Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Last Chance To See...... Church of England Membership and Attendance Stats 2019

 The Church of England has published its latest 'Statistics for Mission' for 2019, links to the various documents - press release, Excel spreadsheets (did 16,000 members drop off the end?) etc. can be found here. You'll find analysis of previous years stats here

The more upbeat the press release, and the further you have to go before it mentions church membership and attendance, the worse you know it's going to be. This year is no exception. After making a great deal of social action and digital engagement it's paragraph 15 of 16 before we discover that attendance was down a further 2% from the previous year. Here are the figures for 'Adult Weekly Attendance' (average no of adults attending worship each week) for the last 5 years. 


And here are figure over the same period for children:


Hereford has seen an increase from 1000 to 1300 during the 5 years the stats cover. Otherwise, the overall picture among under-18s is worse than it is among adults. 

I've been keeping track of these stats, inspired by Bob Jackson, as far back as they go. A few years ago, church growth enthusiasts like myself were encouraged to see London Diocese bucking the trend, and hoping that where the capital led, the country would follow. Sadly not, here's the stats since the beginning of the century - as you can see above, London is now on the same trajectory as everyone else: 

This is a catastrophic decline. The Church of England now is where the Methodists were a few years ago (305,000 members in 2003, 170,000 now), and the URC a few years before that. The figures for children, as always, are worse: 

There is a generational feed through into other church activity - we are baptising 9% of children, marrying 17% of couples getting married, and taking the funerals of 25% of those who die. Each of these is down 30-40% over the last 10 years, and there is a clear progression through the generations. 

The report does find some good news - over 90,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2019, with a significant proportion being first time church members



10% of parishes are reporting growth, but 4x the number report statistically significant decline. Overall growing churches are still a tiny minority, but some new churches have been planted - 90 recorded in the stats, who have seen their membership more than double since 2016. 

Finally, I'm always interested in this chart, which gives a fascinating cross-section of what the 'average' church looks like:


Translation: the top 5% of churches have an average weekly congregation of 185 or more, of which 1/6 are children. A church exactly in the middle of the 16000 Anglican churches in terms of size has 31, of which 6% - 2 - are children. The largest churches have a larger 'fringe' of non-members, sustainable numbers of children and youth, and enough people to comfortably fill the building. The one upside of social distancing is that the smaller churches can still meet as a whole congregation, since there's plenty of room in the average church for 20 people to sit on their own at the same time. 

By accident rather than design, the Church of England has ended up with a Tesco structure. Tesco has a small number of 'Tesco Extra' megastores (Cathedrals), about 15% of its outlets are 'Tesco Superstore' (large church, kids and youth work, several outreach projects, sizeable fringe), there's a few 'Tesco Metro' stores which are scaled down versions of the superstores (75th percentile churches), but 3/4 are either Tesco Express or One Stop, small corner shop versions, providing local access to a core selection of produce. The management, logistics and life of a megastore is very different to that of Tesco Express, though they all carry the same branding, and some shared products. 

Here's the thing. Half of our churches, 8000 of them, have 26 adults or fewer on a Sunday. If you had 26 people to form a Christian presence in a community, you wouldn't start from here. You wouldn't have a listed building which costs thousands to heat and insure. You wouldn't have the protocols for running the church written into law. You wouldn't have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there's barely anyone there who isn't there because they're on a rota. You wouldn't open an Anglican Extra, you'd have an Anglican Express. In fact, you probably wouldn't open a building at all. 

Covid will make the figures for 2020 such a mess that there probably isn't any point collecting them, and 2021 may not be much better. As many have observed, it is accelerating changes that were already happening. Businesses on the edge are shutting down. Trends towards online shopping have increased. What does that mean for the church? There is nothing in the stats to suggest that we are about to turn a corner. Or if we are, it's turning in the opposite direction to the one we want. There are islands - many islands (1600 according to the stats) of growth, many others holding their own, and making a life-changing contribution to local individuals and communities. 

