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When will the C of E be extinct?

This month’s news from British Religion in Numbers carries a link to an interesting mathematical study on church attendance and membership. John Hayward is a mathematician who applies statistical methods to analysing issues of church growth. As we shall see, he is well aware of the limitations of such methods, but is also convinced that they can help us see reality as it is a little more clearly.


In his recent posts, he analyses church attendance and church membership of four episcopal churches—in England, Wales, Scotland and the US. (Yes, contrary to much popular belief, there is a definition of membership for the Church of England. Check out your Electoral Roll form.) As has been widely circulated in the media, and endlessly discussed, all four churches are in decline, which will be terminal if current trends continue. John presents the reality of this in a several very clear charts, some of which present the data as it is, but one of which offers a linear extrapolation using standard mathematical analysis:

anglicanextraprevised

This is a striking graph for a couple of reasons. First, it make clear how decline in the Episcopal Church in the US is much more rapid than in the C of E—which perhaps offers some sobering background to discussion and disputes within the Anglican Communion. A couple of years ago, I attended a celebration of the ministry of women at Lambeth Palace, where one of the speakers was Mary Gray-Reeves, the Bishop of the diocese of El Camino Real in California. It was slightly odd trying to learn lessons about mission and ministry from someone leading a rapidly declining diocese whose total attendance amongst its 51 churches was less than the Sunday attendance at a single large and growing church I visited in San Diego.

Secondly, and most challenging, the most common graphs you see about church attendance are in a downward trajectory, but the slope is gentle, and the line remains a comforting distance away from the x-axis, which represents ‘zero’. So it is easy to remain oblivious to the long-term consequences of decline. Here, John allows us no such luxury. We are confronted with the stark fact that, should current trends continue, one day in the not-so-distant future there will be no church. And of course this is a complete contrast to churches in other parts of the world; the secularism of the West is the global exception.


The bad news is less bad for the C of E than the others, but it is still not great. John believes that, for the other three, the next 10 years is the last opportunity to do something radical. He includes another graph which is also revealing, looking at long-term data on membership:

anglicanmemb

On these, he offers two sobering comments.

Thus, generally speaking, the Church of England commands more loyalty among society than ECUSA, Scottish Episcopal Church or the Church in Wales. Its decline is slower, and it is unlikely to face extinction this century, unlike the other three, which have 25-35 years remaining.  Given the likely acceleration of church closures that will start in the next decade, these three Anglican denominations probably have less than 10 years to address the issue of their impending extinction.

I should also note that none of the four denominations has ever commanded widespread public loyalty in terms of membership or attendance. Churches in the West have never been as popular as they have perceived themselves to be. The church might find the future easier to face by keeping in mind its mission, and its Lord, rather than some idealistic picture of a past golden age that never really existed.

I was particularly struck by the last comment; there is a strand of reflection on church decline which looks back to a Golden Age, numerically and morally, which only ever existed in the mind of church-goers.


The natural question, from a statistical point of view, is how we explain the significant differences between the C of E and the others—which John attempts to do in his next post. He offers six possible reasons, the first three of which are related to the different form of Establishment of the C of E compared with the other churches. Many years ago, when I was chair of the Association of Ordinands and Candidates for Ministry, I invited Colin Buchanan to present the case that we should ‘cut the connection‘ and accept disestablishment. One of the ordinands responded ‘They did that in Wales—and look what happened to them!’ This sounded like a terrible response theologically, but it appears as though it was an accurate reflection of the sociology and the statistics!

But John’s two most interesting points are his fourth and fifth reasons:

(d)    Theology. All four denominations have a variety of churchmanships, however The C of E, in contrast to the others, has a stronger evangelical wing, making it generally more conservative. Due to theological liberalism many conservatives have left ECUSA, leaving it a predominately liberal denomination. In the Church in Wales evangelicalism was always thin on the ground, especially in the industrial south east, which tends to be “liberal high”. In the Scottish Episcopal church there are a small number of evangelical churches, mainly confined to the big cities. Though some have high attendance, the bulk of parishes in the SEC are not evangelical [9].

(e)     Revival. Of the four denominations the C of E has been influenced more by Charismatic Renewal than the others, despite the “Renewal” starting with a US clergyman [10]. Additionally The C of E’s expression of charismatic renewal has also  been more evangelical, including a revival in expository preaching. Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.

