Comments: Latest Church of England statistics

"Professor David Voas, one of the authors of From Anecdote to Evidence, which found that nearly half of churches had fewer than five under-16s"

Young people, particularly the middle-classes, take homophobia seriously. Schools make it very clear that it is wrong, and parents of younger children are themselves now of a post-1967 generation which does not have homophobia running through it like the lettering through a stick of rock. Same sex marriage will have been around for most of a teenager's conscious memory (or civil partnership which, from the perspective of a teenager, is the same thing).

So why would they want to attend a homophobic institution which excludes their friends and siblings? And which noisily advances a position - the inferiority of same-sex relationships - which the rest of society has moved on from?

So the CofE's current policy is to assume that as people grow up, they will stop being tolerant and seek out an intolerant place to go on a Sunday. That families that currently welcome their gay friends and relatives will stop doing that, and go back to blind hatred. It doesn't seem like a good strategy, but I guess it's the best Welby and Nye can think of.

Posted by Interested Observer at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 3:29pm BST

“At the heart of the mission of the Church of England is a commitment to proclaiming the gospel afresh in each generation."
How does an institutionally homophobic organisation proclaim the Gospel to a post-homophobic generation?
Inclusive churches try but it seems an uphill struggle...

Posted by Rev Paul at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 4:29pm BST

IO: while I agree that the CofE's positions on gay people need a radical overhaul, I think it's hanging too much on it to think that more than a fraction of young people (or indeed people of any age) give two hoots about what the CofE says about anything. If the CofE were tomorrow to become totally affirming of gay and lesbian couples, and offer to marry in church any couple that desired it, I doubt we'd notice more than a blip in attendance figures unless a whole lot of other work is done.

Posted by Jo at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 4:45pm BST

Interested Observer - The research on church leavers in 'Gone for Good' by Richter and Francis indicates that for about 1/4 of people the church's attitude to homosexuality was a factor in them leaving. There are dozens of other factors which score much more highly than this. We'd all love it to be simple, or just a matter of getting the churches teaching 'right' (whatever that is) but it isn't.

Posted by David Keen at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 5:43pm BST

Jo, that might be true, but it's not just homophobia. I recall sitting getting increasingly angry as the vicar at a wedding I was attending ranted (there is no better word) about pre-marital sex. It's no better now. The official position is that sex before marriage is a sin, and people doing it are bad people. So either 99% of people under 40 are unwelcome in churches (a message they appear to be taking to heart), or the church has policies it doesn't actually believe in and expect only lip service to. Which is it?

It's 2017. An organisation which believes sex is only acceptable between people who were virgins at the point of heterosexual marriage, or alternatively between people willing to lie and say that was the case, has no future beyond that of being a small cult of weirdos. On the numbers presented in the above article, that's precisely where it's headed: to a (roughy) ten-fold decrease in size over the next two generations, leaving perhaps less than one hundred thousand regular worshippers. Who will look, and sound, increasingly weird, chasing away more people than ever before.

How likely is it that "We hate gay people and people who have sex" is going to attract new converts? With immigration in decline the temporary palliative influx of Christians from other countries will end, so it's going to be about recruiting from UK residents. What about the CofE today will attract someone aged 20?

Posted by Interested Observer at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 6:00pm BST

Perhaps the greatest deterrence in attending Church is the requirement to subscribe to religious beliefs. With over 50% of the population claiming to have no religion, it is all the more important that intelligible teaching is conveyed to the unchurched masses. I remember when David Jenkins was bishop of Durham, his orthodox views were presented in such a way as to get the nation talking. People in pubs and clubs were discussing God, Jesus and the resurrection as not being "a conjuring trick with bones". We have not seen the like since his passing. I had high hopes when Justin Welby was appointed that he might communicate a sensible gospel , but his first impact was made in criticising Wonga - hardly a subject likely to fill the Churches. I fear the rise of evangelicalism with its simplistic view of human existence, the absence of provocative and intelligent teaching from bishops, and the scourge of homophobia is likely to see the CofE slip further down the proverbial plug-hole.

Posted by FrDavidH at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 6:49pm BST

First of all, congratulations to Bev Botting and her team for a very professional piece of work.