But. But...... the parish system hasn't changed since it was introduced towards the end of the Dark Ages. The overall structure of the CofE hasn't changed for a century. The buildings we operate on haven't changed for (insert your own figure here). The structure of deployment, church life, legal framework seems set in concrete. Witness the absurd debate about communion since lockdown. Don't get me started. 

Maybe the Bishops should have shut us down for longer at the start of covid. Because we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Any church that doesn't have a life without it's building, or its Sunday gathering, has been so shaped by them that it has ceased to be a church. Instead of hanging on until we could re-open, maybe 12 months of 'being church' without 'the church' would have done us some good, if we'd allowed it to shape us. For many of our folk it was a break: suddenly the small army of people involved on a Sunday morning could forget the rota, roll out of bed, make a coffee and switch on Youtube. Sure it's great to involve people, but we pour so many resources into worship, and the building and professional caste that make it happen, that there's precious little energy, time and money left for anything else. 

The church in its present form will have to die. It is dying. It's slow and drawn out because we don't have the nerve, or the structures, to make clear and painful decisions. Political debate today is dominated by whether we need a 'circuit breaker' lockdown. I'd argue the CofE needs the same. Shut everything. Pray and seek God. Stop wasting energy, lives and talent on a structure and system which, in most places, no longer works.

25 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this brilliant analysis! This is much the most valuable contribution to the debate that I have seen published to date.

    I do think that it would be worth undertaking a review of attendance this October, absent a further lockdown. I appreciate that virtual attendance (i.e., the number of hits on Youtube, for example) is not necessarily a useful marker of commitment or worship, since many may join for just a few seconds or minutes. A tally of Zoom attendance might be more satisfactory.

    What I have noticed is that a quite sizable number of churches have no provision for worship, whether real or virtual. I did a survey of south Oxfordshire recently, and provision of any kind is patchy.

    The rapid fall in attendance seems to me to be a function of the heavy demographic weighting of attendees in their 80s and 90s. I have been to so many churches, even in urban areas, where the youngest people are in their 70s. Relative affluence often makes little difference: much of the home counties (supposedly the final redoubt of the Church) is afflicted with dangerously low levels of attendance. I have attended services in much the greater part of Somerset, and enfeebled congregations are almost universal, though I have sometimes been agreeably surprised: I had not expected full houses at Brockley, Charlton Adam, Elworthy (CCT), Montacute, Orchardleigh or Stoke Pero, for example (though local factors were at stake: Orchardleigh alternates with Luckington; Stoke Pero - along with Charterhouse on Mendip and Raddington the loneliest church in the diocese - only has services in the summer, etc.).

    The only places where 'successful' churches (i.e., churches which have a respectable critical mass *and* and healthy demographic spread) can be found is in affluent dormitory suburbs, and in certain university towns. Attendees at these churches are overwhelmingly white and middle class. That is it, really. The Church is practically extinct in most of the countryside.

    You are right about the Tesco model, and the unsuitability of structures inherited from previous generations. These are quite unsustainable. I had thought that the Church could reconfigure itself to preserve its much-vaunted presence in every community, but I now feel that the virus has snuffed out that final, flickering opportunity. The impact of the virus on the Church will be devastating and, I fear, permanent.

    The question is therefore how the local Church can be reconstituted to realise economies of scale, and to slough off the millstone of its 'built heritage'. I do feel, strongly, that the buildings should be retained for public benefit (and hopefully with a small residuum of Christian witness), since local buildings have been funded by past local contributions and taxes. The manner in which the virus will have accelerated the collapse of the Church makes disestablishment irresistible. Previous disestablishments in this country have been associated with concurrent disendowment. I still feel that the Commissioners, whose assets at the start of this year were £8.7bn, could be partially disendowed and the built stock vested in a trust, the appropriated funds being used for maintenance. The Church would then be liberated both from its stock and from the accretion of the often pointless legislation and bureaucracy which is associated with its pretensions to establishment, and can concentrate on its primary purpose.

