Saturday, February 04, 2012

Major Minus: Church of England Adult Attendance change 1989-2010.

In case anyone at General Synod gets bored of talking about bishops, here's some important information about the rest of the Church of England.

The table above shows the change in adult attendance by Diocese from 1989-2010. A couple of explanatory notes, then some comments.

Explanation/Health Warning.
1. The data above is taken from Bob Jacksons 'Hope for the Church', which covers 1989-1999, and the Church of England's published statistics on attendance.
2. Jacksons data is based on 'usual Sunday attendance', and the CofE stats on 'average weekly attendance'. There isn't a massive difference in the two measures - the latter is higher, and has declined slightly slower than uSa, which isn't available for the whole of the 2000-2010 period. So the table above isn't scientifically precise, but if it's out, it will only be by a percentage or two.

1. The majority of Dioceses are doing better than they were. 16 had a worse figure in the noughties than the 90s, and 27 were better. Also those that improved saw much bigger changes: e.g. Manchester, Newcastle and Durham all had a percentage change which was 20 points improvement or more on the 1990s. For the first two, this saw a decline of around 20% turned into moderate growth.

2. And that's where the good news ends. It's a sea of negative numbers, North and South, urban and rural, pretty much wherever you look. The majority of Dioceses have lost over 1/5 of their membership in 20 years. That's 1/5 of the income, 1/5 of the ministers (because everyone's a minister), but strangely, not 1/5 of the parishes. In 8 Diocese the figure is higher than 30%. This is arterial bleeding, not a minor scratch.

3. I wonder if there are any Dioceses which have cut the number of parishes, church buildings, or central overheads, by the same number? I suspect not. The reality of decline is that we feel duty-bound to maintain the parish system and the local church building until it kills us. So the burden is never reduced, but it falls upon a smaller and smaller number of people.

4. Who is accountable for all this? Can we, will we, ask our bishops and clergy what they've been doing, and what they're doing now? Who is learning the lessons? Or are we (in Einsteins definition of madness) continuing to do exactly the same as before in the hope of a different result?

5. General Synod has 4 debates coming up on women bishops, and none on church growth/decline. I'm sorry but that's bonkers. Anyone who thinks women bishops is the biggest issue facing the church at the moment hasn't woken up or inhaled the coffee. There is no point re-arranging dog collars on the Titanic.

6. I have the figures for childrens attendance and they are even scarier. If the church is relying on children as 'the future of the church' then we're looking at a church 60% the size of what it is at the moment.

7. The CofE has only two realistic options. The first is to start strategic planning for a church which will be 20-25% smaller in 2030, based on the continuation of current trends. The second is to shift significantly towards leadership, investment and structures which are focused on growth. There are currently incremental steps towards the latter (Fresh Expressions, mission funding, Bishops Mission Orders etc.), and a vast amount of 'make do and mend' towards the former.

I don't know what it will take to provoke the necessary sense of crisis, the deepening of conviction that we need to tackle this issue, so that the CofE overcomes its sniffiness about 'bums on pews' and recognises that there's a reason the New Testament talks about the number of people being saved on a regular basis. It's because each of those people matters to God, and each of those people is someone we're called to reach with the gospel. The CofE is largely failing in that task, and until we have reckoned with that, we call into question our claim to be called a church at all. Are we actually doing the task our Master has set us?


  1. David - I don't know how many people you have following your stuff on this, but in the absence of other feedback: Yes! Preach it brother! Particularly loved the dog collars on the Titanic...

  2. Such a joy to read your words of challenge and passion-it saves me having to write all this. Keep ringing the church bell until someone wakes up and gets out of bed and does something!

  3. Well said, David. And I suspect the story in Canada is similar, but we're too timid to publish the statistics!

  4. drop me a line - I see a piece for the gdn coming out of this

    Andrew dot brown at grauniad co uk (though not really grauniad)

  5. Thanks Andrew - I'd rather it didn't! I'm trying to stir up a bit of internal debate, rather than generate headlines. Also, you wouldn't get very far with these stats: 2 different measures, a year of data missing (the change from 1999-2000) etc. They're indicative, though pretty strongly indicative, and improving, though not improving fast enough for my liking, or for the health of the CofE.

    Or maybe I'm just afraid to stick my neck out too far....!

  6. That's 1/5 of the income

    It's not quite that simple. 1/5 of the givers, yes, but the per capita burden of diocesan quota etc has been rising year by year far faster than inflation (at least that's what it seems from our local figures). Of course all this contributes to the feeling that the church is only after our money, and so encourages decline. So even the prosperous parishes which are not declining are starting to say enough is enough.

  7. Thanks Peter: Our quota has been frozen overall for the last 2 years, but because of membership decline, any church holding steady or growing is facing a bill rising faster than inflation.

    If 100 givers declines to 80, those 80 have to pay 25% more each simply to maintain the level of giving. So a 1/5 decline in givers means a 1/4 rise in bills for those who remain, and that's before any increases. A growing church will see quota rise even faster.

  8. Yes, parish share is definitely part of the problem - as Bob Jackson has eloquently analysed (I discuss that here.)

    Trouble is, I don't actually think that's the core issue. If CofE members actually followed the teaching of the church on tithing (5% to church, 5% to other charities) then we could afford one minister for every 20 members - roughly. It's the teaching that has gone wrong - but I won't rant about that here, as I've just published a book saying exactly that...!

  9. Sam, make that every 20 members earning a good salary - assuming you think the minister deserves one, or its equivalent.

    But things aren't that simple. In our case the diocese already commandeers perhaps 2-3% of our members' gross income. Then there is a lot that has to be paid to keep the church, the building and all its ministries, running. I doubt if our church could survive on less than 5% of its members' earnings. So it doesn't help us at all to be told that a large part of what we pay the diocese goes to support other congregations whose members pay far less than 5%.

  10. Peter - surely the principle of the minister being a peer of those he serves is right - and that includes financially? (And I wouldn't be against some cross-subsidy, but that doesn't require parish share - see John Richardson's proposals). Yes, fabric is a problem, but that can be resolved separately to paying for ministry.

  11. Yes, Sam, a good principle, although some argue that ministers are worthy of "double honour" in a financial sense. But we have to allow for dependants, students. those on benefit, poor pensioners etc. I don't think ministers should be expected to live at the average level of even a very poor congregation - nor conversely if they have a parish of millionaires.

    It is, however, galling that the parishes in Essex that are full of millionaires, or at least million pound houses, are often subsidised by ex-council estate ones like ours.

  12. Peter - agreed. I think churches should a) tithe their income to the wider church and b) pay for their own ministers. a) can then be used for subsidising mission and priests in poorer areas.

  13. I live in the political constituency with the highest per-capita income in Canada, and I think it's quite an important Christian witness that my salary is lower than that of most of the people in my congregation (and they know it, because they se the budget every year, and my salary is a line-item in the budget).

  14. I've just returned Bob Hope's books to the library after looking at those figures a lot on my long placement and since.

    I and a lot of my idealistic not-even-wet-behind-the-ears cohort being commissioned this summer are coming in with huge hearts for pumping out water and stabilising the ship, but I do wonder about point 5) - I fully agree that church decline is a massive issue and wish we could get beyond debating people's gender or orientation to get on with building the kingdom, but I fear (hope, maybe) that we need to get those debates out of the way so that when we're tackling decline we're doing so from an inclusive position that most people in society want us to be in, not one that they don't wish to be associated with..?