In the discussion in comments below, he adds that the existence of tradition-loyal residential theological colleges in the C of E has allowed evangelical theology to flourish in a way that is hasn’t been able to in the other three churches.

If John is right, then the future of the four churches could be very different from one another. For the institutions to see revival, then they will need to be flexible enough to ‘reinvent’ themselves through a process of theological renewal—and John is not convinced that the other three have the resources or space to do this.

The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.

Such reinvention, one that restores the fundamental beliefs and spiritual vitality of the church, does not come by organisational management or cultural accommodation. These are spiritual issues and the solution comes through spiritual means. Not by putting motions through synods, but by seeking the face of God. If the above analysis is true, the Anglican Churches of Wales, Scotland and the USA do not have much time left to seek to “humble themselves, and pray, and …..” 2 Chronicles 7:14.

41FHMJNSRdLHere, John is echoing something I read a few years ago by Martyn Atkins, then General Secretary of the Methodist Convention (a denomination also in sharp, possibly terminal, decline) in his Resourcing RenewalFrom reviewing renewal movements and considering the theology of renewal, he concluded that institutions experience renewal when they rediscover their ‘founding charisms’, which in the case of Methodism was expressed as an ‘engaged evangelicalism.’ We were both at Lee Abbey at the time, and my question in response to this proposal was: ‘But what if the institution as it now is does not want to rediscover or even own this founding charism any more?’ He looked thoughtful.


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58 Responses to When will the C of E be extinct?

  1. MisterDavid August 17, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    I think your point about the CofE’s greater evangelical and charismatic wings is worth emphasising, especially since those are the streams of Anglicanism presently in worldwide growth. The Global South’s fruitfulness and increasing influence is more easily received by those areas of churchmanship, leaving the CofE far more equipped to receive from them than, say, TEC, which is not even in communion with much of the Global South.

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 9:13 am #

      Yes, I think you are right. But it is not a popular thing to do; the official C of E Church Growth material sometimes appears to go out of its way to avoid saying this!

  2. Anthony Smith August 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    As a mathematician and an astronomer, with lots of experience in fitting models to data, I find the idea that you can extrapolate church attendance figures decades into the future with a simple linear model, well …

    Is this a joke?

    Even if you wanted to extrapolate decades into the future (which strikes me as way beyond the realms of sanity), the simplest imaginable model would be logarithmic – assuming the church halves in size every N years. A linear model makes no sense at all.

    • Ian Paul August 17, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

      Anthony, I would accept your point to an extent (also as a mathematician). However, there are some other things to bear in mind:

      1. The shape of past decline, which does not appear to have been logarithmic, at least in a number of cases.

      2. The impact of cultural change and generational difference, which with constant death rates would in fact tend to be linear.

      3. The question of overhead costs. There comes a point where the infrastructure is not sustainable, and that then leads to catastrophic decline in the closing stages.

      So from a mathematical point of view, I think making a linear projection has some value.

      More than that, it presents us starkly with the issues.

    • Ender's Shadow August 17, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Actually I suspect the problem is more complex. Given that most churches have seen their attendance decline by 1% a year, what has actually been happening is that the next generation is walking out the door, never to be seen again. Given this reality – reflected in seeing my 55 year old Rector as one of the youngest people at the Deanery Communion – once the age profile hits a certain point, attendances will drop precipitously as the older generation falls off it perch is accelerating numbers.

      I have no idea how such a demography alters the shape of the graph.

      • Pete J August 17, 2015 at 7:15 pm #

        I agree

        There are probably something like 50 churches in my town and very few of them have anyone under … I was going to write 50, but actually I think 60 would be more accurate.

        I think a factor is that for my grandparents generation church was very much socially acceptable, perhaps even a slight wiff of masonism, but for my generation it is socially unacceptable (seen as legalistic, anti science, anti women etc and full of scandal). I used to regularly get challenged to defend my faith by atheists on the school bus. For the younger generation it is sadly just irrelevant. It’s probably easier to be a teenage Christian now because people don’t even care.

        Everyone has their own pet theory on church growth, so here’s mine – I think that if we are going to grow, we are going to have to start embracing people who we maybe don’t feel comfortable sharing a pew with. I think we need to recapture the spirit of “Jesus came to save bad people of which I am the worst” and get rid of the idea that we are somehow better than those outside the church, because we are not.

