- Most people used to believe in God and go to Church, but since the 1960’s fewer of them have done either due to the inexorable advance of something called “secularization” which means they get what they used to get from religion from science.
- (with spiteful glee for relish) the whole C of E is dwindling away because it's not Conservative enough. If it just held firm to what it was in the 1950’s it would be thriving like Churches in the Gobal South.
- (with righteous indignation for relish) the whole C of E is dwindling away because it’s not Progressive enough. If it just ditched everything it used to be in the 1950’s it would reconnect with people, like radical non-Denominational Churches do.
Figures in Church have rarely been collected accurately. There is a varied pattern of some up, some down and always has been. I can only comment on what I see, on the basis of two or three Church registers most weeks from among our 288 congregations in Bucks. Discussing Church attendance with people on the ground, since I started giving any attention to the figures, has led me to question every part of the classic narrative above. Assuming the acuracy of the figures, they’re are all over the place. I’ve seen everythng from decline by up to a third, to a doubling of attendances across a large deanery since 2004.
The grossed up pattern, eliminating places with no return, goes a bit like this: serious general decline in the eighties, accelerating in the nineties, then bouncing along the bottom modestly in the early nougthies, with a modest rise across the board since mid decade. You can find individual examples of anything you like in there somewhere, but there’s no simple linear decline across the board, certainly not the way it was ten years ago.
The fact is that although total numbers of Churchgoers relate to total numbers of attendances, the two are not, in fact, the same thing. People drop out as well as drop in, so apart from the demographics of an aging population which is not replacing itself, churches are running up a down escalator anyway.
Recognizing the distinction, what people characteristically reoprt is that actually more human beings, sometimes many more, are coming to Church. However, the regularity with which they do so collapsed in the nineties (giving rise to rapid decline in many attendance figures), and has become increasingly volatile. Only a very few now come twice a Sunday and every week.
One kind of narrative, as reported: a church where thirty or forty people attended on Sundays ten years ago, but now there were forty or fifty, swinging between 25 and 75 depending on personal factors. However there had been one notable occasion in the past six months where three hundred had shown up for a particular service, not Christmas Day, where years ago the figures were under a hundred. This comes with a very hit and miss pattern of initiatives, most of which have failed to attract new people, but one of which was a spectacular success.
This implies a picture I'd be interested to see empirically disproved, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s radical advice “not to be afraid to see what you see.”
It feels like more people are coming to Church, but radically less often and in a far more volatile way. The grossed up result is thus unpredictable, but currently in Bucks, with the balance of everything, it’s gently growing (1-3% annually) across the board. Size of Church of membership is shrinking, but far more stable than that of institutions like political parties, with an increasing number of people acting like consumers rather than stakeholder-members. Meanwhile giving has risen dramatically over 20 years, along with vocations to holy orders — there are now more dog-collars in the county than in 1931 (thank you, Whittaker’s almanac), but a third fewer stipendiaries. Congregations are getting older in line with the national native demographic. Radically fewer children and young people are involved with Church on Sunday, and the Institutional Church’s prime point of contact with them is now through schools or not at all. The big wild card is globalization, and it’s interesting that the thirty odd Churches in our deanery that has doubled regular attendance 2003-8 may be experiencing “the London effect” — the more multicultural a congregation is, the faster it grows.PS the picture is Counting Sheep by Karen Aune, available here.