Monday, November 07, 2011

Church of England Vital Statistics: Time to Call the Nurse? Or the Surgeon?

A few years ago, Bob Jackson, Archdeacon of Walsall, produced a minor earth tremor in the Church of England with his book 'Hope for the Church'. For the first time, the stark reality of the decline of the CofE was painted in painful facts and figures.

As the title suggests, 'Hope for the Church' wasn't all doom and gloom - in among the decline were signs of what the CofE could do to put things right, from smarter deployment of ministers, to better use of tools like Alpha and small groups.

The first two columns in the table above are taken from Jacksons book. The final one I've added myself, based on the latest Church of England statistics, published roughly a month ago.

In recent years, decline in attendance has slowed, but the above figures make pretty grim reading. Despite Fresh Expressions, a renewed emphasis on church planting, a plethora of Diocesan initiatives, mission fund money etc., there is no obvious and decisive turnaround in the fortunes of the Church of England.

The real danger is that the remaining pockets of health in the CofE are gradually eroded by the weight of the rest of it. Look at that 'churches open' figure. There are still around 16,000 Anglican churches, not far off the number in 1980, but run by 30% fewer clergy, and paid for and supported by 30%+ fewer adult members. With each church comes an obligation to retain a regular pattern of worship, the legal business of PCCs and AGMs, building maintenance etc. There is very little spare time and energy left for the average vicar after you've had to sort all this out for 6 churches.

In the meantime, those churches that are growing get hit with higher bills. Our Diocese has frozen its budget for 2011-12, which is good news. However, our church has grown slightly, and the vast majority of the other Anglican churches in Bath and Wells have shrunk. So any church, like ours, which holds or increases its membership, ends up paying more to compensate for those which have shrunk. There's a good principle there of the strong supporting the weak, which is fine. But how much weight can the healthy limbs of a tree support before they suffer damage themselves? There are plenty of good things going on in the CofE, hundreds of new church plants, lots of innovation, and the decade has seen a sea-change in attitudes towards mission, with a corresponding change in policies and deployment. But whilst the outlying vessels are going at a rate of knots, the main ship is looking very creaky.

Back in the summer, Andreas Whittam Smith of the Church Commissioners said this to General Synod:
“I have seen large companies perfectly and impeccably manage themselves into failure. Every step along the road has been well done.

“Every account is neatly signed off.”

Then finally they find they have “gone bust”, he said. “I sometimes feel the Church is a bit like that.”

He added: “I wish that all of us would have a sense of real crisis about this.”

At what point does the Church of England call time on a system set up in the Middle Ages, but increasingly no longer fit for purpose? At what point do we declare that the burden of maintaining 16000 historic buildings is no longer an asset to mission, but an impediment? At what point do we press the red button, and try to do things differently, rather than squeezing more out of less and hoping that somehow everything will get better?

Judging by these stats, the Church of England is a frog in the long slow process of being boiled. How hot does it have to get?

Update: if you need something slightly less depressing along similar lines, try this excellent post from David Cooke.


  1. More a case of a frog being slowly frozen, I'd say... but looking on the bright side (sing along with Brian, you know the tune), I suspect what this really represents is the decline of nominalism: today's churchgoers are, for the most part, true disciples rather than those who simply attend church because it's the Thing To Do; because, of course, it isn't...

  2. David,

    Good article. Totally agree with you that the church has its head in the sand. You can't keep piling on the finances on the healthy churches. The problem is that its the easy option for the dioceses. In my own diocese this has happened to such an extent that non-payment is now rising and will reach a crisis.

    A diocese needs a plan for growth rather than just a plan to be.

  3. Perhaps what the church needs is simply CHANGE. Any kind of change! This is not my insight, but Bob Jackson's, which I reported in 2008:

    in the Church of England across theological boundaries, 17 churches which had made no changes shrank by an average 22% over 6 years, whereas 32 churches which had made at least one change, of any kind, on average grew by 4%.