    A wider concern is that if the stock is sloughed off, how can the Church avoid becoming an echo chamber for white, middle class evangelicals? Whatever happens, it must have a broader appeal to other demographics. A more profound worry is the perception that the Church has almost nothing to say to the vast majority of the population, or can offer little or nothing which the vast majority really values.

    Anyway, thank you so much for this cogent, valuable, thoughtful and refreshing analysis!

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    1. I would gently suggest that without the attractions of establishment that lead evangelicals to consider the CofE to be the best boat to fish from their dominance would soon cease.

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  2. Thank you for your work on this David, it is much appreciated. Need I add that I agree with your commentary?!

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  3. Thanks Sam!

    On the 'boats to fish from', I'm pretty sure the CofE is seen that way by catholics and liberals too. And there are plenty of evangelicals who would favour disestablishment, some have been arguing for it for decades. Personally, and as one of those dreadful white middle class evangelicals, I'm more and more convinced it's a bullet we'll have to bite sooner or later, it's part of the weight of heritage which is slowly burying us.

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    1. I too am in this demographic! However, it has been my experience that the Church simply isn't making any headway with anyone much outside that demographic kraal. Too many of the successful churches in places like Wimbledon or Dorking or Sevenoaks struck me as being private clubs for the same people who would mix, and marry, the same sort of other people. I appreciate that many of the reasons for this are historic and are not easily soluble. I also appreciate that this 'caricature' does not apply everywhere, including in your part of Yeovil. Of course, I am sure that many of these 'middle class' churches are indeed trying to break out of that demographic, but I see relatively few signs of success, and one of the main issues I have with Bishopsgate it is that it is generally planting only where it can be assured of a 'return', which invariably means well-heeled communities; HTB, to their credit, are being braver.

      As to disestablishment, I swung several years ago from being violently in favour to vehemently against. As these statistics prove beyond any shadow of doubt, the situation is so drastic that any pretensions to establishment actually risk doing harm to the Church. They make it relatively more likely that disestablishment would occur on hostile terms. Far better to strike a deal with the state now, which gives the Church some future leeway.

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  4. I note, David, that you have based much of your analysis on "average weekly attendance". I am suspicious of this measure, and suspect that it was invented to make the figures look better. A far better measure is "average Sunday attendance". This is something that can be quantified simply by counting, whereas average weekly attendance requires some judgement about about the numbers that attend one, two or three times per week.
    If one looks at average Sunday attendance, the decline between 2018 and 2019 is 3.2%. I estimate that this gives a half life of about 25 years, by which time the median attendance will be about 12. That would surely mean that half of the current 16,000 churches would have to close.
    I would be interested in your comments

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    1. Thankyou for commenting - you're probably partly right about AWA, but with a significant chunk of the workforce unable to get to church on Sunday for work commitments, it may give a more realistic picture of committed church membership. Prior to lockdown, we had 3 services happening on other days of the week to Sunday, each of which had a mixture of Sunday regulars and people for whom it was the only service they came to. The same goes for our midweek cell groups. I don't think there is a single stat which is 'pure', but since I've been using AWA for as long as I've been doing these tables, it's probably a bit late to switch measures now! Bob Jacksons analysis was mostly based on Usual Sunday Attendance. The trouble is, wherever the CofE goes for statistics, they all point the same way, though at slightly different rates.

      The thing is, if your church is composed (as many are) entirely of retired people, there is no practical reason why you shouldn't meet some other time of the week, rather than Sunday. I appreciate the theological reasons, but the multi-parish benefice which insists that all services are on a Sunday morning is shooting itself in the foot, and making terrible use of it's main staffing resource (the vicar).

