What are the church attendance statistics telling us?

The annual Statistics for Mission were published a few weeks by the C of E for 2017, and there was a range of reactions though few of them really caught the headlines. Before saying anything else, it is worth acknowledging what a remarkable resource this; does any other denomination have such a clear picture and such well-thought-through analysis of where it is at? As I said in Archbishops’ Council last week, these figures must form the bread and butter for anyone thinking about strategy in the Church; I hope that their release is on the agenda of every senior team across the dioceses, as it is now on our agenda. Of course, knowing where you are, and even where you have come from (as the statistics highlight) does not necessarily tell you where you are going—’past performance is no guarantee of the future’ as they say—but an honest look at where you are is an essential starting point.

Wen the figures were published, there were a range of reactions, some more helpful than others. I seem to remember Michael Sadgrove, form Dean of Durham Cathedral, comment that ‘we just need to confront the reality that we are declining’, which I am not sure was entirely helpful. Numerical decline might be a reality, but I think we have all realised that, and the greater challenge is how we reconcile this with the consistent language in the New Testament of the kingdom of God growing irrepressibly and ‘all by itself’ (automate, Mark 4.28). David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, suggested that we should learn from the growth of cathedrals in their excellence of performance, which is I think what certain traditions of charismatic worship in fact do, with their sense of ‘high production value’—though again I think I would take issue with the idea of reducing the ‘challenge’ of Christmas services by, for example, omitting preaching. Jeremy Morris touches on some important issues, and though I wouldn’t land quite where he does, I was interested in his observation about the dangers of striving to be too inclusive:

The other is to stress inclusivity, to widen the boundaries of those to be welcomed, to open up the Church to those who might otherwise feel excluded or condemned by it.   This has its own risks, of course, which are likely to include looking a bit woolly and a bit over-reactive to social change.

Mark Woods has a slightly more positive take on the whole report, including an interesting observation about Anglican diversity:

It’s also a very broad church, unlike more monocultural denominations. Not far from me there’s a church offering an early morning Prayer Book service. Also not far is a church where any kind of book is seen as hopelessly out of date; pixels rule. And this is important, not just in terms of styles of worship but in terms of the whole philosophy of church. Is it ultra-inclusive, focusing on non-judgmentally ‘welcoming everyone’? It may be so vacuously content-free that there’s nothing actually to belong to. Is it more ‘sound’, teaching the Word and making it very clear who’s in and who’s out? It may be building walls, to keep the insiders in and the insiders out. But different people need different things at different stages of their lives – and one or other CofE church is likely to be able to provide it.

David Keen is rather more downbeat, but does highlight something very interesting buried in the tables—the importance of larger churches:

One final table:

This is an interesting one, a few things to note here:
 – 75% of Anglican churches have 60 people or fewer on an average Sunday.
 – Of the 16000 churches in the CofE, around 4000 have 15 or less on a Sunday, 1 baptism a year and no weddings and for their big services have enough to fill a decent sized pub function room. None of these churches needs to seat more than 50-70 people. I’m sure every one of these buildings is loved and treasured, but we are way past the point where this is sustainable. Do we have a strategy for closing or re-using buildings, before the inevitable collapse in the system?
 – The bigger churches have a proportionally bigger ‘fringe’ – churches on the 25th percentile see 2.5x their usual congregation turn up at Christmas, those on the 75th see 3.75x their usual number, and it’s higher still for the biggest.
 – Some very different leadership is required for the churches on the left hand side of this table to those on the right. What are we training people for?
 – It would be interesting to see the parishes mapped on to these by growth/decline, sometimes the biggest decline comes in the biggest churches.

This is fascinating, and reflects the trend over many years for churches to drift to be either smaller or bigger, with the traditional middle-sized church largely disappearing. But also need to be balanced against the reality that large churches are easier to drift away from (since you are noticed less and so missed less in a larger church) and so large churches often have a big metaphorical back door, and that percentage growth is more easily attainable in a small church (it feels easier to grow from 50 to 53 than from 300 to 318).

From my reading of the tables and figures, I would like to offer two points of context, five observations, and two key points of response.

The first point of context is that measuring these numbers is important, because numbers are people, and if people matter then numbers matter. But we need to be clear what we are measuring, and ensure that we measure what we value rather than simply valuing what we measure. The goal for the Church at any level is to make disciples of Christ, and more than that, to make disciple-making disciples. Measuring the number of bums on seats is a means to that end, but is not an end in itself. The challenge (as we discussed in Archbishops’ Council) is that it is very different to measure whether we are indeed making more disciples; how would you measure that? One way is to look at social engagement, as one half of looking at contribution to the common good and the growth of the kingdom, and another way is to measure church attendance, since it is hard to grow as a disciple without meeting together, worshipping God, and growing in understanding. So the statistics are important, so long as we remember why they are important.

