Spinning the Stats – Are We Too Defensive to Really Listen?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Is the Church of England still the church of the nation?

It’s probably only Anglicans themselves who still assume it is, and even then not all of them.  Constitutionally, little has changed in the last century or so to imply that the Church of England’s position is fundamentally different now from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In that sense, it is still the national church, or at least the established church.  But it would be very foolish to think that the vast majority of the population of England have any real, tangible sense of this.  Many – but a declining number – still get baptized, married and have their funerals in Church of England churches, but with an ageing and shrinking congregation, the wider claim looks more and more fragile.

Two weeks ago the usual annual report on statistics was issued, bearing the by now well-established balance of good and bad news.

There was plenty of bad news.  Once again, the average Sunday attendance was down, to 765,000 in October 2017; that’s a seemingly catastrophic decline of almost 15% in ten years; but the fall was higher – 24% – for attending children.  Easter attendance has fallen by 16%.  Baptisms have fallen by 22%, weddings and associated services by 27%, and funerals by 28%.  All of the falls reflect longer term trends, though of course there are fluctuations in various indices year on year.  No wonder the perception of many parish clergy is that the Church is in dire straits.

But there is some good news.  Christmas attendances are up again, rising gradually over the last few years to reach 2.68 million, suggesting that nearly 5% of the population are at a Church of England church at some point at Christmas.  That led the Bishop of Manchester to suggest that Christmas services probably represent a more attractive form of worship than the usual Sunday fare.

But the other quoted statistic concerned a different measurement, the ‘worshipping community’, a more amorphous concept meant to catch those who ‘regularly’ attend at least once a month, but not necessarily weekly.  This suggested no essential change since 2012, with some 1.1 million in that category.  Moreover, the Church’s ‘hits’ on social media more than doubled in one year from 1.2 million to 2.44 million.

These positive figures enabled the statistics to be spun, as critics were quick to point out, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out that if (and it’s a big ‘if’) we take all these figures at face value as accurate, then one conclusion must be that commitment to regular attendance is thinning out, as the weekly Sunday numbers continue to fall, yet people’s wish to be in some way connected to their church via less frequent attendance remains apparently stable.

As lots of people have pointed out, the idea of the ‘worshipping community’ is particularly problematic, because it’s not at all clear what it’s really measuring.  The broader and looser the technique of measuring something is, the greater the number of variables one is likely to have to factor in when interpreting the data.  Someone who slips into Evensong from time to time because they like the relative calm and the opportunity to reflect, and the music (if there is any), might have very little real sense of identity with the local worshipping community – indeed the whole point for them might be to avoid community.  And yet, I suspect there is a basic realism about the measure, however slippery.

When I was in a parish, and also when I was in charge of a chapel, I’d often find myself totting up roughly the number of people I would see from time to time and would count as part of the wider ‘family’ of the church or chapel – it was of course always much bigger than the weekly attendance.  Sometimes the only connection between all these people was me.  Sometimes someone who attended irregularly turned out to have a very strong, informed faith.  Amongst those who came for the sake of the music, or the peace (when they could have it), were certainly some virtual non-believers.

All of that reminds us that spirituality is not the same thing as going to church, that great devotion does not necessarily show itself in being active in church life, above all that people’s motives are always very complex and varied.  The statistics barely penetrate these deep, below-the-surface realities, and the only way to get at them at all is by close study of particular communities – a brilliant example being Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas’s study of Kendal (The Spiritual Revolution, 2005).

We should, then, be very cautious in making precise deductions about what people do and don’t want from the annual statistics, and also of being a bit inclined to seize immediately on the positives – in that sense, I doubt that Christmas really is much of a pointer to ways forward.  That downward trend looks pretty steep, and it poses an enormous challenge to the Church of England.

In response to that challenge, there seem to be two quite different strategies on the table – I’m talking in general terms, not about specific church policies.

One is to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian teaching over and against the world around us, and to press people to make firm decisions between the Church and the world.  Some would call this circling the wagons, or going into the bunker.  It looks like a defensive move, but it usually depends on a definite strategy of mission, with catechesis, with distinct forms of outreach, and so on.  So it isn’t necessarily inward-looking.  But it is what the larger Evangelical congregations essentially are about, and it’s usually defensive about wider developments in society such as changes in sexual ethics and changing concepts of identity.

The other is to stress inclusivity, to widen the boundaries of those to be welcomed, to open up the Church to those who might otherwise feel excluded or condemned by it.   This has its own risks, of course, which are likely to include looking a bit woolly and a bit over-reactive to social change.

Both may miss something vital about the Church, which ought to be relentlessly inclusive and at the same time confident in its values and traditions.  Reconciling those two things requires a lot of hard work, but it also requires a readiness to change and above all a willingness to listen to others and to learn from them.

We have a gospel to proclaim.  But our first thought should surely be, ‘What do others have to say to us, and what can we learn from that?’  In order for us to hear what they have to say, we have to encounter them wherever they may be – and that means tearing down the walls of our own defensiveness and insecurity.  Only then can the Church truly be an inclusive community.