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  5. Thanks for this analysis David, It is worth noting in the context of your initial paragraphs that the "2020 digital report" was released on the same day. This is relentlessly upbeat - but the numbers bear very little examination: I would suggest they are actually disappointing given the closure of churches for Covid..... It's hard not to be cynical about this. Revnelli@aol.com

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  6. We could also really do with some more detailed analysis within Dioceses. The report mentions 10% of growing churches. How many of them manage to sustain that? The maths of Parish Share payments in our Diocese, with most churches declining, means that a growing church will pay an ever-increasing Parish Share, which grows at a faster rate than membership + inflation. Eventually, the sheer maths means that a growing church will have to start making cuts to pay Parish Share, or divert energy into fundraising that it used to give to the things which made it grow.

    The depressing logic is that every growing church will eventually become a declining one, and if it doesn't decline due to the maths, then the enforced vacancy of a year in senior leadership (aka 'interregnum) will certainly do for it. I looked at the Bath and Wells figures 2 years ago, of the 12 churches with over 200 members, 5 had grown and 7 had shrunk over the year. Of the 7 shrinkers, 5 had been in vacancy for some or all of the year in question. https://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2018/12/church-membership-patterns-in-bath-and.html

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    1. The logic of remarks strikes me as being irrefutable. Thank you.

      However, this is to suppose that the parish share - a comparatively recent innovation - should be the model for Church finance.

      We ought to bear in mind why the parish share came into existence: (i) it was a reaction (perhaps an excessive reaction) to the blunders of the Lovelock years, taking the Church from one extreme (the Commissioners covering everything) to another (the Commissioners covering only past accruals, bishops and cathedrals); and (ii) it was intended to prevent deprived parishes from losing clerical provision.

      What has been the effect of 22 years' of the parish share? As you note, it has functioned as an increasing tax on success, as 'growing' parishes are dragged down by the increasingly long ball-and-chain of failing parishes. However, it has also prevented middling parishes from investing in growth, or else has frustrated declining parishes from rehabilitating themselves. Would the long tail have been as long if many parishes had been able to retain and invest capital for their own operations which has been appropriated by DBFs for parish share purposes? As the same time almost nothing has been done to relieve the dioceses by, say, trimming the final salary defined benefit scheme.

      Cui bono? Well, not the dioceses, who have been liable for all post-1997 accruals, and in the context of net negative real interest rates (i.e., no compounding) and highly uneven stock market returns. Certainly not the parishes, for the reasons given. Instead, the Commissioners' assets have grown from £2.4bn in 1998 to £8.7bn now. The parish share, then, operates as a highly regressive tax: (i) 'growing' churches are penalised for their growth; and (ii) struggling churches are deprived of their chance of resurrection. All parishes are having to siphon valuable capital to the centre to pay for the past (DB pensions) and the privileged (higher clergy), but also to allow the Commissioners to accumulate capital, morbidly, so that they can congratulate themselves on their outstanding performance, rain or shine. But with this set-up, how could they fail?

      I simply do not think there would have been nearly so many 'shrinkers' had the parish base as a whole been denuded of capital as it has been. The whole system of Church finance is entirely about face. The £8.7bn fund is not a source of congratulation; it should be s source of shame.

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  7. I am a Catholic in my 30's and the CofE seems to have long since lost the spirit.

    The Catholic Church is stronger in most UK cities than the Anglican Church, I realise this is mainly down to demographics...however, however.....there is a strength in clinging close to the Gospel and close to Christ that I don't sense in Anglicanism.
    I sense it in Orthodoxy and in Protestantism and of course in Catholicism.

    Obviously this is very big picture stuff and doesn't help the CofE right now, but I hope and pray that your Church begins to strip away some of the weights dragging it to the bottom of the lake before it is too late.

    A weak Anglican Church does Catholicism no good as it is the Body of Christ to which we all belong.

    Too many parishes, too many cavernous Churches where "God has left the building", too many rotas!



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    1. Many thanks to your opinion. I'm not an usual on this site. I have heard of it today from a comment on Thinking Anglicans about the CofE statistics... I'm a Catholic too, but living in Portugal.