The second point of context (which some have noted briefly, but I don’t think given enough attention to) is that measuring church attendance now is actually measuring something different from what it was measuring 20 years ago. Social change usually has its greatest impact not immediately, but after one generation, and we are now one generation on from the introduction of Sunday Trading in 1994. When it was introduced, those who has been used to keeping Sunday special were now allowed to do other things; but the next generation has grown up with the idea that Sunday isn’t particularly special, which is a quite different thing. With the pressure for families to have two incomes in order to be able to afford housing, the loss of a consistent age of retirement, and the demands not just of parenting but grandparenting, there are all sorts of demands being made of people at a weekend and in particular on a Sunday that simply were not there in the past. So to attend a church service every Sunday in a month is a sign of greater commitment now than it was 20 years ago. This is not to say anything about the importance of Sunday attendance—just to note that as culture changes, measuring the same statistic does not necessarily measure the same thing over time. That is why, despite its challenges, we do need to take the ‘worshipping communities’ measure seriously, as this does try to take into account the impact of changing culture.

On the statistics themselves, there are five things worth noting.

First, there is an interesting correlation between statistics measuring different things, which suggests that the insights offered are fairly robust. The headlines figures include these:

  • The Worshipping Community of regular worshippers at Church of England churches in 2017 was 1.14 million people, of whom 20% were aged under 18, 49% were aged 18-69, and 32% were aged 70 or over.
  • On average, 895,000 people (86% adults, 14% children under 16) attended Church of England services and acts of worship each week in October 2017. A further 197,000 people attended services for schools in Church of England churches in an average week in October 2017.
  • The Usual Sunday attendance at Church of England churches in 2017 was 722,000 people (87% adults, 13% children under 16).
  • 1.25 million people attended Church of England churches at Easter 2017 (of whom 71% received communion).
  • 2.68 million people attended Church of England churches at Christmas 2017 (of whom 35% received communion). During Advent, 2.33 million people attended special services for the congregation and local community, and 2.80 million people attended special services for civic organisations and schools.

If you take the Easter attendance, and note how many received communion, it is 71% of 1.25 million which comes to 887,500, and at Christmas those receiving communion were 35% of 2.68 million which comes to 938,000. If ‘receiving communion’ offers some measure of commitment, this correlates very closely with the measured October attendance figure.

The second thing to notice is that something happened in 2012, though I am not sure what it was. All the charts show two trends which appear to have been consistent since then: a notable downturn in occasional offices (baptisms, weddings, funerals) and a notable upturn in the attendance at festivals, particularly at Christmas. Was this a moment where many people felt able to be more honest about their lack of belief, but at the same time a little more honest about their fringe interest? I have not seen anyone even notice this, let alone explain it—but something does appear to have happened.

The third thing relates to the proportion of young people, specifically measured as ‘under 18s’ in the statistics. The headline figure is noted above: in worshipping communities, 20% were aged under 18, 49% were aged 18-69, and 32% were aged 70 or over. The interesting question is: how does that compare with the population of England as a whole? And the slightly surprising answer is: although the Church is top-heavy (12% of the general population is over 70) it matches it rather closely at the bottom end, where about 20% of the general population under 18. It might be argued that young people often fall away from faith through their teens and twenties, so in fact you need a higher proportion of young people overall—but it is also often noted that most Christians have in fact come to faith when they were young. There has been a serious decline on the number of young people in our churches overall, but perhaps the more important question is the stickability of the faith of the young, or the ‘stickiness’ of the churches in which they are involved.

The fourth observation which is related to this, is that the number of young people joining ‘worshipping communities’ seems very significant. Is this the fruit of the Messy Church movement? If so, then a major challenge here is the question of discipleship in the context of messy church, something addressed in the book I edited a couple of years ago.

The fifth and final observation is to note that the dioceses across the country vary enormously in both the level of Anglican Church attendance and what is happening in terms of both growth and decline. With the variation in urban, suburban, estate and rural contexts, with the significant variation in the number of stipendiary clergy per head of population, whilst there are issues and principles which apply to all, there appear to be quite distinct challenges in different dioceses. The detail can be found in the charts and tables in the Appendix on pp 23ff.

Out of all this comes two key challenges. The immediate one faces us at Christmas time. If this is a festival which has continuing significance in culture, and is one where there is growing ‘fringe’ interest in terms of attendance, how might we establish a welcoming bridge between Christmas celebration and the exploration of faith in January? Should there be a national surge in course for enquiry and exploration in the New Year?

