Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Church of England Attendance Stats 2017

Like a nervous Jacob sending his flocks, wives and children ahead to placate his wronged and hairy brother Esau, the Church of England released several batches of positive stats prior to last weeks full attendance statistics report. So we had Cathedral attendance (up), Christmas attendance (up) social engagement (widespread and positive) and digital engagement. I must confess to an increasing feeling of unease with each successive press release, and the delay in the publication of the stats (originally trailed as October).

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

A number of striking things
 - 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".


  1. Fab analysis David. Thank you. Not that I want to sound excited about it.

    An interesting thing to note and ponder which I never see reported in these stats is the level of population growth as a nation alongside this data. It is one thing to measure decline references against the static figures of the previous church going population, but far more worrying is the reality that the population of the country has not been declining but rather growing at a pace. That means the "per head of population" change is far more stark than even these figures suggest.

  2. Peter Debenham20/11/18 1:40 pm

    Ely looks like only a slight decline on an absolute numbers basis but is not looking so good as percent of population. Cambridgeshire population (I know Ely diocese also goes into Norfolk) has grown by ~5% every 5 years for the past 20 years.

    As various people said last year it would be good to see population changes alongside the attendance tables. Unfortunately I doubt that would improve how anyone feels about these statistics!

  3. that was my first thought about the (relatively) better performance of the E Anglian Dioceses. If population has grown faster there compared to the average, then we are looking at more at demographics, rather than anything the church is doing particularly well (or that other dioceses are doing particularly badly)

  4. Thank you for your customarily brilliant analysis. If only more clergy wrote as perceptively as you do about this existential issue.

    In view of the comments about East Anglia, I would note that I have attended services in practically every church in Eds & Ips, Ely and in Chelmsford, and in more than half of Norwich.

    If there are about 500 or so churches in Suffolk, I have found a critical mass AND a healthy demographic profile in scarcely more than five or so churches in that county.

    So, I think that the reported numbers flatter to deceive, if my 'anecdote' is now amounting to a form of 'evidence'. One of the reasons why attrition might be less severe in East Anglia is the massive movement of population from Greater London to places that are accessible via, say, the East Coast Main Line (as a function of white flight and the pump and dump operation of the metropolitan housing market) into surrounding counties, and especially into substantial new estates in places like Peterborough, Cambridge and its environs, etc.

    Although I note your comments about Bath & Wells, I have often found there to be more of a critical mass in a number of the parishes in which I have worshipped in that diocese (although the age profile is often as bad as elsewhere). I don't sense the same sort of despair I have encountered elsewhere.

    I am massively underwhelmed by R&R, which looks set to be almost as successful as the Decade of Evangelism. The Commissioners are spending what they think they can, but it is in no way commensurate with the scale of the problem. Even greatly enhanced outlays will only moderate the decline in a few places. Yet the Church is still getting the basics wrong: Dr Walker has noted the change to weekend timetables; this being so, why is it that I have only encountered all-age services between 4 PM (when the supermarkets close) and 6 PM (when families start to get ready for the week ahead) in only about six churches between the Humber and the Channel (Horncastle, Stow Bedon, Scole, Hethel, Southwick and Westhampnett) or about two (Claygate and Bathford) between the Bristol Channel and Thanet? This, surely, is a catastrophic own goal. Some areas are also really bad at advertising services (Derby, Exeter and Southwell are often very good).

    As to buildings, I agree that they are a burden, but they keep alive the much vaunted claim of the Church to have a presence in every community. The Commissioners now have £8.3bn, largely a function of the shift in the burden of pension accruals to the dioceses after 1998 and the implicit subsidy of the parish share (a regressive system where the lowest and weakest tier effectively subsidises the highest). My solution is this: vest the whole pre-1830 stock and Grade I and certain Grade II* buildings erected after that date in an agency of DCMS, perhaps an expanded CCT (which will have the economies of scale that PCCs lack to procure materials and resources); disendow the Commissioners to the tune of about £5bn (since about half of the balance will be needed to cover pre-1998 accruals), and use that as a dowry for the new agency. The Church will no longer have to worry about the buildings and can concentrate on mission, and it would get a perpetual free right of use to the divested stock.

    I would also disestablish the Church to provide political cover for this change (making it a 'national' church akin to the Kirk), since an organisation that now commands the nominal allegiance of only a trace element of those aged under 30 will only make itself vulnerable to attack if it does not change its status.

  5. David, as ever, thanks - good to see it laid out. I wish the CofE drafted in those prepared to look outside of the box to discuss where next. The London figure fascinating, curious, depressing... Good to see my own Diocese rallying - I'll take the fact it's far from fastest declining as a positive, and I'm sure the bishop will too! This does not release us from discussion about growth though...

    And Froghole, there are plenty of clergy who do perceptive existential thinking like David, the question might be more how is the church taking and using that?

    1. If I wasn't busy with preparing for the xmas fringe expansion on my 75th percentile, I'd be seriously pondering that final table. There is a lot of basic stuff that should be able to boost the bottom, I'm fed up of saying so. Can't wait for half an hour to engage with those figures.

  6. As always I wish we could drill into what is growing whilst shrinking.

  7. As always, excellent. Thank you. The percentile chart was particularly helpful. How would I work out what percentile we are?

  8. If you happen to have an average adult Sunday attendance of 3, 13, 31, 69 or 159 its fairly easy to work out, otherwise there wasn't any more detail than that. You would need the parish member stats for every parish in the country, which I guess the stats people have and the rest of us dont! You could always contact them - there's contact details on the website and they're on Twitter too, and always seem happy to engage.

    Your diocese should have parish by parish figures, if you wanted to do the percentile thing just within your Diocese. I've just emailed ours to see if they'll send it to me on a spreadsheet. Oddly, the membership data is published on the Parish Share pages, I don't know if anyone with a mission hat on ever looks at it!