At around this time each year, the Church of England statistics team release the data on what has been happening with attendance and services in the Church of England, based on the returns from churches from the previous year. This information is very useful, though also needs to be handled with care. On the one hand, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. And yet actual figures confront us with the reality that we are otherwise very happy to ignore; for the last two years, we have at Archbishops’ Council spent some time reflecting on these, but only because I asked for it to happen. And numbers matter, because numbers are people, and people matter.
So I have commented on the statistics here for the last couple of years. In 2018, when reviewing the 2017 figures, I noted a number interesting things. There was good evidence that the figures added up; there appeared to have been a marked change in 2012, though no-one has been able to explain that; proportionate to the wider population, we actually had the right number of children (though that assumes that children in church grow into adults of faith); looking at worshipping communities seemed to tell us something important; but the state of the C of E varied enormously from one place to another.
When I looked again last year, examining the figures from 2018, there was rather less to be encouraged about—though digital engagement was one bright spot. Children were still there—though it turns out that they are mostly concentrated in a small number of large churches. There are some signs of growth in some places—but the C of E is now a much smaller player, even amongst the Christian churches of the UK, despite its significant assets. And I ended with some challenges: will we remain committed to evangelism and church planting, will we be willing to learn from our mistakes, and can we learn from others who are being effective?
When I looked at this year’s statistics (from 2019), I did not immediately see anything new to comment on. But David Keen, who is vicar of St James’ and St Peter’s in Yeovil, has regularly done an analysis of the figures, and I reproduce his article from his blog with permission here. You will see that David is not very upbeat, and he reflects the feeling amongst many that we are very quickly reaching a point of no return in some important regards. He ends his piece with some serious challenges.
It is worth recognising that this is not the whole story. God is faithful; there are signs even within the C of E of new life, growth, and people coming to faith. And around the world, the church is growing and the grace of God is being proclaimed and received. Within the UK, there are other denominations who are full of life; in our city of Nottingham there are a good number of large churches, many of them engaging effectively with young people. Whatever these numbers signal, it is not the death of God—though it might be the death of the C of E structured in the way we have known it.
There was a graphic circulated on social media which summarised current attempts to think about what the necessary new structures might be, and it was widely derided as ‘doing church by PowerPoint slide’. I do not share that scepticism, not least because this was one slide taken out of a wider presentation, and a text without a context is a pretext for making things mean what you want them to. But change is coming, and it is up to us to decide whether we have a hand in deciding what that change looks like, or whether we have change forced on us by statistical and financial reality—if that is not already inevitable.
David Keen writes: The Church of England has published its latest ‘Statistics for Mission’ for 2019, links to the various documents—press release, Excel spreadsheets (did 16,000 members drop off the end?) etc. can be found here. You’ll find analysis of previous years stats here.
The more upbeat the press release, and the further you have to go before it mentions church membership and attendance, the worse you know it’s going to be. This year is no exception. After making a great deal of social action and digital engagement it’s paragraph 15 of 16 before we discover that attendance was down a further 2% from the previous year. Here are the figures for ‘Adult Weekly Attendance’ (average no of adults attending worship each week) for the last 5 years.
Hereford has seen an increase from 1000 to 1300 during the 5 years the stats cover. Otherwise, the overall picture among under-18s is worse than it is among adults.I’ve been keeping track of these stats, inspired by Bob Jackson, as far back as they go. A few years ago, church growth enthusiasts like myself were encouraged to see London Diocese bucking the trend, and hoping that where the capital led, the country would follow. Sadly not; here’s the stats since the beginning of the century—as you can see above, London is now on the same trajectory as everyone else:
This is a catastrophic decline. The Church of England now is where the Methodists were a few years ago (305,000 members in 2003, 170,000 now), and the URC a few years before that. The figures for children, as always, are worse:
There is a generational feed through into other church activity—we are baptising 9% of children, marrying 17% of couples getting married, and taking the funerals of 25% of those who die. Each of these is down 30-40% over the last 10 years, and there is a clear progression through the generations.The report does find some good news—over 90,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2019, with a significant proportion being first-time church members
10% of parishes are reporting growth, but 4x the number report statistically significant decline. Overall growing churches are still a tiny minority, but some new churches have been planted—90 recorded in the stats, who have seen their membership more than double since 2016.Finally, I’m always interested in this chart, which gives a fascinating cross-section of what the ‘average’ church looks like:
Translation: the top 5% of churches have an average weekly congregation of 185 or more, of which 1/6 are children. A church exactly in the middle of the 16000 Anglican churches in terms of size has 31, of which 6%, that is, 2, are children. The largest churches have a larger ‘fringe’ of non-members, sustainable numbers of children and youth, and enough people to comfortably fill the building. The one upside of social distancing is that the smaller churches can still meet as a whole congregation, since there’s plenty of room in the average church for 20 people to sit on their own at the same time.By accident rather than design, the Church of England has ended up with a Tesco structure. Tesco has a small number of ‘Tesco Extra’ megastores (Cathedrals), about 15% of its outlets are ‘Tesco Superstore’ (large church, kids and youth work, several outreach projects, sizeable fringe), there’s a few ‘Tesco Metro’ stores which are scaled down versions of the superstores (75th percentile churches), but 3/4 are either Tesco Express or One Stop, small corner shop versions, providing local access to a core selection of produce. The management, logistics and life of a megastore is very different to that of Tesco Express, though they all carry the same branding, and some shared products.
Here’s the thing. Half of our churches, 8000 of them, have 26 adults or fewer on a Sunday. If you had 26 people to form a Christian presence in a community, you wouldn’t start from here. You wouldn’t have a listed building which costs thousands to heat and insure. You wouldn’t have the protocols for running the church written into law. You wouldn’t have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there’s barely anyone there who isn’t there because they’re on a rota. You wouldn’t open an Anglican Extra, you’d have an Anglican Express. In fact, you probably wouldn’t open a building at all.
Covid will make the figures for 2020 such a mess that there probably isn’t any point collecting them, and 2021 may not be much better. As many have observed, it is accelerating changes that were already happening. Businesses on the edge are shutting down. Trends towards online shopping have increased. What does that mean for the church? There is nothing in the stats to suggest that we are about to turn a corner. Or if we are, it’s turning in the opposite direction to the one we want. There are islands – many islands (1600 according to the stats) of growth, many others holding their own, and making a life-changing contribution to local individuals and communities.
But, but…… the parish system hasn’t changed since it was introduced towards the end of the Dark Ages. The overall structure of the CofE hasn’t changed for a century. The buildings we operate on haven’t changed for (insert your own figure here). The structure of deployment, church life, legal framework seems set in concrete. Witness the absurd debate about communion since lockdown. Don’t get me started.
Maybe the Bishops should have shut us down for longer at the start of covid. Because we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Any church that doesn’t have a life without it’s building, or its Sunday gathering, has been so shaped by them that it has ceased to be a church. Instead of hanging on until we could re-open, maybe 12 months of ‘being church’ without ‘the church’ would have done us some good, if we’d allowed it to shape us. For many of our folk it was a break: suddenly the small army of people involved on a Sunday morning could forget the rota, roll out of bed, make a coffee and switch on Youtube. Sure it’s great to involve people, but we pour so many resources into worship, and the building and professional caste that make it happen, that there’s precious little energy, time and money left for anything else.
The church in its present form will have to die. It is dying. It’s slow and drawn out because we don’t have the nerve, or the structures, to make clear and painful decisions. Political debate today is dominated by whether we need a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown. I’d argue the CofE needs the same. Shut everything. Pray and seek God. Stop wasting energy, lives and talent on a structure and system which, in most places, no longer works.