Secondly, and more for the longer term, how and why do children come to church? We can indeed draw children in directly, and through contacts in Church schools (though all the evidence suggests that we are not doing very well on this latter strategy), and it is true that sometimes children will bring their parents. But in the past it is parents who have brought their children, and it might be that direct engagement with young adults (which appear to be happening significantly in many of the church plants and resourcing churches) is the thing that will draw children in—though children who are not yet born. For it is these young adults, continuing in faith, who will marry and have children, and this is surely the thing that will grow the number of children in church.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

42 thoughts on “What are the church attendance statistics telling us?”

  1. Some very helpful observations, as I would expect. But the central fact seems to me to be missing. You note that the New Testament assures us that the Kingdom of God is growing. The Church of England is shrinking. Perhaps the two are in reverse correlation. The kingdom of God is growing outside and in spite off the Church of England. What would it look like if God was saying that God wanted the church to be smaller? I suspect it would look pretty much like this.

    • Thanks, but there is a rather more persuasive explanation: that the Church needs to be reformed (by scripture) to look a little bit more like the kingdom that it is called to proclaim.

      It always strikes me as odd when people say ‘God is wanting to do whatever happens to be taking place at the moment’. That doesn’t sit very easily with the view we have of the world we find in Scripture, where so many cry out ‘How long oh Lord?!’

    • But the anglicans are only something like the world’s 4th largest denomination anyway. And the proportion of Christians within the world’s population steadily grew and grew in the 20th century, which can be called the Christian century. So is the privileging of one’s own denomination or country undertaken simply because it is one’s own and therefore seems normal to us (which in this case it isn’t) or for some better reason?

  2. Thanks for these observations and reflections. No doubt these statistics are a hugely rich resource for thinking strategically. I do hope they are closely attended to and reflected on in senior staff team up and down the country. My own perspective is that they are frequently simply finessed to allay fears that the church is closer to collapse than it appears. In my Diocese the release of these statistics was accompanied by a headline saying ‘growth in attendance across the Diocese’ – of course referring only to Christmas statistics. Perhaps there is some hope to be gleaned from greater attendance at Christmas – but that feels a little like clutching at straws in the light of the bigger picture. I actually think we need some greater honesty about decline – we need to stop telling rather weak stories of hope based on a particular reading of these statistics, and look at the reality of decline in the context in the sorts of cultural changes you mention (and of course many others) and ask ourselves, what kind of church do we need to be to engage with people in this context? Being honest about decline opens up the possibility of creative reimagination.

  3. Very incisive article. I keep staring at the figures of the median church, which sounds very much like a small church to me.

    I don’t understand why the “worshipping community” isn’t much bigger than the all-age weekly attendance. We have lots of families who come monthly (or twice a month), for the reasons you allude to in your excellent commentary. I would estimate that the worshipping community including monthly church-goers is almost double the average weekly attendance for us. I’m wondering why the stats show the worshipping community only 10% higher than weekly attendance. Surely that can’t be right?

    • I’m not convinced that the worshipping community statistics are fit for purpose. They are rarely gathered by counting but by guesswork. Attempting to validate them by comparing the community size figures with the figures for the number who have left and joined shows up their highly sketchy nature. Your point about them being unexpectedly low compared to average weekly attendance further adds to this sense. I don’t think they should be relied on.

      I also think it’s problematic that worshipping community includes Messy Church, since Messy Church is more a child-oriented family activity group than church in its true sense. To suggest otherwise is to sell people short in what church and Christian discipleship looks like.

    • Thanks Russell.

      I don’t want to dismiss Will Jones’ concerns entirely; the WC measure (unfortunate abbreviation!) does have some problematic elements to it, but how can we avoid doing something like this given the situation you describe?

  4. In our experience, in an inner city/deprived urban context, stable numbers indicate growth since there is a constant turnover of the population. My church averages 40-45 on a Sunday, but there is always someone moving on (or dying!), so simply to maintain the lower number means that others are joining us – quite a few of them coming to a genuine faith, before they move on to better jobs and/or housing.

    We pray that is understood each time we submit the annual figures!

    • I think people who die are genuinely lost to the ‘church militant here on earth’—but as you say, those who relocate are not necessarily. It does mean, though, that we do need to be seeing people come to faith, and find a way to help them get established in a new context…

  5. As always I observe that with generational cohorts new growth can be masked. You may be seeing new people coming to faith, but if a generation is dying off then overall you have decline.

    Despite being engaged in mission and missional thinking I am not deeply optimistic.

    I see a younger generation that is coming to faith in smaller numbers but with higher commitment, or alternatively is staying far more on the fringes of church life.

