The press briefings clearly did their job, pushing Christmas attendance and digital engagement to the top of the page and relegating the gnarly stuff about attendance to further down. The report itself starts upbeat, focusing on a new measure 'Worshipping Community' which also happens to give the highest figure for church participation of 1.14m. There are also encouraging figures on church 'joiners', with 83,000 adults joining an Anglican church in 2017. Of those, 31% had never attended church before, and 17% had previously left and were returning. That's good, and encouraging.
read down a page or two and you discover that the Worshipping Community measure doesn't offer 'robust information' and keeping track of it is 'more challenging' than the traditional headcount.
So here is the traditional headcount, the change in Adult Weekly Attendance (the average number of adults attending church each week in October) from 2012-2017
- London, over the last 30 years the only Diocese to have held its own or grown, is now back in the pack. They had an ambitious strategy to plant 100 new churches, and I hope the missional drive has survived Richard Chartres, but this is worrying
- The dioceses which have done 'best' are mostly rural, with an East coast strip from the Thames to the Humber seeing slower decline than the rest of us. Do UKIP members go to church more regularly?
- Other than that its a fairly dire picture: after some indications that decline in CofE membership was slowing down a few years ago.
This is borne out elsewhere in the figures. Over the last 5 years
- Baptisms are down 25.4%
- Weddings and thanksgivings are down 29.8%
- Funerals are down 15.8% (those done in crematoriums and cemetaries are down 26%)
With now 10% of children being baptised, 19% of marriages and 26% of funerals being hosted/led by the church, each successive generation is less and less engaged with what the CofE is offering, outside of Christmas.
Go back a bit further in time (difficult, because the recorded figures have changed - Canterbury adult Sunday attendance in 2012 is either 12800 or 15400, depending on which years stats report you read!) here's how we've done since the turn of the century. Please take this with a pinch of salt, but with or without, the overall flavour is the same:
Under Rowan Williams and even more so under Justin Welby, the CofE has more and more started to reckon with these figures, rather than ignore them (though the tone of the report and the press release seems designed to cloak the truth rather than face it). We will know in a few years whether the growth of fresh expressions, mission strategies and evangelism resources has made any significant difference.
My own Diocese, Bath and Wells, is now focused on 'putting mission and evangelism at the heart of all we do'. I can't fault the stated direction, and its a massive and welcome change from recent history, but the jury is out on the execution. We've successfully applied for central funding for an extra 10 posts to take forward church planting and pioneer ministry, and at the same time a quick glance at the Diocesan budget shows an increased headcount of 10 full time posts in the Diocesan staff. Some of this is to strengthen the safeguarding, vocations, and mission advisory teams, but I do question the ratio, and wonder what 20 extra parish-level staff would do for mission and growth at a local level, if invested wisely.
One final table:
This is an interesting one, a few things to note here:
- 75% of Anglican churches have 60 people or fewer on an average Sunday.
- Of the 16000 churches in the CofE, around 4000 have 15 or less on a Sunday, 1 baptism a year and no weddings and for their big services have enough to fill a decent sized pub function room. None of these churches needs to seat more than 50-70 people. I'm sure every one of these buildings is loved and treasured, but we are way past the point where this is sustainable. Do we have a strategy for closing or re-using buildings, before the inevitable collapse in the system?
- The bigger churches have a proportionally bigger 'fringe' - churches on the 25th percentile see 2.5x their usual congregation turn up at Christmas, those on the 75th see 3.75x their usual number, and it's higher still for the biggest.
- Some very different leadership is required for the churches on the left hand side of this table to those on the right. What are we training people for?
- It would be interesting to see the parishes mapped on to these by growth/decline, sometimes the biggest decline comes in the biggest churches.
In my own Diocese, there are 76 churches with a membership in single figures, only a handful have reported a rise in membership in recent years. All have a building, and required to have church wardens, treasurer, safeguarding officer etc. At the other end of the scale there are 11 churches with over 200 members, 5 of these have grown in the last 3 years, (and at least one of the 'shrinkers' has had a vacancy) which for the CofE is almost impressive. Here, as in every Diocese, the Diocesan leadership needs to get behind those growing churches and make sure they are supported and resourced. It also needs to shorten vacancies in large and already thriving churches.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. This isn't an argument for giving up all this new fangled mission stuff and go back to the good old days. The new fangled mission stuff is about 2000 years old, and the good old days were days of decline anyway. The CofE is planting new churches, it is seeing more people called into leadeship, it is discovering new ways to share the gospel and make disciples. But we are saddled with models and structures of ministry which act like lead boots on the feet of the messenger, and I also fear that many of those who are seeking to lead the church into growth don't have that much experience of leading growing churches themselves. Maybe like Jacob God needs to wrestle us to a point of weakness, so we can limp across the river, stripped of the things we used to depend on, and discover renewal on the other side.
The stats are also available in an Excel file, which puts an end to the years of transcribing them line by line out of pdfs into a spreadsheet, so a big thankyou to @cofestats for doing that. Here's my analysis of last years stats, which provoked quite a debate, and remains the most visited page on this blog by some distance.
By the way, I'm not on Twitter so if you think this needs a wider audience, dear reader, then tweet away.
Update: this was posted on my FB feed, a quote from a Diocesan bishop in the S of England "If as the figures might suggest the Church of England is dying, we in this part of the country are determined to die a spectacular operatic death while investing in evangelism and church planting, not a whimpering unobtrusive death behind curtains in a hospital, meanly hoarding our resources so that we.can pass on our silver to somebody else's grandchildren".