
Both these dialogues also hinge on the use of double entendre, with a specific example (being born again, having water to drink) as well as the shared theme of light signifying understanding.

The setting of our passage continues in Jerusalem, in continuity with the previous episode, but is introduced in quite general terms ‘Now, there was a man…’ The gospel continues with both making assumptions about the Jewishness of its context, since Nicodemus addresses Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ (literally ‘my great one’, a term use for respected teachers) which was introduced in John 1.38, but also about the need to explain. Nicodemus is a ‘ruler of the Iudaioi’, which could mean ‘the Jews’, though sometimes clearly refers to ‘Jews who were opposed to Jesus’, sometimes ‘the Jewish leaders’, or even ‘the Judeans’, those in the south as opposed to those living in Galilee.