Church of England

Church of England continues its decline – but is revival stirring?


The Church of England has published its attendance stats (‘Statistics for Mission‘) for 2014. Don’t yawn. Yes, the interesting Anglican stuff is leavening this week in a Canterbury crypt, but there’s a sense in which it’s all theological if England’s national church already lies a-mouldering in the grave. Quite why we have to wait until 2016 for 2014’s figures is something of a mystery: data-gatherers and number-crunchers really ought to be able to analyse figures for October 2014 by the middle of 2015: it isn’t a complex qualitative or mixed methodology. As it stands, this announcement gives the impression of a church already two years behind monitoring its own rot. If, in 2014, the worm and moth feasted upon Anglican communicants to take weekly attendance below one million for the first time, we’ve lost at least another 20,000 since, and we won’t get confirmation of that until 2018. Good job the Research & Statistics Department of the Archbishops’ Council aren’t responsible for cancer projections or foodbank expansion.

So, in October 2014, 980,000 people were attending their parish church each week: 830,000 adults and 150,000 children. This rose to 2.4 million for Christmas (2014) and 1.3 million at Easter. The Church of England performed just under 1,000 weddings, 2,000 baptisms, and almost 3,000 funerals every week of the year. Interestingly, some 12% of births during 2014 were marked by a Church of England infant baptism or thanksgiving service, and 31% of deaths were marked by a Church of England funeral. Babies and dead bodies are the optimal props for captive evangelism.

But the trend is clear:

Stats for Mission 3

There has been a 12% decline in attendance over the past decade, representing just over 1% a year. It is, however, worth pointing out that the methodology changed in 2013 (when “attendance at school services was separated from attendance at other church services and fresh expressions; this question was further clarified in 2014 to specify that it referred only to school services taking place in church buildings, not to services in schools [e.g. school assemblies]”). Speaking on the publication of the statistics, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev’d Graham James, said:

The 2014 figures are not in any way a surprise. Whilst the recent trend of the past decade continues, it has been anticipated and is being acted on radically. As part of a prayerful and considered response to these trends the Church is embarking upon the biggest renewal and reform process in over 150 years focusing our resources on prayer, evangelism, discipleship, vocations, leadership & training.

That’s good to hear, but it’s a carefully-worded response, almost crafted with a slap aimed at the cheeks of both the National Secular Society and certain recalcitrant Anglican theologians. The response is “prayerful and considered”: it has the sanctity of divinity and the inspiration of corporate spirituality. It is unarguable. This is “renewal and reform” focusing on everything that should lead to revival. But then:

We do not expect that trend to change imminently or immediately over the next few years due to demographics. We lose approximately 1% of our churchgoers to death each year. Given the age profile of the CofE, the next few years will continue to have downward pressure as people die or become housebound and unable to attend church.

Ah, the inexpressible joy of boundless faith! The zeal of missional expectation; the assurance of belief; the confidence that the Holy Spirit will burst forth with waves of repentance and revival! Compare Bishop Graham’s calculated circumspection with Archbishop Justin’s fervent prescription to the Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury:

..The East African Revival teaches us the need for holiness. We must be renewed as a holy church, defined by our passionate worship and its content, with every Christian knowing scripture, prayerful, humble and evangelistic. In a sentence, we must be those who are, to the outside world, visibly disciples of Jesus Christ.

His whole ministry is founded on the seared memory of mission: his salvation had its origins in holiness and revival: was the East African Revival that set the pattern for holiness, for a vigour of lifestyle in relationship with Christ that so impressed an 18 year old teaching at Kiburu Secondary school. That same 18 year old then had the seed of the gospel sown into the ground prepared, when three Ugandan Bishops, led by Festo Kivengere came to England in 1975. And a few weeks later I gave my life to Christ. So for me it was indigenous Kenyan and Ugandan faith, through the Revival’s legacy, that brought me salvation. I do not forget that.

Yes, the Bishop of Norwich tells the media: “As a Church we are unashamedly committed to following the teachings of Jesus Christ in our worship of God, discipleship and service to the poor and the marginalised.” And he proclaims: “Our confidence, resilience and service is rooted in Jesus,” but (here’s the thing) there is no captivating personal testimony; no enthralling tale of destitution and inner transformation: just facts and figures; arid stats and vapid percentages.

Compare Bishop Graham’s message to the world:

During 2013-14 some dioceses continued to increase their attendance. In the past 12 months alone there are examples of growth and new churches across the country. In my own diocese the church of St. Thomas Norwich has grown from 50 to 450 people in the past two years. In Bournemouth, St Swithin’s – a church which started in 2014 – now sees 500 people attending every week whilst in Birmingham St Luke’s Gas Street in is already attracting hundreds of young people since its beginning in 2015. There are many others like these and each is a sign of hope.

..with Archbishop Justin’s message to the Church:

..In all Provinces there are forms of corruption, none of us is without sin. There is litigation, the use of civil courts for church matters in some places. Sexual morality divides us over same sex issues, where we are seen as either compromising or homophobic..