      Surely how I understand you... In places where Catholicism has been a minority, it is going quite well these days... Let us to keep the cultural wars apart. In places where Catholicism is the majority like here in Portugal, we have had the same, if not worse declines on our Catholic communities on the last 30 years or so. To say the least, being in my mid 40's I'm usually among the youngest individuals in all the parishes I use to visit, both in urban or rural areas alike.

      The pandemic has only intensified a faith crisis that has long ago been predicted and started...

      Holly Mother of Fátima Shrine is declaring a decline in donations on the last 2 years, that has aggravated with the pandemic. 50 employees will be fired or to get early retirement. They're also trying to see if there are areas on where they can go from professional to voluntary work... And that is just the beginning...

      No matter what, progressive or conservative, Christianity is going down. Lots of unhappy individuals remaining here and there... But, unfortunately and with very few honorable exceptions no one on the powers that be are paying attention to that... At least Pope Francis is doing the best of what he can... But, alone?

      In some 10 years term almost half of our parishes here in Portugal will be closed, or minimally hold sometimes without a priest. It is sad, but things are what they are. Mergers have long ago started. My own Baptism parish is now merged with a larger neighbor parish... And I can go on... Apart a few radical upper middle class uber conservative parishes and some ones led by the Missionary Orders nothing of relevant flourishes here...

      I'm one of the very unhappy ones here... Curiously; while being historically a very tiny minority, on the last 15 years or so, the Anglicans here are making their best to become the last resemblance of what a decent and vibrant Christian community should be. Yes they are declining too in certain areas, but there is a young generation of them in certain areas whom, with the help of a few Brazilian women priests are starting to build something somewhat relevant here. A happy community with interesting people led by even more interesting people... That is somewhat saving the emptiness I can see on almost all my Catholic communities... Unfortunately, It good to see them on the Ecumenical services we put together from time to time...

      Have a nice day!

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  8. David, such great analysis as ever - thank you! We have not reopened yet and it is doing us so good! Breaking dependency on buildings clergy and Sunday. We have gone for mid size communities. It's taken a few months but you can really see both growth in maturity and numbers. I am quite taken aback tbh, though I knew in theory that's what would happen.

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  9. Hi David, astute as ever ! I am with you all the way untill your final paragraph about buildings. Yes they can be a dreadful bind and a distraction from the things that matter but they are also, at best, a unique tool for mission. People are drawn to sacred spaces, the 'otherness' of them and the rituals that happen within them do offer hope, solace and wonder. I know we shouldn't be pouring all our resources into them but they are a national treasure (and probably should be cared for by the National Trust) but to cast thier value aside in our desire to reach people for Christ is to throw the baby out with the bath water IMHO.PS....we are a growing church btw 40% adults 150% kids in 3 years , what's going to kill us is the every increasing demmand for more Parish share.This part of the system is entirely defunct and needs a total overhaul....don't get me started on that one ! Best wishes !

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    1. What's the alternative to parish share, Anna? I can think of a few, but most of them are not great - eg. churches pay for their own clergy, if they can afford to.

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    2. Ender's Shadow22/10/20 1:06 pm

      The first reform of the parish share should be to present it as a 'request for subsidy' in parishes which don't pay the full cost (about 50k per full time priest) of their clergy. If parishioners heard that they were getting subsidised by others, rather than whinging at the parish share, they would be far more grateful! Note that this is merely a matter of presentation, requiring only a change of attitude by dioceses and clarity by parishes.

      The next stage is to encourage churches to take ownership of their deficit (i.e. the amount of their subsidy) and start asking hard questions about whether they should be getting that much subsidy...

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  10. I object to this on behalf of myself and fellow officials... "You wouldn't have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there's barely anyone there who isn't there because they're on a rota". I am sure I am speaking for all of us when I say that we are rher because we want to be, and we care enough about our church and being a Christian presence in our community to take on the jobs that are there to be done.