The declines demonstrated in these figures are a continuation of trends that have been going on for many years. The most instructive graph is the pie chart which shows that about 40% of child leavers are simply leaving the church altogether. This is very much in line with other research of David Voas, Linda Woodhead, and others, based on many different surveys and on the census, which indicates that about 40% of children born to mothers who identify as Christian drop out and become "nones". True, that work is about affiliation rather than attendance, but the message is the same; the attendance/affiliation rate on any date will be about two-thirds what it was 25 to 30 years previously. This has been going on for many decades and doesn't really seem to be affected by factors such as what the church thinks or says about anything in particular.

The falloff in infant baptisms, weddings and funerals demonstrates all of this. Children are much less likely to be born into families which identify as CofE; young adults are much less likely to have a CofE identity because many will have none in the first place, while about 40% of those brought up as CofE will have dropped out, and when people die their families have, or feel, less church connection.

"Liberals" (like me) are appalled by sexism and homophobia so claim that's the reason; "conservatives" claim it's because the church has lost biblical values; "traditionalists" blame the modernisation of liturgical language; "happy clappers" claim it's because the church is stuffy and oldfashioned. I imagine that all are wrong and that the decline will continue despite "Reform and Renewal" or anything else. And, I hate to say, would probably continue if the church changed its stance radically on the issues IO mentions.

Finally, to preempt what some might say, if it were really true that there is growth in large evangelical churches (say) the C of E figures do not demonstrate this.

What strikes me is that the church has no plan B for the eventuality where this all continues. There's all sorts of upbeat stuff from Church Central about reform and renewal, but what if that goes the same way as all previous initiatives? (Which, in my view, is extremely likely.) Establishment, the parish system, the general synod as currently constituted, the large number of dioceses, etc would all become increasingly unsustainable, morally as well as financially. Set free from all that, perhaps there would be one or more remnants left as in the days of Noah?

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 6:51pm BST

IO: too right. Wasn’t it you in a previous thread who used the phrase “insufficiently compelling” about why the Christian message had little or no impact on people these days? All the things that the church used to provide say 50 years ago—companionship, solidarity, friendships, a sense of self-worth, comfort, a listening ear—are now to be had from hobby groups, sport, counselling, self-help groups, and more, without having to grovel for being miserable sinners. We have not been good at explaining what sin is in a way that means anything to most people. They don’t see themselves as sinners. They work hard, they love their families, they do their best for their neighbours, they try to stay out of the clutches of the law, and they, entirely understandably say, “I’m not a sinner”. As for church attendance gaining Nectar points for the afterlife, if they believe in one they don’t tend to see it as segregated into scorching-hot class and club class—only some churchgoers do that. The church is run by yesterday’s people (like me) who think like day-before-yesterday’s people. I often hear it said that wisdom comes with experience and age. I’m not convinced. Having worked with young adults for much of my life, I delight in their openness, vision, energy and originality of thought—qualities and attributes that are woefully lacking in churches. How about having some young minds on such as Diocesan councils? They would have to be appointed, for the geriatric electorate would never vote them on. There must be some intellectually supple young people who would serve. Mustn’t there?

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 9:09pm BST

I"m not defending homophobia, but I'd just like to point out that the early church in the first three centuries looked very weird to the people around it. Oh, and their sexual ethics were very strict, too.

Ladies and gentlemen, the reason modern people are not coming to church is increasingly because they don't believe Christianity is true. This could be because (a) they aren't being presented with an intelligent, convincing apologetic, or (b) the lives of Christians don't look like the Gospel they proclaim, or (c) they haven't found a genuine experience of God and so have concluded that God is not there, or (d) all of the above.

I don't deny that homophobia is a factor, but if it was the main factor driving people away, conservative churches would be empty and liberal churches would be bursting at the seams.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 10:10pm BST

Tim is right, except for the possibility that it’s (e) none of the above. The appetite for organised religion has been declining inmost Western countries for a very long time. In England probably over a century. It’s a continuous and pretty consistent downward trend, as the statistics show.

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 11:25pm BST

"I'd just like to point out that the early church in the first three centuries looked very weird to the people around it."

So the hope is that a successful politician has a dream of a a chi-rho in the sky, wins a famous military victory and makes Christianity the state religion? Because that's what it took for those 3rd century Christians to cease to be a fringe cult: the patronage of Constantine. Do you see anything of that scale as being likely?

