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:
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:
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 .
(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 . 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.
Here, 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 Renewal. From 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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