    I also see profound generational tensions. I don’t blame everything on boomers, but they are used to being in charge and do not seem to be keen to retire. I have seen a pattern of behaviour in churches where 3rd Agers are very keen for 2nd Agers to come, but then struggle with them when they are there. It is rather like watching a body reject new organs. We need young people to be prophetic, middle people to carry vision and older people to dream dreams.

    The failure of medium size churches is also deeply worrying. The talk of ‘professional’ worship is key. Jesus had a church of 120 on the day of Pentecost. It should be the ideal church size for missional growth and planting. And yet we see committed christians in particular being attracted to large churches with worship that cannot be replicated in a smaller community context, frequently far outside their local community. The Cathedral/Hillsongs model is a missional problem and I am not sure anyone is willing to address it. The Choral tradition damaged many local churches as the tried to replicate cathedrals. Now contemporary worship is doing the same thing. The conversation amongst Jesus sized church leaders is lots of unchurched folks, and very few mature christians to aid in discipleship.

    • Hi Edward – musing on your you post: you write of “Jesus sized Church leaders” and post 120 as “The ideal church size for missional growth”. I agree that 120 seems a significant number, if not Biblically, it has been in my experience. But for missional growth???? Not sure I agree. It seems 120 is often a number when growth plateaus, perhaps because the congregation is large enough to feel full and small enough to know everyone and feel community. Taking it above 120 is more difficult. I was involved in leadership of a church plant that grew in 12 months from 20 to 120 – and then just stopped – a few were added, others left but we stayed at 120. I led a student ministry whose regular attendees for ‘student night’ was always about 120. Whatever we tried, it always hovered around this. We have a late night millennials congregation that hovers around 120-140. So in my experience it seems missional growth actually stops/slows at 120 – and this is something to do with group dynamics, sociology, psychology etc

      Biblically you are right that Jesus had a church of 120 on the day of Pentecost until the end of Peter’s sermonising – the 120 ‘Jesus church size’ was 3000 by the end of the day (Acts2:41)- so the first church on the first day was a mega church like Hillsong. OK many were pilgrims who returned home, but the Jerusalem congregation saw in short time another 5000 added (Acts4:4). Whilst they met in small family size units in homes, presumably they took over the Temple precincts for public gathers when they met daily for the Apostles teaching. Surely the ‘Jesus size church’ that we infer from Acts is not predicated on the number 120, but on the growth in weeks to 5000. The first church was a gathered mega church was the first Jerusalem church.

      So I dont think the Hillsong model is as you say a ‘missional problem’ – they are a missional success. We may disagree over ecclesiology, theology, spirituality etc but I celebrate the flourishing Hillsong style churches where Jesus is proclaimed in worship and word at big celebrations and scattered small groups weekly. They do what they do very well.

      We have one in Oxford which has grown in a couple of years to 2 large congregations on Sunday – and the exisiting Oxford churches lost or launched very few members to join it – so it seems much is fresh growth, huge attractional ability, commitment from members and a gospel appeal every week.

        • Lol
          Initially I was territorial and worried we would lose a lot of our guys -but maybe a dozen or two went and helped on team – but hillsong has grown to many hundreds and we can only rejoice. Every week they call people to be born again – impressive

      • 120 should be a launching point not an ending point. It is a size where new plants and expressions of church can happen.

        Following Pentecost, the church grew substantially – suggesting a model of large church. However the organising of the early church around peoples homes echoes the smaller size, suggesting a congregation that could meet in the courtyard of large house of that period. The focus was still local rather rather than centrally gathered. Jerusalem could be thought of as more a deanery than a mega church.

        It can also be argued that the overall focus of the church in Jerusalem ultimately restricted the spread of the Gospel rather than enabled it.

        This size of church is not just about numbers but about default culture and model for church. These congregations of 120 would seek to grow through multiplication and fostering vocation rather than simple numerical increase, as Jesus’ ministry grew and enabled the disciples. This is in contrast to a model of a larger church as the ideal which smaller churches then seek to mirror.

        One way of thinking about this is the difference between growth and scale:

        In business the desire is for scale rather than growth. The equivalent for church would be that numbers are increased without the same increase in ministry resources, this being achieved through programmes and large-church management.

        However this isn’t the model we see Jesus using. Instead he earliest action after his ‘ordination’ is beginning the process of replicating his own ministry in others – the calling of the disciples. This is not a traditional growth process either, Jesus doesn’t wait until the crowds start to follow him to expand his team. Rather he focuses on vocation first and then growth follows.

  6. I am glad that serious attention is being given to these figures and only hope and pray that numerate and spiritual people in the CofE will devise suitable strategies to promote growth. I have met ostrich head-in-the-sand mentalities in parts of Wales and these are no good to anyone.