      • Pete J August 17, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

        Just read this quote by the pastor of Hillsong NY and as he backs up my theory, he is Ofc absolutely right 😉

        Our doctrine and theology rings hollow and often even comical when we set up even more barriers for hurting people than our broken world is offering,” he said. “Apparently, people want others to be transformed by a Gospel they are actually not allowed to hear, doubt, explore, have explained or see in action. If we believe that faith comes through hearing, let’s not be perplexed as to why so many people are not listening. They have not been allowed in to hear.

      • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 9:15 am #

        ‘Ender’s’ that just highlights the importance of the evangelical and charismatic traditions. Go to New Wine, or attend an HTB church, and you will find a *very* different profile.

        Were you aware that work amongst university students by evangelical movements is currently thriving? This is historically where the next generation of leadership has come from.

    • John Hayward August 17, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

      Hi Anthony – As the author of the work, and former astronomer, I agree a linear model is not right. The Limited Enthusiasm model I used to predict extinction is not linear, but because of the logarithmic effect cannot give extinction dates. However aging makes that actual decline linear, as Ian has correctly pointed out. I have updated my “data” blog with your comment and my reply to it and the difficulties of mixing aging with social models. Please have a read and let me know if this addresses the issue for you. – John

      • Anthony Smith August 18, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

        John – thank you for your reply. My reaction was based on the referenced blog post alone, and you clearly have some very sophisticated models elsewhere. I’m puzzled as to why you didn’t use your models in this case, and resorted to such a simplistic model.

  3. David Flavell August 17, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

    Anthony it’s a linear model not a logarithmic model for the Methodists as I explained in my blog last year https://davideflavell.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/pyramid-schemes/.
    Because of the age cohort shape of the Church, the rate of decline in Methodism is increasing per decade. I understand the age cohort shape of the Episcopalian churches is similar, if not quite as pointed as the Methodists. Read the blog for mathematical analysis.

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 9:21 am #

      Thanks for the link David—that is really helpful

  4. Revd Tim Buckley August 17, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Not so much a comment – just wanted to point out a small misprint in the penultimate sentence. I think you wanted to ask “What if”? Hope that helps!

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

      thanks. it does. corrected!

  5. SimonP August 17, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

    Thanks Ian – painful reading especially when you think the first Church grew by 3000 on the first day! A couple of questions: first, are there any reliable stats that would offer a less depressing graph forecast looking at growth in Liberal or Catholic or Evangelical or Charismatic traditions, or does this decline represent whats occurring in all traditions within the CofE? Secondly, what do you think is the cause of the decline? Thirdly, is there any data from history where the church (CofE or other) experienced significant reversal in decline and if so, why so?

    • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

      Less depressingly, globally the church is growing much faster than 3k/day

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

      Thanks Simon. I have with me on holiday Rodney Stark’s book which looks at the reasons for rapid church growth in the first centuries.

      I am not sure that there are any reliable stats on these individual traditions, and for two reasons. First, it is quite difficult to track such things, since understandings of what these terms means changes, as does people’s willingness to self-identify. Second, the C of E church growth people avoid this like the plague!

      I think the causes of decline are multiple! There are spiritual dimensions, but I would not want to overlook social and cultural issues too.

      Yes, as I understand it (though it is difficult to measure) two periods of growth I would look to are the Wesleyan revival in the 18thC (which is a fascinating period of history, with much social upheaval and the terror of the French Revolution across the channel) and the Oxford Movement in the 19th, which certainly transformed the C of E. Why else would bishops wear something as daft as mitres?

  6. James Byron August 17, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    I suspect the evangelical model of growth — culturally liberal, theologically conservative — has topped-out in the West. What’s needed is a combination of liberal theology with evangelical style. At the least, it’s worth a shot.

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 9:17 am #

      Thanks James…but can you point to any example where that has led to church growth?

      • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

        Ian

        I’m not sure what counts as liberal theology, but Rob Bells old church in Michigan grew from essentially zero to 10k in five years.

        I can’t think of an example in the UK, but I can’t really think of any churches which have modern worship but aren’t evangelical.

        • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:15 pm #

          Yes, and at the time it looked pretty evangelical. Rob has moved since then.

          • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

            Yes, but the church is still there and thriving as far as I know

        • James Byron August 18, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

          Thanks Pete J, exactly the example I’d have used!

          There’s also Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church, House of Sinners and Saints, in Denver, Colorado; and, of course, the thousands upon thousands of evangelical and pentecostal churches that’ve adopted a liberal approach to women’s ministry and divorce (rarely called that, of course).

    • John Grayston August 18, 2015 at 10:38 am #

      This is an interesting thought, and only time will tell. But I wonder if we can separate theology and style in this way. Style is, to some extent at least, dependent on theology. And I’m afraid that in my experience liberal theology is not idealy suited to developing evangelical style (whatever we mean by that, given the evangelical style is somewhat diverse).

      • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

        John,

        Would you mind explaining what you understand by liberal theology and why you think this doesn’t sit well with evangelical style

  7. Ender's Shadow August 18, 2015 at 1:40 am #

    One of the reasons for the collapse of the non-conformist denominations probably lies in the fact that they operated as one body. Therefore when liberal theology took control, their entire denomination became infected and they collapsed. This process is visible in the Methodist church where local preachers can produce any old twaddle in services, with no meaningful quality control. The rotation of preachers around the circuit means that there’s no way congregations can be protected from the latest flight of fantasy…

    By contrast the CofE instead was a series of separate silos; a child grew up in a church of a particular churchmanship, and if they were accepted for ordination, was trained in a college of that churchmanship before moving out to be a curate and later vicar of a church of the same grouping, enabled by the patronage system. As a result we were able to protect ourselves against the liberal tide. These structures were not in place in either Scotland or Wales, or enough in the USA.

    Given that the Evangelicals have grown from perhaps 10% of the CofE to something like 50%, the remainder of the church has shrunk far more than these figure immediately suggest. Unfortunately most pastoral reorganisation schemes tend to generate homogenised teams with no identifiable churchmanship, resulting in a lack of enthusiasm – in both senses.

    Please note that I write as a fan of true Anglo-Catholicism, as well as an Evangelical. However the liberal tosh that is passed off as ACs today would have had Newman, Keble and Pusey very upset.

    • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 8:13 am #

      I grew up a Methodist and *believe me* my move to the CofE was not because of bad preaching/teaching. I continue to be astonished at the level of back biting and frankly hatred between different factions. There are nasty arguments in the methodist church, but they are over what type of coffee to serve or who broke the Hoover, not over theology. It is very sad for me that the methodist church is in its death throws, because it seems to me that it could teach the wider church something about accepting the other – the one who has slightly different theology to you.

      My perspective on why the Methodist church is dying is two fold – 1) a lack of modernisation and 2) gentrification. It’s not really my generation they lost because of it, it is my parents generation. I think where the “congregation led” model failed a little was that it was prejudiced in favour of people already in the church which makes change harder.

      I think – as was stated earlier – once your numbers become terminally low in younger people it is probably impossible to recover because younger people attract more younger people. Eg If your local university’s christian Union is run by UCCF then only churches which are approved of by them will have any sizeable student population – people want to go to churches where there are people who look like them.

      50% of methodists are over 70. The leadership spent the last couple of decades looking at graphs and talking about reversing decline. There were lots of outreach projects etc but no actual change and now they aren’t talking about how to grow, but about managing decline. Maybe this is a good thing – a natural pruning.

      Other denominations are thriving eg baptists, vineyard etc

      I don’t think it is right to call methodists “non-conformist” esp as they are essentially a sect of the Church of England.

      • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 9:19 am #

        Yes, Pete, I agree with you about Methodism, as I comment above.

        You might not like the arguments about theology in the C of E, but if John is right, ‘contending’ for historic beliefs is one of the key things that sets the C of E apart from the others, and which could hold the key to ending decline.

  8. Pete J August 18, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    Should have read “different factions in the CofE”

  9. Gill Kimber August 18, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    I worry that we’re saying ‘help, we’re in decline, something needs to be done!’ If that’s our motivation then it seems to me we’ll continue to decline. If however we stopped worrying about our numbers, and continue to care more about the people around us who have never heard the Gospel, that should have a major impact on our decisions as a denomination. My observation is, that ‘the church’ is not willing to do this – and so makes our decline inevitable.

