Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Church membership patterns in Bath and Wells Diocese

This is going to be a pretty niche post, as I guess the Venn Diagram of a) statisticians who are b) interested in Somerset and c) interested in Anglican attendance is not going to have a huge shaded area.

But hey, I'm in the shaded area, and this is my blog, so....

Every year Bath and Wells, like all dioceses, collects church membership stats to calculate 'Parish Share' - the contribution each Anglican church makes to overall running costs. The latest set include membership figures from the last 2 years, the amount of Parish Share paid, and the parish 'category' - an indicator of how prosperous (or not) the parish is.

Here's what our 484 churches look like, with Bath Abbey (542) to the left, and Greinton (0) to the right, and the rest of us in between.

Compared to the CofE as a whole, our churches are a bit smaller on average. If your picture of the average church was of 60-80 people with a Sunday school and a vicar, think again. 50% of churches in Bath and Wells have an average Sunday congregation of 23 or fewer. 

...which is a problem, as smaller churches are more likely to be shrinking, and to be shrinking faster, than larger ones. In fact it's only larger churches as a group which are growing in this Diocese:

This table collects several bits of data - church size, church growth, Parish Share paid by these churches (an indicator of financial viability) and the number of CofE clergy that equates to (we cost about £50k per year when salary, housing, pension, training etc. costs are all added up. Someone else can blog about whether that's value for money!!). The smallest churches would need to club together in groups of 15 to support 1 vicar, whilst the largest ones pay enough parish share to support 3 clergy per church - in practice, this usually means they are supporting clergy posts elsewhere in the Diocese. Wells Cathedral and Bath Abbey are the only churches in Bath and Wells which get to recruit 3 or more full time vicars. 

You can see that it's only the larger churches that are doing anything like holding their own - this is just 2 years membership stats, so the smallest ones have lost a pretty steepling (sorry) 13% in 2 years. 

In passing, of the 7 shrinking churches in the 200+ bracket, 5 have had a vacancy in their senior leadership position during these two years. Church practice usually ensures these vacancies last for at least a year. In small churches the key relationships of the congregation will be with each other (and they may only see the vicar every 3-4 weeks), whilst once you get over 80-90 people, the vicar becomes more of a focal individual. Church members can't know all the other members, but they all know the vicar. So a void in this chair in a larger church could have a bigger effect than in a smaller one. 

There's still around 25% of churches growing, but many more shrinking. Here's what that looks like in people numbers

 And finally, I had a look at whether churches who paid more or less in Parish Share did any different. Category 'A' are the richest parishes, F, G and s are the poorest.

The top category is skewed by having Bath Abbey as one of the two churches - the largest church in the Diocese, and also the one that is growing most strongly (79 new members in 2 years). The 2nd fastest growing church is in category G, St. Pauls Weston super Mare, which has added 78, and this rather skews that line of the table - without this church it would see a -3.5% fall in membership.

However, there is a significantly higher proportion of churches in the bottom 3 lines growing than in the top 3. Does that mean we're doing better in poorer neighbourhoods, or that churches with a smaller financial burden from the centre have more resources to give to mission and ministry?

There are 2 other questions I'm not sure we're asking. One is of the growing churches in each category, to find out what they're doing well so that good practice can be shared. The other is of those which are falling off a cliff - 35 churches lost 1/3 or more of their membership in these 2 years. Some are very small churches, but when a church of 100 loses 30 members in a short space of time, we have to ask if there is any extra support needed, or anything that could be done to catch this sort of thing before it happens.

If you're from a different diocese and want to have a play with the figures, email your finance department and ask them for an Excel spreadsheet of the parish membership stats collected for parish share. Ours were very obliging, though they might think better of it now they've seen the results!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this analysis. I am sorry that it has not yet elicited any comments, because it deserves the closest scrutiny.

    I have attended services at a majority of the churches in Bath & Wells, and in every part of the diocese (and have ranged across many other dioceses). What has surprised me is that attendance is relatively better in much of Somerset than it is in other parts of the country. South Somerset has almost as many churches per square mile as anywhere in England (bar the hinterlands of Ipswich or Norwich, or parts of north Kent and east Lincolnshire); there have been relatively few casualties, and things could be very much worse. I mention this because my attendance east of a line between Exeter and Boston has been pretty comprehensive.

    Of course, overall, the situation in B&W is still desperate: even the very few 'successful' churches are top-heavy with people of a certain age. As I see it, the Church could blow all of its capital on 'growth' and will still fail almost everywhere. Just about the only places that I have encountered anywhere that have a critical mass of young people (not infants attending messy 'services') are in affluent dormitory towns or suburbs.

    As I see it, the only way the Church is going to maintain a presence in every community is if it sloughs off the buildings, which are a crippling millstone. The Commissioners' £8.3bn is a function of an implicit, divisive and regressive subsidy (the parish share), where the weakest and most vulnerable layer funds pay, pensions and rations (for which the Commissioners were largely responsible prior to 1998), and of past expropriations (whether direct, as of episcopal and capitular capital, or indirect, by means of the Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976). I would transfer title to the greater part of the stock to DCMS, confiscate £5bn to form a permanent repairing fund (to neutralise the liability to the Treasury for the time being) and give the Church a permanent free right of use to the stock vested in the state. Note that the buildings have been paid for out of past taxation (such as church rate, or indirectly via tithe or tithe rentcharge) as well as via local bequests; disendowment of this kind would merely return to the parishes the capital expropriated by the Commissioners. The state will have the economies of scale to effect repairs, and to procure materials and resources, which ailing PCCs will never have. The Church can then maintain its claim to provide pastoral services in every community, and thus remain a church *of* England, rather than another failing sect within England. Clergy would also be able t concentrate their energies on mission (for which they ought to have been trained) instead of acting as adjuncts to the conservation business (for which they have not been trained).

    The alternative, of course, is to wind up the Church except in the paltry number of places that are showing genuine signs of growth. I have worshipped at almost 500 churches in Suffolk - barely 1% are viable; ditto Norfolk, Essex, Kent, Hants, Dorset, Beds, etc.; probably about 3% or 4% in Cambs, Berks, Herts, Surrey, Sussex, etc.

    The 'failure' of Greinton is scarcely surprising; that church is cursed with a very awkward location on a busy road, with no parking. They are trying, however! And they have kept going, unlike the ancient foundation of Godney nearby (recently converted into a deconsecrated civil wedding venue).