  7. I think the influence of the internet & social media has impacted church attendance too. It has meant that many (young people in particular) feel no need to join a Church community as they can access most aspects online.

    Itunes and other sources deliver a free & diverse range of podcasts delve much deeper into the Bible & other faith topics than the average Sunday sermon. Youtube and Spotify are great aids in worshipping at home and community can be found in social media groups.

    Those of us already in Church know that it isn’t the same of course, but unfortunately, Christians & the Church haven’t been a particularly good reflection of God (lack of diversity, inclusion, hypocritical etc) which puts people off coming along in the first place and discovering the joy of being part of a church family.

  8. I have to say as a parish priest of some time now I think it is all too easy to take too seriously the Mission for Stats data because a closer examination will find that clergy do not fill them in with much seriousness. They contrast (I suspect by a good 25%) with the numbers of participants that are given for the diocesan share. Indeed for sometime now there has been a marked contrast in the two figures. Treasurers tend to give the most conservative ‘low’ figure for the common share while vicars give the biggest ‘up’ figure for Mission for Stats. I would also say that the figures that we are asked to give in Mission for Stats for pioneers events, schools services, Fresh Expressions reek of statistical desperation – the sort that was manifestly around in Soviet times in crop production. The telling story is in my opinion is the flatlining of teenage confirmations and adult baptisms!

    • I think I agree with you about the different motivations for giving different figures! Most people would regards using attendance in relation to the voluntary contribution to diocesan costs as equivalent to a tax on growth.

      But one of the reasons that I am less sceptical about the positive elements of the mixed picture is that there is evidence of this on the ground. Some rural dioceses are actually seeing growth; the church plants are definitely having an impact; and in some places there are many young people in church. It is not all doom and gloom, and despite some people seeing spin in the press release, I think those compiling the figures (at every level) are trying to do an honest job of reporting.

  9. Good stuff; thank you. As always, David Keen’s comments are worth pointing too and I would echo Edward’s observations on generational trends. Standing still is getting more challenging and the disappearance of mid-sized churches is evidence of that. Either you function as an extended family (up to 60-70 adults) or you have to deliver Sunday gatherings of much higher quality. It’s the Costa effect – once most people start drinking Costa or Starbucks, they don’t want to go back to the greasy spoon cafe. But to be innovative requires leadership and a strong, talented team, something most churches will struggle with.
    Yet, at the same time, I sense a turning of the tide in our communities. The nightmare of late-modernity is over with its insistence on secularisation theory. Whatever is next is uncertain. The Gospel thrives when worldviews are shaken, which seems to be happening. But are most churches too demoralised by decades of decline to see what’s happening and lean into it?

  10. A post to the ViaMedia blog by Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge attracted this comment:

    Froghole [sic] wrote: “Many will argue that the Church should just let go in many places; this is a valid argument, but it will mean that the Church will cease to be a church ‘of England’, but merely one of many competing sects with a sporadic local presence.

    So, the fate of the buildings is now significant, as they will allow for future witness, and they are part of the patrimony of the people (paid out of past taxes and contributions). I would suggest that the greater part of the stock is vested in DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport], with the Commissioners being disendowed to the tune of about £5bn (as a dowry to neutralise the cost to the Treasury), with the Church receiving a perpetual right of use in return. The Commissioners’ assets are, in large measure, a function of capital having been sucked up from the parishes; allocating much of their funds to the maintenance of the stock by central government would, in effect, return that capital from whence it came. Disestablishment would be useful political cover for this.

    I mention this because R&R does not amount to a credible plan. There are many evasions and half-truths being told to explain away the situation, or to justify inadequate policies. This tends to prove Upton Sinclair’s adage that people will believe anything when their salaries depend upon it.

    The 2019 Archbishops Council Budget even explains that it’s unsustainable to secure grants to the tune of ~£2.5 million from both the Church and Community Fund the Corporation of Church House along with year-on-year rent waivers from the latter to ameliorate the diocesan apportionment required to pay for inter alia the increased influx of ordinands encourage by R & R (which, in turn, has increased Vote 1 – Training for Ministry).

    The commenter has a point. The Church Commissioners’ Fund standing at ~£8.3 billion and £5 billion probably represents equitable financial compensation (for use of “capital having been sucked up from the parishes”) for the government to take over maintenance budget for church buildings in return for the Church receiving a perpetual right of use.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that the Commissioners would ever let this would happen. It’s far likelier that, yet, another fund will be diverted to reduce the increases in apportionment.

    Alternatively, there will be even greater pressure on financially unsustainable parishes either to fall in line with one of the strategically funded (and, presumably, repeatable) models of church growth which, of course, has been developed within similar tradition, or to face closure.

