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.
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