    • Andrew Godsall August 18, 2015 at 11:15 am #

      Church Growth doesn’t seem to work does it? In our diocese we had targets for growth that were chosen rather arbritartily and, surprise surprise, we missed them by a mile.

      Much better to focus on Church health rather than church growth. It’s healthy Churches that grow. This, I think, is where the Natural Church Development work helps.
      http://ncd-uk.com/

      The evidence from their research work suggests that church tradition is not a factor in growing churches. The factor that counts is passion for Christ and the kingdom.

      • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

        ‘Church Growth doesn’t seem to work does it?. Well, yes and no. The Church Growth research shows that churches grow when (amongst other things) they are intentional about it.

        But I agree with you that healthy churches are the thing…provided we understand that explaining the gospel is part of being healthy. That’s why I was happy to be a Health Churches consultant in my previous diocese.

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

      Gill, I think it depends on when and where this is being said. If we are concerned to protect the church as institution, then I would agree.

      But by ‘church’ I mean the gathered people of God. Given the importance God gives to his gathered people, what he wants to do in and through them, then their decline should, I think, be cause for concern.

      Caring about those who have not heard the gospel is vital…but what do we do when there are none of us to do this caring?

  10. Will Jones August 18, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    Sobering thoughts. A few observations for the C of E in particular (please forgive the length):

    1. While it is true that there is no golden age to look back on, your analsis borders on the opposite error of ’twas ever thus. As the BRIN website says on its home page “British society has changed in many ways since the Second World War, and religious change is a major example.” While church attendance was, as you say, never very high, in 1963 96.2% of Brits self-identified as Christian, 64.5% as Anglican. In 1973 those figures were 63.4 and 41.5 respectively, and decline has continued since then (see http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/the-british-election-study-2015-religious-affiliation/).
    2. While there has never been a moral golden age, there has certainly been severe moral decline, facilitated both by changing social attitudes and legal reform. Prior to the 1960s sexual revolution there was a general understanding that law and social morality were broadly based on Christian principles, hence censorship of indecent material, abortion being illegal, divorce being difficult, homosexual acts being illegal, a general expectation that children are born within marriage (and sex ideally restricted to it) etc. The widening gap between society and church in these areas is arguably the single biggest challenge for mission and social engagement, not least because the state used to see the church as a key ally in maintaining public morality but now is more likely to see it as an embarassment to be carefully managed.
    3. Perhaps the key difference between earlier times and now is that low church attendance was formerly regarded as a problem by the social and political elite which it needed to takes steps to address. I recently read about a report written on worryingly low church attendance and levels of faith and religious literacy in the industrial cities of 1840. No different to today then. What was very different though is that this was a government report, and the response was (as we know) to fund and facilitate a huge church building programme in the cities, in order to bring faith and civility to the urban working populations.
    4. The C of E, as the established church, has never relied on high church attendance to justify its existence. It exists because the social and political elite support it as the normative expression of religion for England. In recent decades it has become more financially dependent on voluntary giving, and that has tied its survival more strongly to its active membership than has ever been the case in the past. It may be that if this falls too far then it will become financially non-viable (though a large part of its funding continues, as ever, to come from investment revenues). The more pertinent question though is what is the point of an established church which isn’t supported by the establishment. I don’t ask this to add ammunition to disestablishment arguments. My point is rather the opposite: the problems of the C of E need to be seen as problems to be addressed by us as a society, not just by church leaders and churchgoers, since it is our national church. It is clear that some people still think this way, but arguably not enough. Quite what this means practically though I don’t know.

    • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

      Hi William

      Thanks for that. Sorry I don’t really agree with you on the moral decline front – sexuality is merely one area of morality(!) In terms of money and how we treat the poor, I think we are worse now than then, but in every other area inc sexuality we have improved eg 1) capital punishment was still a thing then eg 2) women are mostly equal to men. I realise we have some way to go on this, but the aspiration was there and I don’t think it was in the 1950s eg 3) teachers are no longer allowed to physically hurt schoolchildren.

      Anyway I agree with your general point that there is a morality gulf between the state and the church. Perhaps this is decades of governments implementing evidence based social policy?!

