Ultimately, what the figures reveal is the end of a decade of respite for the Church of England - thanks to Anglicans' offering to minister without pay. This is a decade in which the Church could have been planning for the predictable changes that are now in train.
Put simply, the Church of England is soon going to have to operate with far fewer ministers, both stipendiary and non-stipendiary. Women's ordination has helped a little, but women continue to be disproportionately represented in unpaid, part-time, and low-status jobs in the Church. It is unlikely that this situation can be sustained - even if conscience allowed it.
To put it bluntly, there are no longer enough troupers left to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change.
from this article by Linda Woodhead in the Church Times this week. I blogged a while back on how the CofE is looking at a long-term full time workforce of 5,000 in parish ministry, compared to the 12,500+ the current system is based on. It's encouraging to whiff the aroma of smelt coffee getting as far as the Church Times. The CofE is understandably reluctant to close down churches or parishes, but that leaves us in a bit of a pickle if there's an ever reducing clergy workforce. As the Church Growth Research report notes, amalgamating parishes is a good way to accelerate decline, but with parishes outnumbering clergy by 2.5 to 1, there isn't really another option under the current system.
The show will have to change. There must be a combination of fewer parishes (or a smarter way of running multi-parish benefices), or more authorised local lay leadership, or a fundamental reconfiguration of parishes, churches and the clergy role. Or a blend of all 3. Trouble is, a declining church is going to struggle with finding that lay leadership, we should have been doing this a generation ago.
Ultimately it's God's gospel and God's church. It did pretty well in the early days without vicars and medieval buildings, and maybe it will again.