Posted by Interested Observer at Friday, 20 October 2017 at 11:45pm BST

How reliable are church attendance figures? Has there been any work done (any at all?) to independently verify how accurate the statistical returns are? e.g. Data gatherers sent to random churches in October and doing an independent count, then seeing how closely the figures match the returns? My suspicion is that this has never been done. When I cover services at other churches I often notice that, for example, whole groups of people can be missing, or the figures simply don't match my own rough count. I officiated at a service a while ago with at least nine or ten children and the service register entry showed no children.

In dioceses where lower figures on the return will result in a smaller parish share request being made of the parish, there is a clear incentive to, at the very least, follow methodologies which result give a lower figure (e.g. count at the start and don't add people who arrive late). Has any work been done to see if church registers show a lower (or higher) attendance in October in dioceses where the figure is linked to parish share? I know of churches where the policy has been *not* to hold harvest or baptism services in October to keep the figures down.

At my own church, we usually have four services on a Sunday, and there may be no single person who is present at all four. In such cases it is obviously impossible to count how many *different* people have attended services on that Sunday (at least not without taking a register) even assuming a perfect memory for faces.

All of this is anecdotal. But if so much weight is to be attached to reports on these statistics, which will influence a great deal of planning and many important decisions, why is there no work done to ascertain the reliability of these numbers?

Posted by Russell Dewhurst at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 12:29am BST

"I don't deny that homophobia is a factor, but if it was the main factor driving people away, conservative churches would be empty and liberal churches would be bursting at the seams."

Well said, Tim. Instead, youthful churches tend to be charismatic evangelical setups that, while they usually keep their opposition to homosexuality on the down low, sure ain't affirming LGBT people.

Sanctifying the young's as misguided as demonizing them. If they were truly driven by conscience, Stonewall wouldn't have to churn out reports on the appalling levels of homophobia in British schools every few years. Put it like this: the biggest youth movement in recent years seems to've been London's young professionals lining up to sign petitions to keep Uber on the road.

Most people, whatever their age, are as indifferent to ethics as they are to religion. They don't shun churches 'cause they're homophobic: they shun 'em 'cause they're boring places for weirdos and old folk (often one and the same in their eyes). Religion's greatest opponent is, as it's always been, material distractions.

Posted by James Byron at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 12:34am BST

Thank you, Bernard Silverman. I agree entirely.

Posted by Mark Hart at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 8:04am BST

"Instead, youthful churches tend to be charismatic evangelical setups that, while they usually keep their opposition to homosexuality on the down low, sure ain't affirming LGBT people."

That is indeed true. However, they appear to think they are the future of Christianity in the UK, and they might even be right.

In which case they should be careful what they wish for. They are a few thousand people in each large city, meeting in rented school halls and a very small number of church buildings. That puts organised Christianity on about the same level as club motorsport or northern soul weekenders: a pursuit undertaken by a very small number of people, for whom it dominates their lives, but a matter of complete indifference to 99% of the population. There's a lot of fun in attending a hillclimb on a Sunday morning (bring hearing protection and an anorak), but you don't get a seat in the house of lords or a regular slot on Radio 4.

Posted by Interested Observer at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 8:30am BST

Russell--reasons to take the numbers seriously are:

1. Consistency with the returns for baptisms, weddings and funerals, which are not subject to the possible issues you raise

2. Consistency with other surveys (eg British Social Attitudes) and censuses

3. The long term consistent trends in the data. It is of course possible that the factors you mention may introduce some bias into the figures, but there's no particular reason to suppose that this would vary substantially from one year to the next (when averaged over all the parishes in the country), and the long-term patterns do not show any evidence of such variation.

What I take from these considerations is that the overall patterns are definitely demonstrated, even if there might be a (small) systematic bias in some of the figures.

To move to anecdote (which to be honest I don't like much) I've been impressed by the opposite sort of behaviour, with churches meticulously counting communion wafers for example.

As for the deliberate manipulation of figures in order to reduce the payment of parish share, if it happens, that's worth a discussion all of its own. Would the same people similarly fiddle their income tax? It says a lot about the view that ordinary parishes have of the diocese, the hierarchy, and the national institution, that they would consider this. It would perhaps be more honest simply to refuse to pay what is requested. Incidentally, tomorrow's gospel reading is "Render unto Caesar...."