    Perhaps, I should put on rose-tinted sunglasses and the future won’t seem quite so dire!

    • There is no doubt that dioceses cannot forever postpone the question of sustainability of individual parishes. Some might tackle this by changing the method of apportionment, as our diocese has just done (I think fairly unilaterally from the centre) to a ministry cost basis away from a congregational size basis…

    • Thank you for this. I must mention that both Dr Paul’s post and the ensuing thread are most interesting. However, I have to endorse David Keen’s assessment of the situation: that things are almost uniformly dire and are getting worse, and quickly. Indeed, when I attended an evening service at Mr Keen’s own church, Haselbury Plunknett (aka St James Yeovil) recently, I was struck by the significant proportion of grey hairs, though there were at least some young people, which I had not seen at any of the other churches I went to that day.

      I would estimate the proportion of viable churches I have attended (by ‘viable’, I mean those with a critical mass of young people, mirroring the age distribution of the wider population) as amounting to little more than 1% of the total – of the 4,500+ I have seen.

      Other people posting on this thread have noted the variance between the numbers reported and the actuals (and have attributed this to top-down pressures). Whilst I appreciate that counting attendees can be problematic, I have often been struck by the dissonance between clergy or churchwardens – suspecting that I might be a diocesan mole – telling me how well they are doing in terms of attendance, and the more depressing reality that I see in almost all of the services I attend. In this sense, the demands of the parish share and the pressure to improve attendance have generated a subtle, if comparatively inoffensive, corruption.

      So, if we want to talk about the ‘sustainability of individual parishes’, let us not beat about the bush. Only a trace element are sustainable, even in the short term (i.e., the next decade). The situation is beyond catastrophic, and no amount of unicorn thinking in Church House, Lambeth Palace, the Archbishops’ Council, etc., will make it otherwise.

      I agree with Mr Shepherd’s assessment that the Commissioners will never countenance disendowment (Karl Marx noted that the bishops would be more willing to throw over the Articles than to yield a penny of the Church’s wealth): what they have, they intend to hold. Perhaps they believe that their successes are attributable to their own genius, rather than the Synod-sponsored abrogation of their former responsibilities for pay, rations and pensions, which have devolved upon the dioceses and, therefore, the parishes in rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul fashion. Of course, they will disburse money on certain local projects that may result in some successes, but even if they were to blow their entire capital on ‘growth’, it would only slow the rate of decline in a few places. In any event, the recent increase in investment is far too little, and far too late.

      If the sustainability of parishes is examined for an instant, it is immediately evident that scarcely any are viable, and nor is the whole elaborate superstructure (central bureaucracy, dioceses, etc.). The increase in the number of ordinands for stipendiary ministry – gravely misguided as it is (I am all for NSMs/SSMs, however) will almost certainly have no impact on growth, and will only guarantee the fate of many small churches as the parish share – that most regressive and divisive tax – is increased to fund them (also, only relatively few of these ordinands will provide any transformative value added, whilst they will also be a long-term fixed cost/burden).

      The Commissioners were created by the fiat of the state in 1840, and the state sanctioned the expropriation of episcopal and capitular capital to provide its asset base, recently augmented by the implicit subsidy of the parish share and the confiscation of parochial endowments. If the Church cannot be trusted to maintain its built patrimony (because of its misguided policy choices and vanishing congregations), which is also a national asset, then the state should, in turn, confiscate the capital of the Commissioners, instead of it being hoarded, often at the expense of the dioceses and parishes. The state did so in 1869-71 and in 1914-21, though for different reasons, and it can do so again.

      There is probably a significant majority in both chambers for disestablishment, if not also for disendowment. There seem to be few signs of any meaningful planning on the part of the Church – which seems to suffer from institutional Micawberism. Instead people are treated to inadequate reviews, like the swiftly forgotten Taylor Report (buried last December), which indicated that ‘some’ churches must close (for ‘some’ read almost all). This will not do: there comes a point when the effluxion of platitudes and wishful thinking becomes not merely disingenuous, but dishonest.

  11. Interesting analysis – thank you! Very helpful points on why we measure, and why what we measure is different to 20 years ago.

    I also like Jeremy Morris’s point about the need to explore “deep, below-the-surface realities” through more detailed studies of communities & large-scale studies too. I was struck by this piece on the LSE blog, which Richard Peers flagged up: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/10/we-need-social-science-in-defence-of-the-scientific-study-of-religion/

    I think your point about large churches having a “big metaphorical back door” is important – it makes me wonder where do people go? To a smaller church, or away altogether?
    The fairly high % of people under 18 in worshipping communities seems out of step with Everyone Counts which put it at about 12%. Very much agree with your point about “stickiness” – David Voas: “Teenage religious involvement, then, is critical.”

