George Austin wonders why Church House is so coy about recent attendance figures

AH 1970 – I REMEMBER it well! It was the year Robert Runcie became Bishop of St Alban’s; the year I was inducted by him as Vicar of Bushey Heath, where I was to serve eighteen years; the year the General Synod was launched with a great fanfare and an optimistic Westminster Abbey sermon by Dean Eric Abbott. It was also the year which marked the beginning of a serious decline in churchgoing, at least in the Church of England.

A Decade of Decline

In the previous two years we had lost 64,0 00 in usual Sunday attendance figures, or 615 people per week. Between 1970 and 1973 this had risen to a rate of 846 per week, and between 1973 and 1976 it reached a record of 1044 per week – as if in those three years we had lost ten largish congregations very week. The rate slowed considerably for a few years, but then it accelerated, so that between 1976 and 1986 the average loss was ‘only’ 153. Between 1986 and 1996 the loss increased to an average of 290 a week, but during the decade of evangelism it has grown so that between 1994 and 1996 it reached the frightening average of 625 for every week of those two years, of whom 462 were adults and 163 ‘young persons’.

Can it be that the real reason why the Statistical Unit will not release the figures in its usual fashion is not because of a ‘major review of its management of information and capture’ (the official line), nor because ‘of what the media would do with them’ (the unofficial and more honest line), but because the fear is that the 1997 figures will produce a particularly unappetising result? For if the present pattern continues, usual Sunday attendance figures in 1997 will for the first time have dropped below the one million a week benchmark.

Of course some of the adult loss will have been through death. Simply assuming that church members die at the present national average death rate of 10.9 per 1000 population would mean that 213 per week of the average loss could be accounted for in this way. The age profile of many congregations suggests that this figure is perhaps a little low. But even if this rate were maintained between 1970 and 1996 it would only represent about half the decline in numbers. Indeed perhaps more alarming is the fact that the numbers of people confirmed has dropped by 62% in the same year, greater than the 59% decline in the rate of infant baptism.

Those of us whose Sunday worship involves visits to a different church every week know how many, particularly but not exclusively the country churches, have no young people – often no one below the age of 55. Often with no Sunday School even (which would at least give children something eventually to return to), it makes the prospect of future survival bleak indeed. And the fact that there are a few diamonds sparkling in the general gloom, churches bursting with life and all-age worship, only highlights the fact that other churches must be facing a more persistent decline than the average.

Underlying Causes

The correspondence I receive daily from people disillusioned with the Church of England points to a cause of the decline. A letter today from a former worshipper and priest’s widow speaks of how ‘the tenets of Christianity taught me before Confirmation have been abandoned one by one’. She has just returned to worship having found ’ an Anglo-Catholic church where the old beliefs are still held’. Yesterday it was a young professional man who had been turned off religion and the Church of England by the ‘steady diet of watered down socialist drivel’ offered in sermons by his public school chaplain. He now goes to church occasionally, but has ‘still not been to a Church of England service in which the preacher sets out a moral framework or where he attempts to convert his congregation to being true believers’.

Since 1970, one by one the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith have been systematically undermined, so that now almost every day we hear some new horror. A bishop, Michael Nazir-Ali no less, is reported in the press to be suggesting that if Christ’s body were to be found in Palestine it would not do much to the Christian faith. ‘Obviously it would pose a problem, but we would have an enormous amount left’. So if Christ be not risen, then no longer would our preaching and our faith be in vain. Another bishop appears to be testing the waters with a Synod committee’s new proposals for remarriage in church after divorce, full of safeguards which those honed by the cynicism which comes with years of watching church politicians know will be abandoned at the first fence. Yet another whom I heard recently is removing from prayers and sermon all personal pronouns of ‘he’, ‘him’, and ‘his’ in speaking to God; a heresy which, like so many has crossed the Atlantic and which denies our Lord’s own revelation of God as one whom we can call Abba, Father. On the better side though, how did a man like James Jones slip through the Crown Appointments net, when it now seems received wisdom that every new diocesan bishop is required to be in favour of legitimising homosexuality as an acceptable Christian lifestyle?

Persistent Antics

Since 1970 it has of course been gospel truth that the church must become relevant and credible to the world, that St Paul had been mistaken in suggesting, from his own outworn cultural inhibitions, that we should not be conformed to the world rather transform it by the renewing of our minds. Yet ten years on from then it should have become obvious that this has had the opposite effect of attracting new converts and instead was turning away the faithful. Unfortunately, the policy of the 1970s was intensified in the 1980s and even with the accession to the chair of St Augustine in 1990 of a new archbishop, whose heart and faith is certainly in the right place, it has so far apparently proved impossible for him to break the powerful grip of the liberal establishment. Every crisis brings a dose of the same medicine that has made the Church of England either the despair of the laughing stock of those who watch its antics.

Yet it is God’s Church and he (if I may be forgiven) has a way of bringing light out of the worst darkness. Whatever realms of secular fantasy the bishops may inhabit, the ordinary people, young and old, have a spiritual hunger and will hear the word gladly if it is offered to them. Just as we trace our Christian ancestry in the end to none other than the 120 who gathered at the first Pentecost, so we have their example of what may be achieved if we set aside our own comfort and advancement simply to live in the power of the Spirit. It is why he called us in the first place, at this dark time in the church’s life. One day a new church – perhaps unlike anything we can now imagine, but firm in the faith and in the word of God – will arise form the ashes left by befuddled and empty liberalism.

The Price to Pay

One final statistic: since 1970 usual Sunday attendance has declined by 526,000 worshippers. If a line were drawn from Harwich to the Bristol Channel, the number of people who worshipped in 1996 on an average Sunday in the Church of England north of that line is about 526,000. So in twenty-six years it is as if the equivalent of all those worshippers have given up their adherence to the Church of England. Where have they gone and does no one want them back? Or is the price – a return to creeds and scripture – too great a price for a modern church to pay?

George Austin is Archdeacon of York