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 9:56am BST

Russell Dewhurst makes a vital point. In several churches where I've served or presided, only actual communicants are recorded in the register. I've always made a practice of recording children and adult non-communicants as well, but many don't. And often you have to rely on the figures given to you, because there's too much going on for the president to make an accurate count. It would be good to have the figures checked by outside observers now and then.

James Byron is right too. Most people are too busy, too preoccupied or too self-absorbed to bother about religion, no matter what we do. Though that doesn't excuse us from trying to get things right. There is so much good work goes on in local churches with the odds stacked against them. Sometimes the C of E 'system' is a help - but just as often it seems to be a hindrance.

Posted by Janet Fife at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 10:17am BST

Thank you Stanley and Tim,

most people do not know what goes on inside churches and see faith as being nothing more but irrational wishful thinking and superstition.
The public awareness of entrenched homophobia is a contributing factor why people don't want to find out more about the possibility of the Christian God – he doesn’t sound very appealing! But the real questions go much deeper.

We need serious answers to the question of why people should be interested in the first place, and if they are, why we believe that what goes on inside our churches represents what Jesus wanted from and for us, and how this is helping to make sense of the world around us, how it is helping to solve our many global problems.

My own children and their friends no longer have any touching points with church. How do we speak to them and persuade them that we might have something meaningful to say about their lives? Where would we meet them to start that conversation?

Posted by Erika Baker at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 1:21pm BST

I moved away from the Church of England in my late teens as I wasn't listened to, like many people of my age. We weren't considered as having anything interesting to say and what we did say was mainly inconvenient truths. Although I am back in the fold, I can't see that the Church has moved at all in listening to the laity on many issues. The result is the 'lost generation' of people below 50 who left and didn't bother trying to go back and have decided not to involve their children and subsequent grandchildren in any organized church life. Young people who are interested in spiritual matters are not likely to look to the established church, as they are unaware that it may have answers for them.

Posted by Lavinia Nelder at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 2:04pm BST

Bernard Silverman, I was accusing no-one of dishonesty akin to 'fiddling' income tax. If a church decided to hold harvest in September and no baptisms in October, there is no dishonesty in reporting the October attendance figures that result from that decision. If those who, in a particular church, are charged with recording figures, and they honestly do not know whether or not (for example) to count those who come in near the end of a service after Sunday school, and they are told "if you count them, it will add to the parish share" that may influence the decision. I also made the point that it is impossible to give an accurate figure for the number of people attending at least one service on a Sunday (or in any given week) unless the same person with an excellent memory for faces is present at every service during that Sunday or during that week.

Every year when I do my very best to complete statistical returns as honestly and truthfully as I can in a reasonable amount of time, I am struck by how much it relies on judgment calls (and sometimes wild speculation) with little advice given on how to make those calls. To take just one example, I think the size of a church's 'worshipping community' will vary by a very significant factor depending on who is giving the answer.

Posted by Russell Dewhurst at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 5:50pm BST

Russell...thanks for responding. Yes, of course there will be judgement calls, but when averaged out over thousands of parishes they won't make an appreciable difference to the pattern, especially when comparing over a number of years.

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 6:59pm BST

Erica Baker: "How do we speak to them and persuade them that we might have something meaningful to say about their lives?"

Speak a lot, lot, lot, lot ... lot less. Don't try to persuade, but listen as an equal with great, great respect for their intelligence and powers of observation and understanding. Don't assume we have anything at all meaningful to say about their lives. Do assume that they have something meaningful to say about our lives. Seek it out and ask for their help.

Posted by Garry Lovatt at Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 7:34pm BST

'when averaged out over thousands of parishes they won't make an appreciable difference to the pattern, especially when comparing over a number of years.'

But if very many churches have mainly Eucharistic services, an don't count children or non-communicants, it will make a very big difference to the attendance figures - though not to the rate of increase or decrease.

Posted by Janet Fife at Sunday, 22 October 2017 at 4:01pm BST

Thanks, Janet, for putting it so clearly. It's the rate of increase/decrease which really matters here. The same is true of many government statistics (e.g. unemployment, crime, or even inflation)---in a certain sense it is not always _exactly_ clear what is being measured, but the key thing is to try to use consistent methodology so that comparisons over time are meaningful. So perhaps we should call it "recorded usual Sunday attendance" or even "reported usual Sunday attendance"...just like "police recorded crime".

