Yesterday the Church of England published its attendance statistics for 2011. The accompanying press release has done it’s best to put a positive gloss on the figures talking in particular about a 14.5% increase from the previous year in attendance at Christmas services, reaching a total of 2,618,030. Christenings are up 4.3%, adult baptisms are up 5% and thanksgivings for the birth of a child posted an 11.9% increase. Then we get on to the figures where small or zero levels of decline are actually seen as good news: Average Weekly Attendance nationally fell by less than half of one per cent (0.3%) to 1,091,484, which represents a stabilising of average weekly attendance figures. Almost half of the Church of England’s regional areas saw growth in Church attendance, with 20 out of 44 dioceses showing increases. Better news was that nationally there was a 1.2% increase in children and young people attending to 216,928.
I could go into this in more detail, but Archbishop Cranmer and Rev David Keen have jumped in more quickly than I have been able to and have provided some excellent analysis, so rather than repeating what they’ve said already, it’s better to point you in their direction to get a feel for the bigger picture.
Despite the generally positive headline figures, the graphs included in the report show a continued overall decline in church attendance, albeit at a slower rate than we’ve seen in previous years and decades.
It’s easy to draw the conclusion as some commentators have, that the Church of England is in terminal decline and that the recent numbers have just suggested that it may take longer than expected. Of course this viewpoint has been around for plenty of years, but the C of E is still here. It may be smaller in size, but that doesn’t mean its life is ebbing away.
Church attendance is a good raw indicator to establish the health of a church. Decline usually indicates there is a problem, but reading too much into the surface statistics will never give an accurate picture of what is going on. There are a couple of pieces of evidence in the report that indicate that the church is unlikely to run out of steam any time soon. The electoral roll (church membership) table reveals that in the majority of dioceses, church membership is on a slow downward trend, but there are exceptions, the most striking of which is in London where in the last 15 years Church of England membership has risen from 52,000 to 77,000. That’s a massive 48% increase. It may be the exception, but it shows that some of the London churches must be doing something right. There is a strong likelihood that the bigger and more successful churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton are boosting the figures through rapid increases in attendance. Much of the Church of England, rather than being content to manage a slow decline, could do well to take a long look at why London is far outperforming other parts of the country and aim to see what they can learn from the churches there. Church decline isn’t inevitable, but if you believe that it is then those beliefs will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The other statistic that has failed to attract much attention is the number of adults being confirmed.
This proportion of total confirmations has been increasing over the last decade. More adults were confirmed in 2011 than in the previous year. It is significant because it demonstrates an increase in the number of people becoming Christians or recommitting to the Christian faith within the context of the C of E. Church of England tradition expects that children will be baptised as infants and then confirmed at some point in their teens. If through lapsed attendance or lack of interest they miss confirmation they are unlikely to receive it later on in life unless they return to church with a living Christian faith that they want to publicly declare. For those who have not grown up within a church environment, they have absolutely no reason to be confirmed unless they have a conversion experience at some point and become part of a church community. This flies in the face of the assumption that the number of Christians is decreasing. The quantity of church attenders may be going down, but that doesn’t mean that the quality of those attending is, so to speak. Those who continue to attend church are much more likely to be fully committed to their faith and that isn’t a bad thing at all.
One final thought. After Jesus returned to Heaven it says in Acts that his followers numbered about 120. After three years of ministry including plenty of miracles, a death and resurrection, you would expect Jesus to have done much better than hold on to just 120 followers. If there were newspapers at the time, they wouldn’t have had much hope of his band of disciples achieving anything, in fact they would more likely have predicted that Jesus would have no followers left after a few years. From a worldly, rational point of view, this would have made sense. As we know, though, things turned out very differently. God doesn’t often work in a way that fits with a rational way of thinking. He’s not into the numbers game. If he was, Jesus wouldn’t have told people that: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ It’s not a vote winning strategy. Certainly the Church doesn’t want to have congregations shrivelling up and dying off, but its focus should be on spreading the Good News of Jesus and discipling those who choose to make a commitment to give their lives to him.
Obsessing over declining numbers should be left to those who don’t see the church as anything more than a cultural institution and have failed to realise that counting bums on seats isn’t and has never been the primary way of judging the success and relevance of the Church. There are still plenty of genuine reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Church.