..Jesus did not come to a group of well-established disciples and send them, but to failures, who had fled, denied, abandoned. Paul in the letters to Corinth does not write to a well-functioning church of good disciples, but to those who were divided, immoral, filled with rivalry and hatred. We are a Jesus centred people, and we serve the God who raised Jesus from the dead and raises us. At the heart of the life of the church is not power, or structure, or authority, but the person of Jesus Christ, present by His Spirit, whose plans for good, whose love for the lost is our calling and our urging.

We see good news as well as knowing good news. Around the world the church is growing, evangelising, leading people to life in Christ, without whom there is no true life. The Anglican churches are everywhere caring for the sick, educating children, influencing society, and most normally of all, in bringing people to reconciliation with God in Christ, the only decisive reconciliation, they are also bringing reconciliation in society. In so many places, especially at the local level, by the grace of God alone, Anglicanism is a church of the Beatitudes.

You have to wonder why CofE comms hasn’t got it the other way round. Indeed, at the time of writing (2.00pm), the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to the Primates’ Meeting has neither been disseminated by Church House nor posted on the Lambeth Palace website: it doesn’t appear to be in circulation at all. Doubtless it is imminent, but (with huge respect to the labourers) it was delivered yesterday, and the news moves on, chop-chop. Justin Welby’s prescription for effective mission and personal testimony of salvation are vastly more interesting and evangelistic than something prosaically called ‘Statistics for Mission’.

We can either listen to church bureaucrats, ecclesial managers and the elite ‘talent pool’ who chorus that it would take “at least 5 years” to reverse the Church of England’s decline; and we can heed the headline story of ‘Church of England attendance falls below one million’; and quibble over the NSS/BHA crowing over an apparent 2.4% decline (due to change in the statistical method of counting), or we can instead articulate what the Church of England is doing now, and doing radically. Let Archbishop Justin broadcast the good news to the nation:

In this country many talk of the post Christian society, but the C of E educate more than 1,000,000 children in our schools. We are involved in almost all the food banks as, for the first time since the 1930s, we have hunger in this country. We are still a major part of the glue that holds society together. A recent attempt to introduce assisted suicide was crushingly defeated in Parliament. We are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way. The Church of England is still a primary source of leadership for communities, to the dismay of the secularists. It is a struggle, but we are not losing. And we are also in the middle of the biggest reform of the church since the mid 19th century. We are planting churches. The ABY (Archbishop of York) is on an evangelistic pilgrimage, I imagine the first ABY to do that in centuries, even perhaps over 1,000 years. And the Bench of Bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII.

Around the world it is Anglicans who serve Christ in every possible way, supporting one another in bringing peace, in defending the oppressed, in education and health, and who are active in evangelism, bringing salvation to the lost. Diocesan partnerships are often strong, and mutually beneficial. We must not despair, because for all our faults God is at work by His Spirit, and we are in the end those who are sent by Jesus as the Father sent Him.

Finally, let us look at the world around us. It is one in which God, the Holy Trinity, calls the Church to action. Religious war is spreading, and the secular world has no answer to it, does not even understand the nature of religion. Climate change is a huge danger. New powers are emerging rapidly such as China and India, the former with a large church that is seeking to be part of world Christianity. India needs the truth of Christ, more so as wealth and poverty become more extreme. Between them those two great countries have a third of the world’s people. Are we supporting their churches in preaching ? How do we respond?

Islam is engaged in more and more violent activity in its civil war. Its violent arms subvert, attack, kill and destroy without mercy or conscience, as Christians did during the reformation. Islam’s mainstream leaders, at peace but much menaced, look for friends, how do we respond?

Many parts of the world represented here are suffering terribly from climate change, are literally drowning. Where is the Anglican voice?

In some areas oppressive government clings to power, provoking killing that threatens life itself. Are we in active support in united strength?

All of us here need a body that is mutually supportive, that loves one another, that stoops to lift the fallen and kneels to bind the wounds of the injured. Without each other we are deeply weakened, because we have a mission that is only sustainable when we conform to the image of Christ, which is first to love one another. The idea is often put forward that truth and unity are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true. Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love. In a world of war, of rapid communications, of instant hearing and misunderstanding where the response is only hatred and separation, the Holy Spirit whose creative and sustaining gifting of the church is done in diversity, demands that diversity of history, culture, gift, vision be expressed in a unity of love. That is what a Spirit filled church looks like.

So with all our grave difficulties we face a world in darkness, lostness and suffering, knowing that we serve Jesus who sends us and that those whom he sends he equips. Our responsibility this week is therefore to be making the church more ready for action, as a body around the world.

..we are sent, by being outward looking. Every time we act or conclude an action we must ask ourselves, will this lead a world of lostness nearer to Christ Jesus and His salvation. Even when we disagree, even if we decide we must walk separately, we must not in the way we do that imperil the salvation of one person outside this room.

We are sent. Many here set us wonderful examples of what that means in their own actions. As I said, I am the beneficiary to all eternity of the Revival. But we are sent as the Father sent Jesus, so when we get to the end of our time together this week, may we be inspired afresh as those who are indeed sent, filled with the peace of Christ.

Too long for a press release, for sure. But vastly more fascinating – religiously, theologically, ecclesiologically and humanly – for any journalist to write about. And far more interesting for any sinner to ponder than ‘Statistics for Mission’ accompanied by humdrum key facts and a few commendable name-checks.