I apologise again to Russell if I implied any dishonest motives to anyone. Because of the intrinsic noise in the system, it seems to me unwise to have a parish share system which is based on a snapshot of attendance. If you add up lots of figures each subject to statistical variation, then the relative variation in the overall total is much less. But you shouldn't rely on each figure individually, for any purpose, I would have thought.

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Sunday, 22 October 2017 at 8:21pm BST

Keeping figures artificially low increases the likelihood of a merger at the next vacancy, or stipendiary being replaced by non-stipendiary. Some people would welcome that of course. If anything, I think the tendency is to bump up rather than slim down. I find reporting accurately to be a devil of a job. Wardens etc sometimes forget to enter figures. Worshipping communities are difficult to estimate in this urban environment with comings and goings and returnings, and with the walking wounded who come and go as a refuge from their cardboard boxes. ER figures given to me by ER officers can be at variance with the evidence of my eyes when I am allowed to see the list. We do the best we can, but the idea that the figures are accurate is aspirational, to say the least.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse at Sunday, 22 October 2017 at 8:38pm BST

" If you add up lots of figures each subject to statistical variation, then the relative variation in the overall total is much less."

Conversely, there's the "emperor of China's nose" problem. The emperor of China is never seen by the people: is it more accurate to find out how long his nose is by asking one person, or a million people and averaging the result? The central limit theorem is all very well, but it assumes that the measurements have some link to the thing being measured (ie, they are mostly "true value plus or minus error and uncertainty") and, in this case, the hidden assumption that the mean of the variances is zero. If they're all guesses, you're just averaging noise.

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 23 October 2017 at 7:04am BST

I really don't want to prolong this unnecessarily, but if you use the same methodology ten years running and you see a trend, it's a trend. The figures for Sunday attendances are not just guesses; they are individual estimates all subject to a bit of noise. Yes, of course there's often a bit of guesswork and possibly some systematic bias here and there (possibly in different directions) but the trends in these data are very clear and very well established.

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Monday, 23 October 2017 at 10:29pm BST

One interesting point not considered above is this.
Why is it that decline in some Churches is moire acute than in others? I think that I am correct in saying that decline amongst Baptist, Methodist and URC congregations is even more acute than in the CofE. However, the Catholic Church is relatively steady, as are some of the Pentecostal Churches.
It would seem that the more established Protestant denominations are getting something wrong.

Posted by Paul Waddington at Tuesday, 24 October 2017 at 12:53pm BST

We all know there is a desperate clergy shortage in the RC Church, which suggests Mr Waddington's assertion is somewhat rosy. Between 1980 and 2016 attendance in RC Churches dropped from 2064000 to 608000.

Posted by FrDavidH at Tuesday, 24 October 2017 at 4:56pm BST

Paul, one significant factor is that it seems well established that the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Churches have gained from immigration more than others because of the background of the immigrants.

Posted by Mark Hart at Tuesday, 24 October 2017 at 5:24pm BST

There seems to be a missing "ml" at the end of the link provided by FrDavidH at 4.56pm on 24 October.

[Ed: thanks, we've fixed the link]

Posted by RPNewark at Wednesday, 25 October 2017 at 8:58am BST

In 2002 I led a team which undertook a headcount of every person going to church that day in order to check the statistics. It was a hideous logistic exercise and involved hiring a coach to the town we selected in order to take a coach load of students to stand outside churches all day checking every service and recording single and multiple attendances.

The result: clergy-reported attendance figures are remarkably accurate. It is all written up in the book The Spiritual Revolution.

A similar study was undertaken in the USA by counting cars in church parking lots. Penny Marler et al. Accurate in a country where few people walk. The result: liberal clergy and congregations were accurate but the more evangelical the more exaggeration there was.

Bernard Silverman is correct in all he says here. We have no good reason to doubt the figures, least of all the trend lines.

Posted by Linda Woodhead at Wednesday, 25 October 2017 at 10:12am BST

Re: Linda Woodhead, " the more evangelical the more exaggeration there was."

I think religious enthusiasm tends to impair one's math skills. i.e., "....and about three thousand were added to their number that day." (Acts of the Apostles)

Posted by Rod Gillis at Friday, 27 October 2017 at 3:51am BST
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