The Church of England statistics department released its Statistics for Mission report last week, quite a bit earlier than last year, and it is was not good news—though curiously there was almost no comment on it on the airwaves, in contrast to last year. We will be discussing this at the next meeting of the Archbishops’ Council, since in the end this is a major way in which we can assess whether or not policies for evangelism and discipleship are having any effect.
Overall, I think the headline things to note were:
a. that overall attendance continues to decline, and the pace of decline does not yet appeared to have slowed;
b. that, following a six-year trend in increased attendance at festivals, there was for 2018 a sharp decline. It is worth remembering that we have seen one-off anomalies before, and as the report comments, bad weather on a single occasion can affect the figures. What matters more than single statistics is longer-term trends;
c. that, nevertheless, there are dioceses where there appear to be consistent signs of growth and change.
I noted a number of things when reflecting on the same report last year, and they mostly still apply. The mixed picture of statistics does look as though it is coherent, though this time the writers of the report do note (p 11) an inconsistency in the measure of Worshipping Communities (a measure which has been much debated). Churches report more people joining their communities than leaving, but the overall numbers this year have declined.
Large churches continue to be of disproportionate importance, in that a large percentage of those attending C of E churches attend large churches. It would be interesting to explore how that compares with other denominations (for example, Roman Catholic Churches are almost all large, since there are many fewer clergy than in the C of E and so congregations need to be bigger). A friend did some numerical analysis on the participation summary table to see if we could work out what proportion attend larger churches, but I didn’t understand it!
The trend in decline in the occasional offices appears to have continued, and even be accelerating. We are now conducting almost as few as half the weddings that we did as recently as 2012. If you thought occasional offices like this were a good means of outreach, you will be saddened by this; if you think (like the majority) that these are a burden which distracts from the main business of spiritual leadership, then you might find that encouraging. Either way, it does indicate a major social shift.
As previously, and contrary to the cries of despair often heard, the proportion of young people attending C of E churches matches the proportion in the population as a whole. However, a question at July’s General Synod from Charlie Skrine produced a statistical answer which showed that the vast majority of work with young people is concentrated in a relatively small number of larger churches.
There are a number of things to put alongside the data in the report which give it some context. The only substantial response that I saw came from Steven Croft, bishop of Oxford, who suggested that this was a season for growing deeper rather than large.
How are churches responding in love to a population which understands less and less about the Christian faith? It’s important to meet people where they are, without judgement. It’s important to offer loving service and friendship without qualification.
Churches are also learning (slowly) that it’s important to offer simple, accessible ways to explore what it means to be a Christian from the very beginning. More than a third of churches now offer some way of doing this every year. For me, it’s right at the top of the list of what you should be able to find in every local church.
I agree with Steven that we need to offer accessible ways to explore faith, and that is why Alpha and Christianity Explored continue to be important—and why every church in England should be offering these every year (currently only offered by 34% of churches). I don’t think I understand the connection between this and the previous comment; we do need to meet people where they are (which is what lay Christians spend most of their time doing!) but the greater need is to build confidence to share something of faith, rather than keep silent.
Steven goes on:
There is a huge appetite to learn and explore. We may not be called to be a bigger church in this generation. But we are called to be a deeper church: helping beginners come to know Christ and be formed as Christian disciples for a life of faith and adventure.
If we are not called to ‘be a bigger church’ then this assumes we are not called to be inviting people to come to faith in Jesus, and I cannot find any theological reason for that. And it seems to me supremely ironic that it was Steven who led us through the process of RME (‘Resourcing Ministerial Education’) which has immediately led to a decline in full-time theological training and a massive switch to part-time and contextual training, which limits the opportunity for deeper theological engagement by future church leaders. (There are good arguments for the contextual model of training—integrated learning, motivation, involvement in practice—but I am not aware that deeper engagement has been one of them.)
Part of the challenge of these numbers is reconciling them with experiences on the ground. I am in a diocese which has heavily invested in the strategy of church planting and resourcing drawing on Strategic Development Funding from the Church Commissioners and administered by the Archbishops’ Council. As a result, we set out a series of ambitious goals for growth—which have as yet not been realised. But overall decline has been halted; the church I am part of has seen a little growth, and we regularly baptise adult new believers; we just had a diocese mission week, and there was a generally positive response; and we were visited by bishops and senior clergy from the northern province who seemed happy to be leaders in mission and evangelism. It all felt quite positive.