    Re: the Bishop of Manchester’s comments, he also said: “Particularly in terms of people’s personality type, a lot of what we do on a Sunday tends to disproportionately appeal to feelings. Some of the things we put into the Christmas service are more reflective. People can engage with them with their minds a bit more.” Interested in what you make of that!

    PS Interesting piece from a Roman Catholic perspective: https://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2017/10/18/the-church-of-england-may-be-in-decline-but-its-got-at-least-one-thing-right/

    • Thanks for these observations, Mads. I am always surprised when people comment on the decline in attendance *without* noticing changes in culture which might mean that attendance has a different significance.

      There was quite a lot that I agree with in Jeremy Morris’ piece (slightly to my surprise) but it felt as though he ended up leaning into ‘inclusivity’ despite what he had said earlier!

      Did you notice my engagement with the LSE blog in my earlier post about the long-term missional strategy of demographic/biological growth?

      I am not sure that David Walker would say that if he attended the local conservative evangelical churches around here…and they appear to be holding steady, if not growing!

      Stephen Bullivant’s piece is interesting, but I think he is mistaken at several points, not least that consistent Sunday attendance is the *only* measure of commitment, or that Christmas attendance is the *only* positive sign. And he would know what the Catholic Church was doing if, like you, he subscribed to Peter Brierley’s research!

  12. Thank you for this commentary – much to ponder.

    Thinking about your observation that “something happened” in 2012, I wonder if in relation to major festivals the upturn might be affected (although not fully explained) by changes to the method of data collection? The shift to online collection of parish returns was, if memory serves me right, piloted in 2011 and rolled out in 2012. This would enable closer to “real time” reporting for major festivals, possibly resulting in higher estimates from 2012 onwards.

  13. I’m sure that, in some dioceses at least, the parish share system led to a marked change in numbers being recorded for share purposes. I was in a reasonably size team of around 500 worshippers (using 5 churches). Over a few years (10 years I think) the share went from around £98k to about £180k. Memory may be fickle about exact amounts but was around this. Parishes were expected to count as a committed giver someone who only came one in five weeks. It was clearly ridiculous. I’ve little doubt that parishes pared their numbers down or the demands became (even more) unsustainable. In churches that were already unhappy with the dioceses direction this was an added difficulty for ministers . “Why are we giving to an organisation that promotes things we believe are wrong?”

    The bottom line is that a resetting of attendance numbers was inevitable and, probably, healthy.

  14. “The second thing to notice is that something happened in 2012, though I am not sure what it was.“
    I wonder if in fact the 2011 census was a pivotal moment in data response and spiritual consciousnes? The overt way in which people are invited to describe religious affiliation/ non-affiliation in a census might have an impact upon occasional church-going. Just a thought.

    • I wonder if in fact the 2011 census was a pivotal moment in data response and spiritual consciousnes?

      Was that the one where there was a concerted effort by atheist groups specifically to encourage people not to just tick ‘Christian’ out of habit or for cultural reasons?

      That was obviously intended to depress the figures for Christians in the census — and it did — but it may also have had the unintended side-effect of, as the article says, getting people to be ‘more honest’ and perhaps validating ‘cultural Christian’ as an identity and normalisng the idea that it’s okay jus to go to thecarol services that you like without feeling that you ought to go some other times too or that you need to pretend to believe in God.

      (The irony of course is that if everyone was like that then there wouldn’t be any carol services so ‘cultural Christians’ depend on the existence of a viable community of committed Christians keeping things going the rest of the year in order to get their annual cultural fix of harking the hearld angels. Oh, don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?)

  15. A relatively newcomer, I belong to a congregation that is highly traditional and have joined the robed choir, since I enjoy the music. Only two of the dozen or so choir members seem to know Jesus as Lord (I have observed and probed a little), and the proportion in the rest of the congregation is probably similar.
    1. Even after years of shedding the uncommitted, it is regrettably not true that the stats reflect the number of Christians. Should we not first and foremost be seeking to convert to God our own ‘worshipping communities’? – not as difficult a task, I would hope, as converting those who will not pass through the doors of a church.
    2. Many worshipping communities are as waterless as the world surrounding them. Unless they flow with water, it’s no good encouraging people outside to come and drink.
    3. As for measuring, I would suggest asking ministers to estimate, on the basis of their own knowledge, how many of their flock know the Lord, if that is not an irrelevant question. Some will be able to. While some may not even understand what the question means, a box for that could also be part of the survey.

