What are we to make of the latest statistics from the Church of England?
For a long time, the focus has been on attendance, and in this respect the Church continues its decline —more gently than perhaps in previous years, but nevertheless apparently inexorably. We are now below the million mark for usual Sunday attendance, a figure which used to be regarded in rather the same way as the £1 litre of petrol.
There is, however, something important not revealed in the raw data of attendance, which is that a hugely disproportionate number of attendees belong to a very small number of (mostly evangelical) churches. Time does not allow me to dig out more recent data, but according to the Christian Research Association, in ad 2000, 44% of Anglican churchgoers attended just 11% of Anglican churches.
Certainly, more recent work from the CRA, whose quarterly bulletin I receive, supports these findings. (NB, this URL may change soon and refers to the September 2007 edition of Quadrant.) Moreover, there is a disparity between ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ churches, with the latter declining numerically more rapidly than the former. However, much of this effect can be accounted for by non-white church attenders, particularly in London.
In general, then, it is certain that the overall 2% decline revealed by the latest figures is by no means spread evenly across the country or across the Church of England. I simply do not know whether the Church’s statistical unit would be able to isolate factors like ‘churchmanship’, but it certainly does collect data on racial background, so it would be able to give some idea of what these figures mean in detail.
The other feature of these statistics of particular interest relates to the clergy. The Church of England actually has an extraordinary number of workers: one for every 2,500 citizens when every licensed minister is included! It also ordains a remarkable number of people on an annual basis: 505 in 2005 and 478 in 2006. A further 594 people were recommended for ordination in 2005.
Once again, however, the raw figures conceal a mixed picture. More women than men were ordained in 2006 (244 compared with 234), but the majority were ordained to non-stipendiary ministry, including 149 of the women.
This is, of course, one of the reason why women are ‘under-represented’ in the Church hierarchy. If one asks how many male NSMs have gone on to become archdeacons or cathedral deans, the answer would undoubtedly be few, if any. The implication that women are being discriminated against in regard to appointments currently open to them may not, therefore, necessarily stand up to scrutiny.
(In Chelmsford, specifically, it is perhaps also worth noting that of the 37 full time diocesan clergy shed between 2004 and 2006, 36 were men!)
Overall, however, the number of ordinations per year of stipendiary male clergy has fallen steadily over the last twelve years, by almost 50%, from 244 to 128. Meanwhile, the number of stipendiary women has scarcely increased by anything like the same amount, rising by just over 30%, from 72 to 95. In fact, from a peak of 120 in 2003, the number of women ordained to stipendiary posts has fallen steadily, and is now down 20% on that figure!
By contrast, the number of non-stipendiary men ordained each year has risen from 55 to just 82 in the same period, up 33%, whereas the number of non-stipendiary women has risen by 250%, from 34 to 118.
Of course, any increase in the Church’s ministry ought to be welcomed. However, a 2002 study commissioned from the Christian Research Association by Cost of Conscience showed that women clergy were demonstrably more theologically liberal than their male counterparts.
Thus the statement ‘I believe Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world’ was ‘confidently asserted’ by 76% of male clergy, but only 65% in women clergy. Again, Jesus as the only way to salvation was asserted by 53% of male clergy but only 39% of female clergy. Confidence in the bodily resurrection of Christ divided 68%, and 53% between male and female clergy, and confidence in the Virgin Birth divided 58% and 33%.
Given the extent to which some voices in the Anglican Communion say that the only ‘Covenant’ we need is baptism and the historic creeds, these figures are distinctly alarming across the board, but (it has to be said) particularly as regards women.
More recent research by CRA has supported the same conclusion, which means that the ministry of the Church of England is steadily becoming more liberal, even as its membership is becoming more evangelical!
An indirect result of this shift is that the governing bodies of the Church of England are also becoming more liberal. Women promoted to senior clergy posts will presumably reflect the theological trends amongst their sisters. But another easily-overlooked effect is that it becomes steadily more difficult for conservative clergy to be elected to diocesan synods or to General Synod as the ‘electoral college’ for these bodies will tend to exclude them.
A shrinking church is thus being increasingly staffed and governed by clergy whose ranks are constantly swelled by people from that wing of the church whose theological outlook is least conducive to resisting decline.
In short, numbers are going down, yet the recruitment policy of the Church of England seems calculated to increase this trend.
Rev John P Richardson
13 November 2007
Update: For more comment on these statistics, see also 'Where have all the young men gone?'
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