Comments: Church of England statistics

One does get fed up with the endless positive spin from Church House when these statistics come out annually. Ours is an institution clearly in serious and protracted decline: why is it regarded as disloyal to say this openly and ask why?

Far better to be honest and say that we are getting lots of things wrong in our relationship with English society, and need to address them and reform our institution urgently. Indigenous English people have by and large lost interest in their national church. Is the C of E currently committed to thinking through why that might be and how to cut things like its top-heavy upper echelons drastically; to focus on how it might bend every sinew to attract rather than repel decent ethical English people?

The number of blessings taking place in churches, for example, might increase rather than decline if we saw civil partnerships as an opportunity to welcome people in rather than freeze them out. And the newspaper headlines showing the Bishop of Winchester valiantly fighting the Equality Bill - does it do the institution's image any good at all that a double-barrelled Old Wykehamist living in a palace and sitting unelected in the Lords misuses his access to public platforms to campaign against equality? Approval of women bishops gets shelved from year to year until all opponents have long since died off, making it clear the C of E is more interested in its own internal procedural wrangles than modelling fairness and openness to modern Britain.

These are breathtaking ways for an institution to be shooting itself in the foot: we need to raise our game.

Posted by Fr Mark at Friday, 22 January 2010 at 11:54am GMT

The Ekklesia think tank makes an outrageous statement that cannot go uncommented on: "Many Church of England schools, which make up one quarter of primary schools, require church attendance in order to gain priority in admissions."
This is simply not true for the overwhelming majority of Church of England Aided Schools are community schools and take all comers. The fact that they have good results and are some of the best schools does not mean they cream off the brightest but rather that the Headteachers and Teaching Staff are extremely dedicated and committed to providing children with a first-class education which is the very reason that the Church of England opened these schools in the first place.

Posted by Fr Ross Northing at Friday, 22 January 2010 at 1:37pm GMT

One thing I've learnt about decline is that although there are general trends, and it is decline not dressed up, the business of tackling it is local. In a church I attend, the issue of decline was critical, and there has been some sorting out as regards internal strategy and attitude, with quite a positive feeling replacing a long period (before I returned) of even despair, and it is strange how now there is a visible bounce, with faces unseen before now coming along and some staying. There is probably some randomness to this, but there does seem to be a rate of return to changes made.

Go back twenty years to predictions made for the future of Unitarianism and the one thing totally uncalculated was the unknown Internet. The web sites are constantly the reason people come through the door, where a distinctive product is presented and now people find out about what was once a secret.

Posted by Pluralist at Friday, 22 January 2010 at 4:35pm GMT

I'm with you all the way Fr Mark. Of course there are all sorts of reasons why the decline is not simply the C of E's fault but I'm sure an excellent PhD in the sociology of religion could be done on how C of E policies, attitudes, strategy and practice in the last, say, 40 years, have produced self-inflicted decline.With so many younger clergy now schooled in congregational chaplaincy rather than parish ministry and official attitudes on gays and women doomed to ultimate failure, decline is unlikely to be arrested and may well accelerate in the next decade..

Posted by Perry Butler at Friday, 22 January 2010 at 6:05pm GMT

I too agree with Fr Mark. This failure is replicated at parish level. I have been fighting for years for our (young) rector to recognise the problem, but he's in denial and English/British embarrassment prevents proper acknowledgement, still less proper address, of this problem on the part of the PCC. One can understand, to an extent, but it's deeply dispiriting, destructive, and, of course, completely stupid.

Posted by john at Friday, 22 January 2010 at 7:22pm GMT

Perhaps this may seem to be counter-intuitive, but I suspect that the decline in overall church numbers is associated with the growth in numbers in a few parishes. The success of Alpha and the growth of the evangelical constituency in the church now gives the impression that this is what the Church of England is like. Why would any serious person with a mature understanding want to become part of a church like this? It presents a narrow, anti-intellectual, homophobic face to the world.
The more that its evangelical parishes grow, the more the Church of England will shrink.

