Gerry O’Brien looks closer at the statistics they wouldn’t give you

ANY MANAGER will tell you that you need to start with the facts. Any business plan has to start with the facts and figures of the current situation and an analysis of recent trends if plans for the future are not to be built on wishful thinking or shifting sand. As the picture emerges, it may be a rosy one which merely calls for a benign plan to enhance this happy state of affairs, but it may also be an alarming one which calls for drastic measures to ensure the survival of the enterprise. Either way the managers have to face up to reality and take appropriate measures.

And of course there are facts and facts. I used to work for a manager who paid little heed to the market research data that I assembled for him about what our customers wanted, the features they sought in our products, the price they were prepared to pay and the standards of service they demanded. He preferred to use his own sampling techniques, using a sample of three friends from the Rotary Club. He had an implicit trust in their business acumen and preferred to believe the things they opined over a pint rather than the hard evidence of what the market research was saying. Relying on anecdotal evidence is generally unwise and it certainly was in this case. For instance, he had to learn the hard way that customer loyalty was not in fact our birthright.

Now the Church of England has been getting very touchy about figures these last few months. It is hard to see why, because knowing the facts has to be the starting point for any rational analysis and planning. Part of the problem seems to have been that the statistics which have been withheld have given little comfort to those who have long been unwilling to face reality about the true state of the Church of England. If the parish count is down from one year to the next, it is easy to convince ourselves, if we want to be convinced, that this is entirely due to extraneous factors. Perhaps it was raining on the day when we did the count, or perhaps it was sunny. Perhaps there was a test match on, or perhaps there wasn’t. At any rate, the human heart is deceitful above all things, and some of us don’t take much convincing when we want to be convinced.

One incontrovertible fact is that the 1990s have been the Decade of Evangelism. You can argue about what exactly is evangelism, but surely it has to be something to do with making disciples, encouraging people to give their allegiance to Jesus Christ, changing lives, changing habits, and people coming to church who didn’t come formerly. On that basis it would not be surprising if six years into the decade of evangelism we found more people coming to church than were coming at the start of the decade.

The statistics tell us that this is not happening. In fact across England, out of every thousand people 24 used to go to Church of England churches each Sunday before the Decade of Evangelism but only 21 go now. A decline of 12.5% in six years, while a Decade of Evangelism has been in progress is a truly remarkable achievement. Those inclined to whistle in the dark may convince themselves that people are now flocking to churches of other denominations or none, that most Anglicans now worship on Thursday evenings and therefore are omitted from the Sunday count, or that committed Christians now come to church once a month rather than once a week, but unfortunately there appears to be no hard evidence to support any of these fanciful notions. Even if any of them were true, it would not say much for the Church of England’s performance during the Decade.

Intriguingly, the decline of congregations is not uniform across the country. The best performing diocese (Hereford) lost only 2% of its congregations between 1990 and 1996. The worst performing diocese (Durham) has lost 28% of its congregations over the same period. Not a single diocese had a higher usual Sunday attendance figure in 1996 compared with 1990. If just one diocese was growing, we could ask what they are doing right, and hopefully learn something to our advantage, but the unpalatable truth is that we are all doing badly.

It would at least be intellectually satisfying to come up with some rationale or theory that explained the figures, but the key has remained elusive. I tried correlating the usual Sunday attendance (USA) figures with things like the reduction in clergy manpower over the period. I was out of luck. Both Hereford and Durham have lost a quarter of their clergy in six years – in one case the congregations remain virtually untouched, in the other they have been twice decimated.

Perhaps it has something to do with a diocese being mainly urban or rural. Hereford, a rural diocese is obviously different from Durham. But is it that different from Lincoln, a diocese which has lost 27% of its congregations? Lincoln incidentally, like Hereford and Durham has also suffered a heavy loss of clergy. The 1996 complement is 22% down on the 1990 figure.

There again, Derby diocese have retained 95% of their congregations. In Bristol the figure is only 76%, though both dioceses have lost roughly one in five of their clergy. Like Bristol, Worcester have retained 76% of their congregations, but they have retained 94% of their clergy. Rochester have retained 88% of their congregations with 92% of their clergy.

What does all this mean? If clergy numbers make so little difference to the shrinkage of congregations, what does? Unfortunately no qualitative figures are available to measure the quality of preaching or pastoring so no conclusions can be drawn. I even tried correlating the decline in congregations with the number of women ministers, the number of FiF parishes, the incidence of evangelical patronage – and all I got were some fairly random scatter diagrams.

This article was supposed to draw some conclusions and in that I have to admit failure. I can merely appeal to the readership of New Directions to discern relationships which have not been apparent to me. The basic questions are:

1 What have the top five dioceses (Hereford, Derby, Lichfield, London and Oxford) got in common, apart from their inability to get rid of their congregations as quickly as the rest of us?

2 What have the bottom five dioceses (Durham, Lincoln, Worcester, Bristol, Carlisle) got in common, apart from the ability to slash their congregations Beeching-style?

3 What would it take for a diocese to actually grow?

New Directions will be pleased to publish some of the more illuminating responses.

What is clear though is that the 1948 report Towards the Conversion of England has turned out to be something of a hollow sham. The noble hopes and aspirations of the authors of that report have certainly not come to pass. Fifty years on the Church of England appears to be in reverse gear and rolling backwards without any brakes. But can we face up to the facts of our lamentable performance and repent of our failure, or will we go on telling ourselves that all is well and that every new setback is no more than an aberration?

There is little comfort to be gained from the fact that the other mainline denominations are declining too. The choice is between breaking the mould, accepting the inevitability of decline, or simply hoping that something will turn up. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we really want to succeed and then face reality on our knees.

[A table of statistics relevant to this article is on Webpage 19]

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.