  16. I can’t comment on the CofE’s experience with numbers (being in another denomination) but the trajectory the statistics report is very familiar. Although pretty stable with pockets of growth and decline , the underlying trend is that Christmas attendance represents a cultural phenomena. People attend then because it’s something you do, not as a precursor to something you might believe in or actually do believe in: it’s not seen as bonkers to go to church at Christmas when chatting to your mates over a beer at the pub – going at any other time of the year, is.

    We cannot make every week a Christmas Day, nor should we try. It’s a case of continuing the good work that churches of all denominations and all expressions do throughout the year in meeting people were they are. At Christmas they happen to be in church and we should not be afraid to reach them there: tell the story, tell how it’s changed and the lives of ordinary people. Tell the beginning but don’t miss the end.

  17. <>

    I don’t think the figures allow us to read down the columns to draw this sort of conclusion. Each row of the table is independent of the other rows – the churches on the 25th percentile by average weekly attendance need not necessarily be the churches on the same percentile when ranked by Christmas attendance. For instance, a small congregation might host a large civic carol service; a large student church might lose a large portion of its weekly attendees over the vacation.

    (This may also explain the seeming mismatch between worshipping community and weekly attendance. Notice how at the 5th and 25th percentiles, usual Sunday attendance is paradoxically *higher* than average weekly attendance…!)

  18. The decline ought to be welcomed, as it signifies the overturning of the spirit of Religion: the exit of ritual and meaningless repetition ( ask a life-long church attender to explain the creed or lords prayer, line by line, if you disagree) and amongst the remnant are people turning directly to the Lord Jesus who has been waiting to build His Church by the Holy Spirit to bring glory to the Father. A generation that were taught to do what they were told, to respect authority (or get a beating), to sacrifice because they were asked (by people who were “better” than them), are passing on. The collapse is not a collapse of the church but the evaporation of a deceptive illusion. That generation are not to be mocked, they were denied their inheritance as children of God by a systemic denial of the Gospel (good news) by over educated “professional” clergy who should have known better ..but as Jesus said the blind lead the blind (Matt 15). Look at surveys of the “glory days” – see how many believed in heaven& hell, find the social history – land owners demanding attendance of tenants etc at “their” church, superstitious rituals based on fear and social requirement to do the “right” thing. Jesus will have his church back, dead (to be resuscitated) or alive (to be renewed), and he is building a church that the gates of hell cannot withstand – it is emergent outside of the “white west” and it is surely coming this way (even many of the hated asylum seekers are part of this in urban areas). God is fulfilling his purpose and is shaking away the old wineskin. So we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, keep in step with the Spirit, and give all glory and praise to our loving Father as he calls into existence that which is not. ( Romans 4 v 17). Praise Jesus that we live in such a time as this, for if we do keep silent then deliverance will arise from another place, but arise it certainly will (Esther 4 v 14).

  19. Thank you for this helpful update on the annual return figures. Over many years of looking at these numbers, I have always wondered why there is one important statistic that goes unrecorded or remarked, that of attendance at Remembrance Day services.

    Just before the Falklands conflict, Remembrance had fallen quite low in the public conscience in respect of the local church service – mainly the core congregation plus a few others who needed to attend. But today it is completely different. Looking back over the last two decades shows a steady long term increase in most years: yes, you may say that these last four years have been special in this respect but the growth predates this.

    Perhaps it is an unscientific stretch to suggest an inverse ratio: the more comfortable people feel (spiritually) the lower the attendance at these types of services? Would the same fit Christmas and Easter services too: there are a great many very confused people at some of these services who would not fit the usual pattern of worshippers.

  20. I suspect that many of the figures are crude estimates. Anyone who has been involved in counting a congregation will know that it is not as easy as one would think. In practice what often happens is that someone asks after the event: How many people do you think were there?
    The proportion of children is even more of a guess.
    More reliable are numbers of funerals, baptisms and confirmations as these have to be properly recorded. So I would advise studying these would give a better idea of the trends.

    Better still is to study the British Social Attitudes reports. They are derived from professionally conducted surveys by independent people – so no temptation to fiddle!

  21. What happened in 2012? Thats a good question. It is for one thing the year when Justin Welby was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. I am not saying it has anything to do with it but maybe too much political and not enough scripture from then on?

    Funnily, that was the year I stopped going to church and I havent returned since. Nor do I feel I want to do so. I did go to the Christmas Carol Service this year though.

    • But why would Justin’s appointment either lead to immediate decline in attendance or immediate increase in Christmas attendance? How did going at Christmas feel to you?

  22. Just to clarify, the Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body in the world after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Interestingly, Professor Phillip Jenkins, formerly of Penn State University, has postulated that due to Anglican growth across much of the Global South and Eastern Orthodox decline in its European heartlands that the Anglican Communion may become the second largest Christian denomination by 2050.


Leave a comment