Thursday, January 14, 2016

Church of England Attendance - Downs and Ups

Earlier this week the CofE released its latest set of attendance figures. The general downward trend was picked up by the press, and the official press release marked a welcome departure from the standard positive spin, dealing directly with the fact that membership has fallen 12% in 10 years as part of a longer-term pattern of decline. However it rightly points out that within the overall picture, there are signs of growth, and plenty of good things going on.

Here are the figures by Diocese for the last 5 years

The North-East leads the way: given that I left Durham Diocese in 2006, perhaps Bath and Wells will show the same pattern to 2020 if I hand in my notice now. 9 dioceses are growing, out of 43, and the overall pattern is still a drop of 1% a year. That's a slight improvement on the longer trends, but often what happens is that Dioceses will report better numbers over a short time frame, (Durham saw a big jump 2013-14). 16 Dioceses reported higher adult weekly attendance for the year 2013-14. But longer term these tend not to be sustained. You can see this volatility in the Diocesan charts on p44 onwards in the main report.  Also a concern is the big slowdown in growth in London.

Here's the picture in the 2 decades prior to 2020. 

 perhaps the rate of decline is slowing, but not by much. There are pockets of growth, and there's a welcome focus on the factors which make for a healthy, growing church. It will take time for this to get round, and even longer for it to be adopted. We don't have very long but at least we are now talking about this and addressing it, rather than hoping it will all go away if we do Evensong really well.

Meanwhile the ageing of the church continues to be a big issue. The CofE is failing in a key area where it needs to engage. We are seeing fewer children than ever - the table below is for Sunday attendance, if you include midweek services (which you'd expect to be better, given that adult attendance is moving towards weekdays), the drop is a staggering 29% (in the last 2 years services exclusively for schools have been excluded, which is the main reason for the drop. It takes over 100,000 off the headline figure). On the positive side, this gives the lie to anyone who claims that CofE schools indoctrinate children into the Christian faith. But that's clutching at straws.

Thinking Anglicans links to a few other pieces of commentary and analysis.Crunching the numbers (and every number is a person, but crunching people sounds like the bad giants in the BFG) in our own Diocese, there were 15-20 churches which had shown some sustained and significant growth at some stage in the last 10 years. What came as more of a surprise was that it was mainly the finance department who used the figures. We collect 'statistics for misson' but don't really look at them through mission eyes. The CofE is becoming more socially engaged - food banks, debt advice etc., but we still plough so much time, energy and effort into maintaining the buildings and the system that many small churches are too snowed under to engage well. A few other snippets from the stats: - the church continues to age, with children dropping from 16 to 14% of Sunday attenders. 29% of us are over 70.  - the 'average church' has 69 regulars, 171 people through the doors at Christmas, and carries out 10 funerals, 9 baptisms and 3 marriages a year. But hardly any churches are average - the smallest 5% have 8 members or fewer.   - about 15% of the stats are estimated, because not all the info has been collected from the 16000 churches involved - 84,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2014. 1/3 of these were worshipping for the first time, a further 1/3 had moved from another area. 15% had moved from another church (roughly the same as those who gave this reason for leaving), and 16% had returned to church after not being members for some time.  - there's been some attempt to break down the age profile of the worshipping community. In my own Diocese, over 40% of our members are aged 70+. Blackburn has the highest proportion of children (nearly 30%), London the most under-70s. With death and illness being the main factor in shrinking attendance, it's clear which Dioceses are going to face challenges in the near future. Sorry Lincoln, but it's not going to get any better.  - There's a breakdown of Christmas services - 2 1/4m people came to 'congregation and community' services, a further 2 1/2m to 'civic and school' services. - in general more rural/elderly Dioceses had higher proportions of the local population involved in church: places like Hereford, Gloucester, Bath and Wells and Carlisle. These are also the places where a higher proportion of people have church funerals, baptisms etc. London has the lowest proportion of population having a church wedding, baptism or funeral. - there's some data on relative sizes: the largest 5%  average 41 children and 178 adults involved, the smallest 5% average 8 adults and no children. Not a surprise, but neither is it an encouragement. The Church of England is at last changing, we are starting to learn from each other what makes for a thriving church, and we are starting to listen more to our communities, rather than assume folk will come to church when they work out what's good for them. That's not working for pubs - they are closing at a faster rate than churches - the way we meet and mix as a society is changing. We have to listen to that and adapt to it. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi David - thanks for this useful summary...

    I think a major flaw in the CofE stats is that they measure growth in absolute terms rather than relative to the size of the population.

    So for example the 2014 average weekly all age attendance is reported as 980,000 - so 1.8% of England's population (the ONS's mid 2014 population estimate for England was 54,316,600)

    Using the same measure as above for 2009 the CofE stats say attendance was 1,081,900 - so 2.09% of England's population (the ONS's mid 2009 population estimate for England was 51,809,741)

    Although I haven't done the analysis (given the difficulty of matching ONS to Diocese areas) it might be that even areas that the CofE absolute stats show as growing are - like London - are, when measured relative to population - actually static or declining.

    So looking at those diocese that are "growing" to copy their actions may actually be a false analysis