      I would also add two further linked points, if I may, and then a third lol

      1. Work has massively changed. It used to be that in most households the male adult would work 9-5 and bring home enough to finance his family. Now for accomodation costs alone both parents have to work, often in different towns, often a long way from grandparents. I think there’s also some evidence that we now work longer hours than we did in the 1950s. All of this massively decreases the family’s disposable time and sense of ownership of the local area. It is difficult to see why such families would want to be part of church (so much more than just an hour on Sundays)

      2. Work has also become much more sedentary at the same time as we care more about our health and physical appearance. Some weirdos like me don’t enjoy competitive sports, but it seems most people do and these often take place at the same time as church. Playing sport X becomes missing church just this once to meet a fixture to not really going at all.

      3. There is now no denominational loyalty and people can get good teaching and worship (not quite the same as being there) online. Expectations are higher and the market is tougher.

      Churches also can provide pastoral care and fellowship. (Although I see signs of pastoral care becoming a relic of a bygone age and I think we need to fight against this. )

      • Will Jones August 18, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

        Thanks Pete. We obviously disagree sharply on what sexual morality is, which is odd for two people who presumably get their ethics from a Bible-based faith. I can’t see how anyone could regard standards of sexual decency, self-control and fidelity (and attitudes to the unborn) to have undergone improvement in recent decades.

        It is only one area of morality, you’re right. But it is a crucial area, and one with major knock-on effects on family stability, social stability and psychological health. It is also a major trouble area for churches trying to engage constructively with society.

        • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

          welll some examples would be that women who are being physically abused now have much better outcomes, there is not the social pressure to stay in the marriage. Another is that rape within a marriage is now a criminal offence, not a husbands right. Gay people cannot be legally sacked because of who they find attractive and will not be locked up or chemically castrated by the state if they choose to seek a partner.

          Your points:
          I don’t think celibacy is that socially acceptable now, but it was even less so then.

          I think abortion is a tricky area. I think I’m right in saying there are no direct bible verses (except for thou shalt not kill!) Obviously nobody thinks abortion is a good thing, but also I think we can all recognise where it might be necessary. Im not sure if I think the moment a sperm touches an egg it is a child or not. I don’t think criminalising everyone who has it done is the way forward. I think sex education can help and -im by no means an expert- but numbers do seem to be falling as a result of that.

          These are huge difficulties for the church and I don’t think it helps that, Welby aside, senior figures in the church only seem to want to get involved with public life on these issues. It gives a very imbalanced view of Christianity to those outside

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

      Will, thanks for these thoughts, which I appreciate. They are a helpful corrective to simplistic thinking.

      But I still think we need to consider very carefully whether this was *Christian* morality, rather than moralism, and whether the primary goal was in fact social control. This might not be any bad thing, but it is different from the gospel and discipleship.

      Two brief examples. It was generally accepted that women who gave birth out of wedlock should be shunned, and many ended up in mental hospitals. It is quite difficult to see that as an aspect of Christian morality.

      Secondly, at the time when church and state were most closely aligned morally, the spiritual health of the church as at a really low ebb. Evangelicals formed a tiny minority, and much church worship was formal and unengaged. By contrast, when evangelicalism was at high flow in the Victorian period, the church was often challenging the morality of the state and wider society.

  11. Heather S August 18, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    For a long time, I believe that God has been calling His Church to prayer and to holiness, which is neatly encapsulated in the quote from Chronicles. I think He is quite literally bringing the Church to its knees. Sadly, I think many in the pews have no idea how to pray, beyond an ‘Amen’ to whatever is spouted from the front – only slightly tongue in cheek, I have said my lot would rather run through town naked than engage in prayer. Even when I tried to share this with an evangelical who assured me that they ‘did that’ in his church, the subsequent prayer suggested that he hadn’t really heard what I was saying. I have been to plenty of prayer meetings where God has been told what to do, and found out the hard way that in an apparently thriving church I attended, the fixed mindset actually inhibited growth (they would ‘help you find your place in the body of Christ,’ but had in reality had pre-determined what that place should be even if you felt God was telling you otherwise!). Unless and until we get to grips with learning to hear what God is saying, we are in for a very bumpy ride indeed.