Posted by toby forward at Saturday, 23 January 2010 at 3:50pm GMT

Fr Ross Northing - Very happy to receive the figures to back up the claim that the "overwhelming majority" of Church of England schools don't give priority to church goers. Can you point me in the direction? I have asked the C of E for them, and was told that they don't have them, but maybe you have a good source? But whatever the actual figures, to say that "Many Church of England schools, which make up one quarter of primary schools, require church attendance in order to gain priority in admissions" is both fair and relevant. It has a direct bearing on people's church attendance as many parents of school age children would tell you! Relevant particularly when the C of E is issuing statements championing the "rise in under-16s"

Posted by Jonathan Bartley at Saturday, 23 January 2010 at 5:29pm GMT

This is a further indication that religion is becoming a largely immigrant affair, and will be in future, a fringe activity mostly carried out by religious extremists

And the church has only itself to blame.

Posted by Merseymike at Saturday, 23 January 2010 at 6:50pm GMT

"One reason for the decline, along with the rising age profile, could be the Church’s public quarrelling over homosexuality and women bishops." - Ruth Gledhill, Times article -

For once, I tend to agree with Ruth's concise summarisation here one of the most important reasons for the decline in Church attendance - especially in the C. of E., with it's official policies towards women and gays.

Most young people, whose sexual education has included an enlightened overview of gender and sexual differentiation, are very wary of seeming to subscribe to an outdated institutional view of the place of women and gays in the Church.

Why would they want to be part of the Churches' ongoing persecution of LGBTs and women who seek to take up their rightful place in ministry, when other public institutions have overcome their antipathy towards their 'second-class' treatment in civil society? Young people are no longer -except in the fundamentalist churches - biddable as recruits into homophobia and sexism on the questionable basis of dogmatic scriptural understandings.

The sooner the Church moves into the 21st century and begins to declare the Love of God for ALL people, the sooner it may recover it's lost credibility.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 24 January 2010 at 5:18am GMT

Just a note: the two Muslims returned, so that was super (though we told them where to find the mosque they couldn't find!), and another new face as well. It puts a lot of pressure on the many providers of our services internally and without to get things right, as well as having a welcoming attitude (and the new face said, after coffee, before a church meeting, "Thank you for making me feel so welcome." So something was right.

Posted by Pluralist at Sunday, 24 January 2010 at 5:32pm GMT

I suspect that the decline in overall church numbers is associated with the growth in numbers in a few parishes. The success of Alpha and the growth of the evangelical constituency in the church now gives the impression that this is what the Church of England is like. Why would any serious person with a mature understanding want to become part of a church like this?

This is exactly what's happened in the US (vide e.g. the latest ARIS study) during the last 20 years. The percentage of Christians in the population has declined but within that declining population the percentage of those who identify as "evangelical" or "born-again" has skyrocketed. According to the guy who supervised the ARIS study "a generic form of evangelicalism" has become "the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the US."

Most interestingly, the biggest drop occurred during the 1990s--which is when the evangelical Religious Right became seriously visible and audible. This conservative, generic evangelicalism is now the paradigm and public face of Christianity in the US. It's official: Obama got Rick Warren of the evangelical Saddleback megachurch to deliver the invocation at his inaguration and when he talks about "People of Faith," understood as a minority special interest group, it's evangelicals he has in mind.

It's not hard to see what's happening. When Americans think of Christianity, they think of conservative evangelical Protestantism and those with any sense (or taste) want no part of it. Just anecdotally, my daughter in college got together with some high school friends and reported that all of them were either atheists or (in her words) "fundamentalists."

BTW, when I was involved in church growth projects during the 1990s (the Anglican "Decade of Evangelism" remember) the pitch was that the Episcopal Church should emulate evangelical megachurches because they were growing. They were also promoting Alpha as a magic bullet.

Posted by H. E. Baber at Sunday, 24 January 2010 at 7:46pm GMT

Jonathan Bartley, I see that Mrs Miliband has put in two years hard labour in her local parsh church so that Master Miliband doesn't have to go to his local school.
Don't hold your breath waiting for those admission figures, will you?

Posted by toby forward at Monday, 25 January 2010 at 5:43pm GMT

I work for Demos, the London think tank. I have been examining the disparity between the monthly and weekly attendance figures and conclude that over a third of the official stats are made up of parents and children who go simply to secure places in the C of E primary schools... This is in part a speculative calculation - owing to the lack of accurate figures on this subject provided by the C of E - but I think the broader point is valid.

My blog post on this subject is here -

Posted by Marcus Fergusson at Thursday, 11 February 2010 at 5:18pm GMT
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