Gerry O’Brien looks at some tell-tale statistics

People tend to agree that there is a gender imbalance in church congregations. True, there are congregations where men outnumber women, but the phenomenon is sufficiently unusual as to make it worth remarking upon. Most parishes have more women than men.

In the youth group, if your parish has one, it is likely that the girls will outnumber the boys. At the family service, there will be a number of families, but a fair number of solo mums, whose husbands are either in bed, on the golf course, or doing something else. Solo dads tend to be conspicuous by their absence. The Church does seem to have a fair number of female members who are single, but very few men in the same category. We have a good number of ladies whose husbands do not share their faith, but few men in church with non-churchgoing spouses.

All sorts of reasons are advanced to explain why the gender split in Church is significantly different from the gender split in the population as a whole. Could it be that women are intrinsically more disposed to religious faith than men? Could it be because women are more likely to be around at the crisis points in life – birth, sickness and death for instance, and that these experiences make people more aware of the eternal dimensions of life and our own mortality? Could it be something sociological – the fact that more women than men tend to be available when church activities take place?

Beer and skittles?

There must also be the possibility that the Church simply doesn’t know how to relate to men in a men’s world. Do all the boys leave Sunday School at the age of 11 because the ladies running the Sunday School can’t organize a football team, and find it easier to organize activities for the girls? Do ladies get involved in mother and baby clubs because they are there? Do men not get involved in men’s fellowships because they aren’t there? Do we simply do things in a feminine way? For instance, how many churches serve coffee after the service? How many churches serve beer?

Our churches do seem to be environments in which women feel more at ease than men. So what do we do to encourage men to join in? We probably organize lots of activities like the Mothers’ Union, the Women’s fellowship, a crèche, a flower arranging rota, a Mums and Toddlers group and Home meetings which men (tired after a long day’s travelling) are disinclined to turn out for.

The feminine touch

Well, if my thesis is correct – that we have a male-run institution (the Rector/Vicar is usually male), but one which appeals disproportionately to women, what happens when you put a woman in charge? It is not that easy to find out because the Church of England doesn’t keep detailed statistics by gender, but I am working on it. For the moment, though, I can reveal some interesting trends in my own diocese.

In the year 2000, of the 178 incumbents listed in the diocesan directory, 162 were male and 16 were female.

I checked through the Assistant staff, Readers, Churchwardens, PCC Secretaries and Treasurers for each parish and found that the percentage of women among them was as shown in the table below:

male female female

incumbent incumbent incumbent

for less than for more than

four years four years


Treasurers 30% 20% 44%

Readers 35% 50% 67%

Asst staff 37% 50% 67%

(e.g. curates)

Churchwardens 40% 45% 44%

PCC Secretaries 76% 90% 89%

Intriguingly, when a woman is appointed as curate, there is no statistically significant change in the gender distribution of the postholders. I am tempted to speculate that having a woman on the staff team probably makes no difference because there have been women on the staff of churches for years. However, having a woman in charge does seem to make a difference.

It is difficult to know what conclusions to draw. It could be argued that the sample size is not particularly large (because the number of female incumbents in the diocese is not particularly large). It does appear, though, that there is no evidence that the coming of a female incumbent helps to increase male participation in the life of the church.

It also begs the question as to whether would-be female incumbents are attracted to female dominated parishes, or whether a female incumbent tends to attract more participation from women than men after she has arrived. Certainly, female incumbents seem to be far more likely to have female assistant staff (who are generally appointed by the incumbent for short terms).

Hard questions

It is hardly a theological question, more a sociological one, but perhaps we should ask whether the changes in the Church of England over the last ten years are actually making it more difficult to secure the participation of men. If the answer is yes, then we are building up problems ahead as we ask for more money from our congregations, since men still tend to be the breadwinners and wage earners out of whose pockets the Church will be looking for increasing funding.

How is the Church to attract men? Saying it can’t be done really won’t do, because there are some parishes who seem to have worked out some answers. However, with church attendance declining generally, but most markedly amongst the under 35s, we do need to get a grip on the problem. Jesus started the Church with twelve people – and they were all men, so clearly the problem is not insoluble. We do need to take the problem seriously, though, because sociologically it would be very difficult to draw men, particularly young ones, into an institution that was perceived to be overwhelmingly feminine.

Maybe clergy in the future will have to watch the rugby and the cricket with the men they are seeking to win. Maybe evangelism will have to take place on neutral territory, like the pub or a hotel, rather than in what young men perceive as the inhibiting and off-putting atmosphere of a church. Maybe we will have to take Jesus to where the men are, rather than waiting for them to come to him.

But in the meantime, I think perhaps we should do some more research. That will allow us to put off the moment of truth when we have to face up to the fact that we really are not making much of a job of winning men for Christ.

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