  12. David August 18, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    Thanks Ian for sharing this interesting research. I think point d regarding evangelicals is worth elaborating on. That is, whilst these figures appear to show an overall downward trend, they may mask stabilisation or slight increases in evangelical numbers. It’s my understanding for instance that whilst (theologically speaking) liberal congregations are decreasing, bible based evangelical ones are certainly not. Is this also your understanding? I think commentators such as Ed Stetzer in the USA may well be onto something when they say that Christianity in the western world is being ‘redefined’ insofar as the perceived societal benefits of stating oneself as Christian are diminishing. This I feel could contribute to the falling numbers seen here and especially in Liberal or Nominal Christian congregations. In the following decades, I’d expect bible centred evangelical numbers to remain constant or even increase as these congregations will continue to attract people by faithfully preaching the Word and standing firm in faith despite numerous pressures. Lastly, its worth remembering that God has in scripture (see Matthew 16:18 for example) promised to build and establish a Church, and no cultural trends, persecution or anything else can change that!

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

      Indeed. But I would take ‘church’ here as ‘the gathered and gathering people of God’ and not (as many do) ‘institution’!

      • David August 18, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

        Indeed, as would I 🙂

    • Ender's Shadow August 19, 2015 at 8:09 am #

      The data from the US indicates that Evangelical church attendance has peaked and is starting to fall. This is visible in the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention membership has stopped increasing for the first time ever. The cause of this is unclear, but certainly challenges the confidence that most Evangelical had that we’d ‘cracked it’.

  13. Paul Seymour August 18, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    Evangelical, liberal, high church, Anglo Catholic all descriptions offered that aid division. When one of bleeds we all bleed we are one body in Christ. Christianity is in decline in this country and petty petty arguments about Evangelical or Liberal will not help only make us weaker.

    My church has grown mostly at times other than Sunday is basically liberal but with charismatic leadership and evangelical love of scripture.

    We all have much to offer please stop blaming or deflecting because it is the whole church in the UK that is in trouble and we need to work together not gahhhh blame each other

    Rant over

    • Pete J August 18, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

      Amen!

    • Ian Paul August 18, 2015 at 5:42 pm #

      Thanks Paul, but I don’t see the labels as quite as unhelpful as you do.

      at their best, they allow honest conversation about our differences, and give a map by which we might negotiate some complex issues. Neither my nor John’s articles use any language of blame.

      And of course, if it is the whole church we are concerned about, then we should be happy to change traditions if it will help church growth and health…?

      • Paul Seymour August 18, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

        My objection is about the assumptions that are made in our labels, the only label I care about is Christian or as I have heard a number of times lately “a follower of the way”.

        I apologise for giving the impression that either of you had intended to use langauge of blame but I do think the labels have values attached and if as a liberal I speak of a charismatic attribute that I dislike, for example certainty then the reader will think things based on assumptions drawn from labels and that can’t really be helped. BTW as you know I love charismatic worship!

        I think we need to find langauge of inclusion and welcome, I have been very touched by a local church that is very very evangelical that has offered to pay for us to do mission. To make it work we put behind us our public disagreement over penal substition and female headship and speak of the imperative of mission and lives saved (him) transformed(me) .

        So yes to change tradition for growth so long as there is respect.

  14. Paul Waddington August 18, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    I thought that the problem of decline in the Church of England had been solved. Bright young things in their twenties and thirties are now being sent to business school, and these will become the church leaders of the next generation. With this type of education, everything will be put right.

  15. Andy M August 18, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

    As a communicant member of the C of E, I have to admit to finding the C of E’s refusal to face up to decline exasperating. Whilst I’ve heard real insight and wisdom onthe subject from the ABC about our need to speak out the good news and to care for the poor, this seems to stop the minute diocesan politics become involved. It often seems that the C of E is more concerned with perpetuating its own structures than bringing people to Christ. The fact of the matter is that over the next 50 years the C of E will need to close half its extensive real estate and build from those thriving churches able to plant elsewhere. This should entail an extensive reorganization breaking down the Elizabethan parish and diocesan structures and instead bring about greater ecumenism amongst increasingly post denominational churches. Either we can embrace this change and use it to further church unity and build the kingdom or have it imposed as the C of E reluctantly accepts that it can no longer expect that people will come to church out of social duty. I really think that there is a silver lining here of a more prophetic church serving society, but it’s likely to look very different from the church we have today.

  16. Vernon Ross August 18, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

    It’s fair analysis, but it challeneges from Anecdote to Evidence which claims churchmanship is not a factor in church growth.

