Thursday, 15 October 2009

Going down: the 'inexorable' decline of rural churchgoing?

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.

John Richardson
15 October 2009

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  1. Well it's clear to me that the decline set in in 2005 when I left the deanery.

  2. "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)."

    Very much with you on the overall sentiment but we're doing 1 and 3 anyway, how come you're not??

  3. Sam, on 1 you'd have to speak to local clergy and the Area Bishop, on 3, diocesan policy seems to be to reduce the number of clergy and redeploy NSMs.

  4. Sam, on 1, just to be a bit more specific, we have in our parishes a lay-preacher (not a lay reader) scheme which was authorized by the last Bishop of Chelmsford but two (so Waine, as I recall).

    When we had our recent review of our parish profile with the bishop and archdeacon, I did not get the impression this was greeted with enthusiasm. Instead, we were reminded that there were also 'lay readers' around. Furthermore, there has been a discouragement to use them to preach in other parishes than our own.

    This, is seems to me, is a clinging to the old ways and a rejection of the new, mainly, I feel, due to the 'uncontrollable' nature of the latter.

  5. Surely you should be closing a few church buildings and spending the money on stipendiaries?

    I estimate that one stipendiary costs about the same as two churches. In my diocese (Gloucester) half of the churches have an attendance of under 25. If that is true across England, we should be closing thousands of churches, spending the money saved on paid workers of various kinds.

    How are people converted or discipled - by building? Or by people?

    David Waters, Cheltenham

  6. Is the decline mirrored in your 3 parishes, or do you buck the trend?

  7. David Waters, the problem with the 'close a few buildings' approach is that it just isn't that simple (and this from someone who has a great deal of sympathy with the underlying point). My senior colleague here proposed just that and created a local backlash that lasted for years.

    My own approach, if I were 'in charge' would be to ensure that every building was open for a service at the same time every Sunday, using lay members who would learn 'on the job'. Some would succeed, some would not, but it would establish that the church was here in the community. Then I'd have some kind of programme of developing lay preachers and Bible study leaders - again 'on the job' (not using Readers' courses that take too long). We couldn't afford revival through stipendiaries - by the time enough arrived, we'd be shut anyway.

    To Anonymous, no we do not 'buck the trend'. We have some successes, and some failures. Overall, I'd say we are keeping our collective chin above water, but I believe our experience shows how ministry within a parish depends on the wider (diocesan) context. Where the 'message' of the whole organization is so confused and confusing, it is hard to buck the trend even when you're working hard at it. We all depend, to some extent, on one another.