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9 Responses to Spinning the Stats – Are We Too Defensive to Really Listen?

  1. charlesclaphamskycom says:

    Just a short comment that the decline in attendance that Jeremy notes in paragraph four occurred over a ten year period, not (as his piece might be read to suggest) over a one year period. But still catastrophic, either way.


  2. Pingback: Opinion – 28 November 2018 – Thinking Anglicans

  3. PaulWaddington says:

    The decline in Average Sunday Attendance is running at about 1.5% per annum. In my view ASA is by far the best measure, as the others are capable of (and surely are) being massaged.
    Sunday attendance is already below that of the Catholic Church. If the fairly consistent trends indicated by the British Social Attitudes Survey continue, by 2013 there will be more people in England self identifying as Catholic than as C of E. We live in interesting times!


  4. Froghole says:

    I have attended services at about 650 churches this year. Allowing for the fact that some of these services were 8 AM communions or evensongs, there was only about three or four of them where there was a healthy demographic spread.

    Establishment is completely untenable when only a trace element of those aged below 30 are even nominally Anglican. Indeed, establishment within this demographic context will only make the Church more vulnerable to attack.

    The situation is utterly and irremediably catastrophic. Even if the Commissioners were to expend all of their assets on mission projects it would only slow the rate of decline in a few areas, and leave massive voids in others. The Church is viable in little more than 50 of the 4,700 churches where I have attended services. We are passing from dusk to the darkest of nights. Many will argue that the Church should just let go in many places; this is a valid argument, but it will mean that the Church will cease to be a church ‘of England’, but merely one of many competing sects with a sporadic local presence.

    So, the fate of the buildings is now significant, as they will allow for future witness, and they are part of the patrimony of the people (paid out of past taxes and contributions). I would suggest that the greater part of the stock is vested in DCMS, with the Commissioners being disendowed to the tune of about £5bn (as a dowry to neutralise the cost to the Treasury), with the Church receiving a perpetual right of use in return. The Commissioners’ assets are, in large measure, a function of capital having been sucked up from the parishes; allocating much of their funds to the maintenance of the stock by central government would, in effect, return that capital from whence it came. Disestablishment would be useful political cover for this.

    I mention this because R&R does not amount to a credible plan. There are many evasions and half-truths being told to explain away the situation, or to justify inadequate policies. This tends to prove Upton Sinclair’s adage that people will believe anything when their salaries depend upon it. In this sense, the clerical bureaucracy (and its continuing need for pay and rations) is perhaps more of a threat to the maintenance of Christian witness across much of England than might be supposed.

    Time is now very, very short.


    • Jamie Wood says:

      re the idea that “the greater part of the stock is vested in DCMS ….” – ie given to DCMS (the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) on certain terms and conditions – why on earth would the DCMS agree to take it over from us?


      • Froghole says:

        By taking from the Church £5bn as a dowry, as mentioned. The Commissioners have £8.3bn, which is partly a function of their not being liable for accruals or most pay/rations for 20 years (an implicit and regressive subsidy of the Commissioners by the parishes via the parish share system), and of past expropriations. The Church of France was disestablished and disendowed in 1905; the greater churches were vested in central government and most of the parochial churches were vested in the communes. I am arguing that much the same be done in England, save that title should pass to central rather than local government, because central government will have the economies of scale that increasingly distressed local authorities will lack.

        Of the £8.3bn, only £1.75bn is ring-fenced for pre-1998 pension accruals. Disendowment to the tune of £5bn is therefore plausible. The Church in Wales was much more completely disendowed in 1920, yet the Representative Body now has assets of £720m, of which a third is allocated to accruals.

        Now I have little doubt that the Treasury and DCMS would chafe at having to take title and I am under no illusions about the political difficulties these proposals would entail; the question is whether their inevitable objections could be neutralised by a large enough dowry and disestablishment. The legislation I have drafted proposes the creation of a Religious Buildings Agency (effectively the CCT under another name) which would be an emanation of DCMS, and this agency would administer the buildings on behalf of the Secretary of State. The Church would, in return, get a perpetual free right of use to the divested stock. The agency would be notionally non-denominational (and open to vestings by other faiths, denominations and ethical/humanist associations).

        Much of the stock is a critical part of the nation’s patrimony paid for out of past taxation (i.e., church rate, etc.). If the Church cannot be trusted with this patrimony (because of vanishing congregations) and the state will not assume the liability (because of other priorities), and if only 1% of churches are viable, then the Church – and the state – need to come out and say: “this is the end of the line; almost the whole stock will be privatised – demolished, left to ruin or converted to residential or commercial use, etc., and that will be that. Do we want that to happen?” It’s possible that much of the electorate would accept that outcome. In which case so be it. But let us have that national conversation, or else let us come up with some ideas about how the stock – and the Christian witness that goes with it – can be maintained for public benefit. Through its complacency and wishful thinking the Church is becoming an increasingly irresponsible and undeserving custodian for this stock. Ultimately, all property rights are an emanation of the state, and what the state gives, the state can take away (as it did with the Church in 1869-71 and 1914-21 and on other previous occasions).


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