Statistics For Mission 2015: A Response

BLOGStatistics For Mission 2015: A Response

My response to reading Statistics For Mission 2015 is one of competing emotions of gratitude, curiosity and frustration.

Firstly, gratitude. I am thankful for the quantity and quality of these statistics. Year on year this numerical cataloguing of the state of the Church of England and its 46 dioceses seems to get more thorough. Although the sheer amount of data is so overwhelming that it is tempting to push it to one side, this is information that should not be dismissed. As recent political debates on either side of the Atlantic have demonstrated, trustworthy statistics are an endangered species that should be valued, not shunned. As widely noted in the press, these are not encouraging figures. Although we might wish otherwise, there is little hint that the decades-long decline in the Church of England has ended. Nevertheless, as an evangelist I am grateful for the careful presentation of these difficult facts. I’m grateful because there are still those people in the church who deny either the severity or the significance of falling attendances. I have heard the view, often expressed in some dismissive, otherworldly tone, that the decline is ‘mere numbers’. Numbers indeed, but behind each number is an individual precious to God.

The fact is that many of the statistics are sufficiently unpalatable that they should drive us to our knees. It’s not just the 1 per cent a year decline in overall attendance; it’s things such as the fact that in 7 out of the 46 dioceses more than 40 per cent of those attending church are over 70 years of age. At the other end of the age scale is the alarming 23 per cent fall in children’s attendance since 2005, and the sad fact that 35 per cent of the children who leave ‘are not worshipping anywhere’. I hate to tell the statisticians their own business but the figures are even worse than depicted: to show a decline in attendance at a time of rapid population growth is a poor state of affairs indeed. The easiest excuse for not doing evangelism has always been ‘we don’t need it’. These grim statistics tell us that we do.

So I have gratitude but also curiosity. There are some odd things floating around in this ocean of figures. So, for instance, to take something that might be considered trivial, a third of our churches are without toilets. Sorry, but in the twenty-first century with an ageing clientele, how on earth do you expect people to turn up?

On a far more serious level I would love to know more about exactly why this trend of decline has occurred. It’s certainly not the new Atheism: Dawkins and colleagues might be depressed to know that all their efforts caused no discernible steepening of the ski-slope curve of decay. Is the problem simply a fall in numbers or is there also a decline in that vital but statistically unquantifiable element of commitment? Do people merely attend our churches instead of belonging to them? Or is the whole problem deeper: the rise of a modern consumerist society in which ‘the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4:19) have sucked the spiritual life out of our nation? On this the statistics are silent.

Gratitude, curiosity, but I also feel frustration. Yes, I know it’s a presentation of data and not an analysis, yet I’m sure that any business presented with a similar report would demand greater clarity or a more ‘fine-grained’ analysis. The problem is that the statistics conceal as much as they reveal. Someone reading this who knew nothing of Britain or the Church of England would assume that the situation was one of a homogenous country with a uniform church. The reality, of course, is very different.

So, sociologically, enormous questions are unanswered. We find very little attempt to acknowledge the extraordinarily different nature of the Anglican Church as it is found in the capital, the other conurbations and the countryside. Indeed a superficial reading of the figures could suggest that Anglicanism retains its strongest hold in rural areas. Yet here, unless there is radical change, the age structure of these congregations condemns them to imminent extinction. Thankfully, there is an attempt at an age analysis but the categories (0–17, 18–69 and 70+) are too wide to be of much use. A church packed with ‘thirty-somethings’ has a long-term future; one dominated by those in their sixties much less so. The survey is also weighted entirely towards liturgical services: there is no attempt to mention home groups or Bible studies.

My biggest frustrations come in the area of theology. This report is headlined as ‘Statistics for Mission’ but the ‘M word’ does not appear on its own elsewhere; neither do such not insignificant words as ‘Evangelism’, ‘Alpha’, ‘Christianity Explored’, ‘Outreach’, etc. There is no hint of what we all know: there are churches that have not the slightest interest in growing, preferring to fade slowly away as ‘Museums of Traditional Church Culture’ rather than change and live.

Much is made of the general resilience of the Christmas attendance figures. As an evangelist who finds Christmas one of the most fruitful seasons of the year, I’m delighted to see those numbers staying high. But is that really the future of the Church of England, to become – along with Santa, shopping and the TV-series Christmas Special – a seasonal event?

This report raises many questions but gives few answers. The biggest question arises from the mention that attendance has increased in 10 per cent of parishes but has decreased in 37 per cent. Why? Did church growth occur because there was a fine choir, a warm welcome or, just perhaps, the urgent preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit? There is no attempt at an answer but I know where I cast my vote. Equally, there are many voices telling us that growth relies on the church becoming ‘progressive’ and more in tune with the ‘spirit of the age’. The problem with that is exemplified by the way that, having been told that we must yield to the public mood on human sexuality, we are now told we must resist any mood of the same public towards xenophobic nationalism. Now I know that categorisation or self-categorisation of churches into neat little boxes of ‘Conservative Evangelical’, ‘Charismatic Evangelical’, ‘Anglo-Catholic’ and so on is problematic, yet from this report we get the impression that theology is utterly unimportant. As we all know, this is nonsense. Some attempt must be made in subsequent surveys to link figures, particularly size, growth or decline, and age structure to theology. Let’s identify those traditions that are dying and those that are living.

It’s a good report as far as it goes, but only that far. I’m afraid statistics have a horrible way of flattening things out. Choose a broad enough average and you can end up saying that a zebra is grey in colour. The devil may indeed be in the details but he is certainly in their omission.

Revd Canon

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