One of the things I am doing at the moment is chairing the Saffron Walden Deanery Church Growth Task Group - a bit of a mouthful, but it was set up in the context of establishing our 'Deanery Vision' to come up with practical suggestions as to how to increase Sunday church attendance.
In general, it has been a positive exercise, but in preparation for this week's Synod meeting, I sought to update the initial figures we started with when establishing our 'base line' for growth. These were derived from the annual 'Statistics for Mission' submitted by each congregation. Previously I had the figures for what is called 'Normal Sunday Attendance', for the years 2001-2006. I have since been able to add the figures for 2008 (as yet, I've not got hold of the 2007 figures).
My reaction when I saw the apparent decline was to go back and double check the figures for 2006. Sadly, they turned out to be correct.
As a caveat, I have to point out that these figures do not include every congregation, and therefore are not an 'absolute' total for the whole Deanery. There are also variations in the ways that congregations establish and submit these figures, which means that they are difficult to compare between different churches. However, I have assumed they will remain reasonably consistent within the same congregation over the (relatively) short span of eight years.
The graph does not make happy viewing! I did suggest that we might be turning a corner, if it turns out that 2007 was actually lower than 2008, but I suspect this is unlikely. The truth is, we are quite possibly seeing a predictable sharp decline due to the bias towards the 65+ age group in our congregations. Intriguingly, the biggest losses have actually been amongst the biggest congregations -but there is no obvious reason why this might be so.
I am not saying from this 'we're all doomed'. I am saying the church in our area could be in real trouble very shortly - not least because declining membership results in declining income. And trouble here spells trouble for the rest of the diocese since, because we are rated as a 'rich' area, our parish shares are proportionately higher than in other parts of the diocese, which therefore rely, to some extent, on giving from areas like our own. If we cannot meet our payments, we are not the only ones to suffer.
The Diocese of Chelmsford has just told us that it has to lose 47 stipendiary clergy by 2016 - one of whom will be from our area. As things are going, we will soon have just four conglomerations of parishes (either that, or, as someone else cynically put it at the Synod, there will be just one big Parish of Essex). The smallest will be ourselves with three, and the largest Saffron Walden itself, with over a dozen. These will be run by maybe no more than half-a-dozen stipendiary clergy and probably the same number of non-stipendiaries.
I passionately believe we could overcome the challenges this brings, but we need to be allowed three things: first, the authority to start our own initiatives, using lay people to lead services and to preach and teach; secondly, the ability to raise and disburse funds locally; thirdly, the ability to recruit and deploy locally our own church workers (whether lay or ordained).
So long as we remain tied to a central authority which insists on controlling local strategy, we will continue to be frustrated in our hopes and efforts.
15 October 2009
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