Tuesday, February 07, 2012

General Synod: Rearranging the Dog Collars on the Titanic?

Sorry to go on about this, but....

This week General Synod has 4 debates about women bishops. Now ok, this is a biggie for the CofE, but we seem to have let it take over. This Synod has access, for the first time, to comprehensive data on the Church of England for the first decade of this century. It shows that our average weekly numbers have dropped from 1,203,000 in 2001 to 1,116,100 in 2010. That's a drop of 9.3%, or, if you prefer, 186 people a week.

That doesn't sound like a lot, but that's the problem. It never does.

And General Synod isn't even registering that this data exists. I can't see the point in us collecting all these stats when our main leadership body doesn't even discuss them. Unless we start to understand why people are leaving (and everyone will assume it's because the CofE isn't more the way they like it: liberals because it's illiberal, evangelicals because it doesn't preach the gospel, Catholics because we're straying from the ancient faith - I caricature, but you get the point), and why the few growing churches and Dioceses are actually growing, we will never seriously address what's going on. Sure, some may be leaving over the issue of women bishops, but I don't recall the ordination of women to the priesthood in the 1990s leading to widespread revival, and there's no reason to assume it will be any different now.

Andreas Whittam Smith called in the previous synod for 'a real sense of crisis' about the falling membership of the CofE. Judging by the agenda to this synod, he's been ignored. Ok, we aren't the only people with a membership crisis - the political parties make the Church of England look like a success story. But, as Andrew Brown wrote yesterday, we seem to be very good at avoiding the kind of leadership and decision-making that's required.

Because these stats aren't a blip:
Adults attendance 1989-2010 for those not of a nervous disposition
Childrens attendance 1989-2010 ditto, but more so.
2001-2010 breakdown by Diocese: adults, all-age

My own Diocese is nearly 1/3 smaller than it was 20 years ago. I've been on our Diocesan Synod for a while, and can only remember membership figures being mentioned when we discuss the Budget - fewer people means higher parish share per head. So we're just as good at the ostrich position as everyone else, and I'm currently working out how to get a motion to our local synod that can prompt a discussion at the Diocese. We either have to plan for being 1/3 smaller again by 2030, or make some deliberate changes aimed at reversing things, but at the moment we are doing neither.

There are plenty of good things happening in the CofE, some of them initiated by General Synod. In the last fortnight I've come across this on Bishops Mission Orders, the excellent Parish Buying website, a new web resource dedicated to community action projects, how2help.net and a theological college that's established a church growth centre.

But it all seems to be happening around the fringes. General Synod - and Diocesan Synods too - needs to spend less time rearranging the dog collars, and more time inspecting the ship.

Update: ....like London Diocese, which has done 2 major studies on church growth/decline and the reasons for it in the last 10 years, and, crucially, this informs policy at the Diocese. And guess which Diocese has grown the most? It's not rocket science....


  1. Bring it, David! This is good stuff. While I understand the complexities of the issues Gen Synod is dealing with, if we don't do something about our failing membership, it may all be academic.

  2. I left the CoE a year ago. After an ethical property deal in New York where millions of pounds had to be written off by general synod, a mix of local issues in the church I was attending, I felt it impossible to stay within the CoE as a Christian. My decision. Has the vicar made contact since I left, ...no. My leaving must ave done them a favour! But I have not lost any sleep over it and in fact, feel liberated to be free of the shackles that being an Anglican brings. It would be nice if the CoE made a website or blog for people like me to post our reasons for leaving the church, then you guys would have the hard facts you long for, so as to put in action a remedy to stop the fall out! But that may be too radical for such an old institution?

  3. Btw, should have said "unethical property deal", sorry!

  4. I too am frustrated that the CofE is paying such little attention to this issue. Do those at the top think that declining numbers are inevitable given that our society is becoming more secular and therefore there is no point in doing anything about it? Or do they just not realise how out of touch the CofE is with most of the public? Maybe it's just to caught up with its own issues to notice what's happening on the outside.

    I agree that there is some good stuff happening, but as the CofE is so desperately slow to do anything much of it is going to continue struggle to be effective in bringing God's light into our society in a significant way.