    • Ian Paul August 19, 2015 at 7:53 am #

      Yes indeed. I think most people didn’t believe that bit of the research—I think it is politically impossible for *any* Church-supported organisation to find favour with one theological tradition over others. Some would say that’s good; others would say it is a serious weakness in being unwilling to face up to some home truths.

  17. Pluralist August 19, 2015 at 11:38 pm #

    A (very) liberal Church with an informal, celebratory, evangelical style is the Unitarian Universalists in the USA and it is growing slowly, as it has for some time. The British version isn’t and has several identity muddles, although one phenomenon is the congregation that ‘bounces’ – that is, it looks in real trouble and on its last legs, and then suddenly (perhaps random at first) it gains new people and almost a change of personnel.

  18. John Hayward August 23, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

    Labels: “Liberal/Conservative” “Liberal/Evangelical” “High/Low” etc. Speaking as a mathematician labels are convenient devices, assumptions, to simplify a complex situation in order to make it understandable. They do not give perfect understanding, missing nuances, but it is still more useful than making no such assumptions. “All models are wrong – but some are useful – George Box”.

    My feeling is the names “liberal” “conservative” applied to churches, especially prevalent in the USA but increasing in the UK, do not adequately reflect the complexity of how these groups behave and change over time. It may have more to do with how different Christian groups relate to the surrounding culture and state, and their past history with them. Conformity or tension.

    I have written on the dynamical interaction of liberal and conservative churches at http://churchgrowthmodelling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/liberal-and-conservative-churches-part-1.html but think this needs revisiting with better identifiers and their interaction with culture/state. Any thoughts?

  19. JCF August 24, 2015 at 7:13 am #

    If Westerners don’t find Christianity intellectually intelligible OR (more important, I think) morally respectable, the Bible-thumping of Evangelicalism isn’t going to bring them back. [FWIW, I think Heyward confused coincidence w/ causality in more than one instance.]

    • Ian Paul August 24, 2015 at 7:21 am #

      Thanks–but I am not clear what you mean by ‘Bible-thumping’, unless that is just a lazy caricature. Many evangelical churches have a keen interest in apologetics (making faith intellectually intelligible) and in integrity of living (morally respectable).

  20. Cynthia August 26, 2015 at 5:47 am #

    In TEC, I’m in a growing parish in a growing diocese, Colorado. Nationwide, 30 percent of our parishes are growing. The common denominator of the growing parishes is that they tend to be liberal to very liberal. This is all buried in the TEC website somewhere. Our graphs do not match the ones in this story. Furthermore, some of the schismatics of the early 2000’s are coming back, homophobia is a poor basis for a church.

    What is also disingenuous is the portrayal of Mary Gray-Reeves coming from a “paltry” diocese of only 51 parishes where supposedly the attendance is less than one conservative church in San Diego. I’d love to see those numbers. The state of California has 6 dioceses. El Camino Real, +Mary’s diocese, is one of the smaller ones and does not have any of California’s large cities in it. If the author had made comparisons with the dioceses that contain Los Angeles or San Fransisco, that would have been apples to apples with San Diego. CoE likely wouldn’t stack up well if you compared rural churches to dioceses with large urban centers.

    Finally, CoE is the established church, which makes apples to apples comparison with the US virtually impossible. If I were you, the statistic I would worry about is the Anglican Membership as a Percentage of the Population. TEC is reasonably stable and CoE drops precipitously, despite being the “established church.”

    I don’t think that this exercise is very helpful. Not only because of the problems I’ve mentioned, but also because ultimately one has to consider what are the fruits of the work of the church? TEC has gone through an extensive discernment processes and have discerned that exclusion is the immoral position and inclusion is the imperative of the Gospel. The fruits of that are young families coming to our church where they can raise their children in an “unbigoted environment. The fruits are that LGBTQ teens, who’ve suffered a high rate of bullying and suicide, will now hear the message of a loving God. The fruits are loving and beautiful, and no one has suffered more than a bruised ego. CoE needs to examine it’s own fruits.

    CoE, the established church, is out of step with the general population of England on equality issues, which plenty of people see in moral and theological terms. I don’t see how CoE makes it as the established church with such a low percentage of membership and so backwards on social issues. That’s a statistic that needs examination, not another elaborate construct to bash TEC.

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