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    1. My apologies, that was clumsily expressed. Though we did have a service of Evening Prayer which once was exactly like this, and when we talked to everyone who came it was almost 100% because they felt they ought to be there.

      Our experience in lockdown, especially before going back into church buildings, was that a 'virtual' Sunday service could be done without any of those jobs being done. How much time, energy and skill, from people who - as you say - care about the church and a Christian presence in the community - is poured into that 1 hour per week which could be employed elsewhere, and perhaps with more effect?

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  11. Hmmm. Well I do not deny the changes we are facing and the need for renewed structured. But since this is where we find ourselves and this is where we are trying to make a difference, is it really any help to say 'you should be starting somewhere else'?

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  12. Hi David. So many questions! EG: If the problem is that "we pour so many resources into worship, and the building and professional caste that make it happen", aren't those exactly the things you need to do in order to maintain a membership-focussed church? In which case, is worrying about membership maybe the wrong thing to do anyway?

    Also - the Tesco model works really well for Tesco (as a business, they wouldn't run it if it didn't). So assuming the analogy is a good one, maybe we should embrace that model?

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  13. Thank you so much for this. I like the Tesco analogy, I know some won't like the corporate business model metaphor, however local Tesco Express outlets have flexibility to stock what's needed/wanted locally and can creatively support local community endeavours as the manager sees fit, whilst having the structural support of the national brand and other local outlets.

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  14. Thank you for this, David. I agree, and am not surprised that the responses are mixed. The problem lies in the institutional inertia of an established church that couldn't fix the parish system even if it wanted to without Act of Parliament, and probably disestablishment. It probably means that the emerging church will take root in the wreckage of the old, and alongside it. It's happening, by the grace of God. I most strongly agree with you about small congregations in big heritage buildings. The vicarage front room would be a good place of desert travel to the new.

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  15. Ender's Shadow22/10/20 1:15 pm

    I live in an urban area with absurd numbers of CofE buildings of minimal merit architecturally. Yet they continue to summon ever smaller numbers of people to their service.

    After over 50 years in the CofE, my local parish's collapse into the inclusivist agenda and other things forced me to abandon it for the local 'New Frontiers' instance. We are a growing church - yes, of middle class young families, though definitely not all white - looking for larger venues.

    I'm hoping that sense will prevail and the present bishop will decide to be known as a closer of church buildings, rather than one who is succumbs to the easy route of 'keeping the show on the road' for the duration of his ministry. Sadly the odds are not looking good.

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  16. I think the general quality of research and analysis into the way people are engaging with church is deeply inadequate. 'Attendance' is one metric, of course - an important one. But it is the bluntest of instruments. It's shocking, for example, that there isn't research into to what type of people are leaving and why - what sort of spiritual / religious character are they? What are their greatest reasons? Where are they going? Are we systematically listening to these people? Have we systematically asked 'Why?' (more than what is in Fig 1b on p11 - although you can see that the greatest 'cause' of leaving is 'death' - which in itself tells you something about the demographic spread already in the church). The same question might be asked to those who stay - "Why are you here?" I know these questions are often asked at an individual level - we love to listen individually. We love to be pastoral. Ethnographic study has been all the rage. But the plural of anecdote - no matter how many anecdotes there are - is not evidence. Another quip - "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" - is also very apt here. The appropriate response to 'bad, simplistic research and analysis' isn't 'no research and analysis' but better, richer, more holistic research and analysis. And research (which I take to be 'listening sincerely at scale') does not mean chasing after growth. It means seeking a rich understanding of the people whom we're supposed to love and serve. Growth is a pleasant side-effect of loving.

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  17. Ender's Shadow23/10/20 12:32 am

    '24% of those confirmed were aged under 12' (the report p.19)

    Nuts. This means that vast numbers of children are still being machined into being done with no real engagement with what it's about. I bet that the vast majority of those won't be in church 6 years later.

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