An official statement by the Church of England describes the work as “flawed and dangerously misleading”, whilst Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops’ Council, is quoted as saying the statistics “are incomplete and represent only a partial picture of religious trends in the UK today.”
As it happens, Benita Hewitt, the new director of the Christian Research Association which produced the original report, has described Ruth Gledhill’s article as itself being “very misleading.” Others, however, including Lynda Barley, believe that the true picture is actually positive. She says,
“These figures take no account of the rapid growth in ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiatives that are drawing thousands back to church. Nor, being based purely on numbers in church buildings on Sundays, do they take account of the thousands joining the Church through ‘fresh expressions’ initiatives meeting in other places, on other days.”
So what it the truth? Is the Church headed for extinction, or is Lynda Barley’s optimism justified when she observes not only that there are “more than 1.7 million people worshipping in a Church of England church or cathedral each month” but claims there is “no reason to believe that this will drop significantly in the next decade”?
The first thing to point out is that the CRA’s predictions, such as they are, concern all the churches in the UK, not just the Church of England. Thus even if Barley’s confidence is entirely justified, that doesn’t mean the overall situation is rosy. However, there are reasons to believe that even the picture she gives of the CofE reflects, if not spin, a certain amount of wishful-thinking.
Back to Church Sunday, for example, whilst it certainly draws thousands on the day, has nothing like a hundred per cent retention rate over the following weeks. Similarly, it needs to be asked what exactly is represented by the ‘thousands’ she refers to as ‘joining the Church’ through ‘fresh expressions’ initiatives. According to her own figures, the monthly total of worshippers has actually “remained stable since 2000”, which would suggest that if ‘thousands’ are indeed joining the Church at other points, replacement of the core membership is currently offset by losses.
Moreover, there are other factors to take into account in assessing the strength and likely future of the churches. It may be encouraging, for example, to point to the success of some of the ‘fresh expressions’ initiatives. However, my own suggestion would be that the core strength of churches across the country is represented by those who attend conventional Sunday services. In particular, my guess is that these are the people who provide the financial backbone of the churches’ work in every denomination.
I would guess, furthermore, that it is predominantly from this group of people that other initiatives are spawned, lay helpers and officers are recruited, and new clergy called. In most instances, these will be the people who are most involved in the churches’ governing structures — their committees, synods, councils and so on — which ultimately determine mission strategies. If that is the case — and it might be a good use of the Church of England’s own resources to find out whether or not this is so — then Sunday attendance remains critical to the health of the churches.
Another factor to take into account, however, is age demographics, and especially its impact on building maintenance. Here in Ugley, due to the age of our core congregation, we have been running hard for the last eight years simply to stand still in terms of membership. New, and younger, people have joined, but we are scarcely larger than a decade ago, and that raises questions about viability. As Robin Gill has shown in his work on ‘the Empty Church’ (The Myth of the Empty Church and The Empty Church Revisited), a critical factor in determining the demise of many independent churches is the point at which repair bills become too great for the existing congregation. Up until that point, congregations can soldier on with a band of faithful members, showing little change over a number of years. It is the big repair bill which suddenly moves such a church from slow decline to sudden closure. (See this typical example which I happen to know of personally, though here a ‘rebuild’ may be an option.)
Generally, the Church of England has been insulated against these building closures, when compared with independents. One of the reasons is that the CofE can draw on a wide base of local sympathy when raising funds for repairs. As many of us know from experience, faced with the choice of losing the local vicar or the local ‘church’, many communities will opt for the former rather than the latter. However, it must be doubted whether such support can be relied on for the next forty years or more, and this may have a similarly ‘catastrophic’ effect on the Anglican church in that time (update: see this article, 'One in five churches faces being lost', here).
In deeply rural communities, the average Anglican church has quite literally a handful of regular worshippers — just four or five on a given Sunday. Even in a commuter area like that around Ugley, five years ago one in five local Anglican churches had fewer than ten people in them on any given Sunday. Imagine what decisions would have to be made in a Deanery of thirty-plus churches like ours, if, say, half a dozen with congregations in single figures were faced with repair bills they simply could not meet. It is easy to say those buildings should be closed, but how would this be achieved, what would happen to the buildings themselves, and would this not finally represent a ‘retreat from the countryside’ parallel to the independent churches’ ‘retreat from the city’ so often criticized by the Church of England?
Meanwhile, the other thing the institutional churches have in common, by and large, is an absence of any institutional intention to grow. There is much praise for ‘fresh expressions’, or whatever the denominational equivalent may be, but there is no deliberate, coordinated, intentional plan or strategy for growth such as that envisaged by the Church of England’s 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England (scroll down this blog for links to extracts from the report). Until that happens, whilst it is by no means certain the Church in this country will die, it is absolutely certain it will not see growth of the kind needed to reach millions destined for a godless eternity with the gospel of salvation.
Revd John P Richardson
9 May 2008
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