One aspect of reconciling these two things (experience, and the statistics) is to continue to recognise how much our culture is continuing to change, in the relentless move from meeting and learning ‘in real life’ to the importance of digital engagement at every level. Our youngest has just started university, and wondered aloud why she should bother actually attending lectures when the PowerPoint and audio recording of the lecture were going to be available online. There are good social, personal and pedagogical reasons for attending in person—but the question can now be asked, when it couldn’t be even five years ago.
At the same time as the Statistics for Mission were published, a report was released on the growth of the Church of England’s digital engagement.
Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon, said following the publication of the data: “The digital figures show how people are using apps, smart speakers and social media to explore and engage in the Christian faith wherever they might be.
“Christians have been praying in the morning and evening offices for centuries and it is inspiring that this is available through new platforms and devices to meet the way people live now.
“The Church’s digital innovation is enabling people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that weren’t previously possible alongside regular Sunday worship and at significant moments such as Christmas and Easter.”
Apps allowing users to pray the ancient ‘Daily Office’ of morning, evening and night prayer were used 4.2 million times on Apple devices alone in the last 12 months, an increase of 446,000 on the year before, new figures show. Figures for Android devices show an increase from 855,600 to an estimated 966,000, bringing the predicted total across both operating systems to more than five million.
Just under three-quarters of a million people in England currently attend a Church of England church on a Sunday. On average about a further 10 per cent will come to some of the church’s mid-week services or other activities (but excluding Sundays).
That is 1.5 per cent of the population, with another 4 per cent attending from other denominations (3.5 per cent on Sundays and 0.5 per cent midweek). Anglicans are thus a major constituent of the total.
In other words, only one quarter of all those attending Christian churches on a Sunday are in C of E churches. That is rather sobering. I understand from Peter that another quarter are in non-conformist and ‘new’ churches; Trent Vineyard here in Nottingham have just introduced a third morning service, since their numbers are growing, and have in recent years extended their buildings. And the other half attend Roman Catholic Churches; the picture of the C of E is not the whole story by any means! I find all this particularly challenging; we have vastly more resources in terms of buildings, clergy and central finance than these others, so how come we are not doing a lot better than we are?
About a third of the Anglicans attending on a Sunday will be evangelical (mid- week churchmanships not being readily known), 31 per cent. A similar proportion, 30 per cent, will be attending a Broad or Liberal church, and slightly fewer, 26 per cent, an AngloCatholic or Catholic church.
The rest, 13 per cent, will be mostly Low Church. The figures come from the various Church Censuses that have been held and projected forwards using information other than a straight line…
The graph indicates how the numbers (not percentages) have changed and how they are projected to do so for, say, 2030. All groups, including the Evangelicals, are seeing declining numbers (something true for all denominations except the Orthodox and Pentecostals).
It may be seen that there is likely to be a severe drop in the 2020s in all churchmanships and in total attendance. This is due to the increasing paucity of those under 40 attending and many older people dying (which affects all churchmanships), and is despite the many growing congregations and new church plants which are being reported.
This latter growth is real and vibrant but not as yet sufficient to offset the enormous numbers of losses. What is the significance of these figures in relation to churchmanship in the other denominations?
He then puts together the information about denominations with the information about different traditions to make this prediction:
There are almost as many Baptist Evangelicals as Anglicans (16 per cent), and the Pentecostals have slightly more than both together, 34 per cent, with the remainder spread across all the other denominations.
The Pentecostals are a crucial part of the mix, however, as they have been, are, and are likely to continue, growing. This means that overall, while the number of Evangelical churchgoers (across all denominations) decreases from 1.4 million in 1990 to an estimated 1.2 million by 2030, the overall proportion of Evangelicals among all churchgoers increases from 34 per cent in 1990 to 42 per cent by 2010 and a likely 51 per cent by 2030.
I think this all leaves Anglicans with three challenging questions. First, will we remain committed to the goal of evangelism and making disciples as God’s call on us, despite the discouragements of this year’s figures? Secondly, that notwithstanding, will we take a good hard look at the current implementation of policy, and ensure we are learning from mistakes as well as rejoicing in encouragements? Thirdly, and perhaps most difficult, are we ready to learn from other Christians in our land where they are being effective in sharing faith and growing disciples? This last question is the hardest, because it demands the most humility—something the church established by law has not majored in in years gone by.
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