Robbie Low looks at differing statistics and opposite conclusions

It must have been several years ago now. My churchwardens approached me in a state of mild confusion. The Archdeacon’s visitation had recently taken place. They rarely bothered to inform me of this deeply unexciting event as they were more than capable of dealing with the most penetrating enquiries of this representative of the Diocesan mind.

Of bums and pews

Had the Archdeacon, they wondered politely, lost his marbles? As the chap in question had never been overstocked in the marble department, this was a tricky question to answer. What had led them to this is premature psychoanalysis were his apparent priorities during the visit. They had filled in the annual questionnaire – you know the one where you tell the diocese if the office has a computer, if the parish has a health and safety policy and what steps you are taking currently to be evangelize the youth of the nation. What was troubling my wardens was that the marble-less Archdeacon paid no attention to their efforts and instead insisted on conducting a hand count of the pews in the Church. Were the wardens sure there were no others in storage, in the organ loft, in the boiler room etc etc?

Now ours is a very warm church and vicarage. Even in the coldest snaps neither the wardens nor the vicar have been reduced to chopping up the odd pew for firewood.

Having been unable to discover any signs of pew pilfering the diocesan dignitary made some excuse about needing to go to his car and never reappeared, leaving my wardens conducting a fruitless search for their annual unwelcome guest.

Had I, my trusty stalwarts wanted to know, the foggiest idea what was agitating the Arch to case our joint for a black market in a oak settles?

And as a matter of fact, by sheer chance, I had.

A few months earlier I had been to a deanery synod in a church a few miles hence. It had been the once relatively thriving high street branch of a team ministry. The Rector had, by his acute use of personal skills and liturgical variety, managed to reduce the congregation to a couple of dozen of the most determined, handed over the debris to a nice elderly woman priest and spent his time on civic duties and Rotary lunches. This was no secret. He had boasted to me of these ministerial priorities and his ability to delegate.

After the ritual suffering of the meeting itself, I went over to talk to the overburdened woman priest. All was, apparently, not doom and gloom. Well, it was but there was one bright spot. They had formed the ‘Space Committee’!

For a moment I had visions of the parish’s problems being solved by attaching the idle incumbent to the nose cone of an Apollo rocket. But no, it was much simpler than that. Apparently, ‘they’ had decided that, as so few were now attending, it would be good to have more ‘space’ in Church for other things. And so, my woman priest friend told me, by night, when no one was around, every few weeks, they would come in and remove a pew! This way, within a couple of years there would, no doubt, be room for a badminton court at the back and the remaining three pews would enable the incumbent to proclaim a full church! I am not making this up! Clearly my wardens were getting the archidiaconal fallout from one of the most imaginative experiments in church growth.


Much has been written about church growth in recent years – almost in desperate proportion to the obvious and quantifiable decline in attendances in the Church of England, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed churches. But is there anything to suggest a way forward to halt the decline, a common thread that runs through growing parishes or through declining parishes? Why are a few dioceses holding up with minimal losses while others are in apparent free-fall?

Such evidence as there is seems frequently confusing and contradictory. In the authoritative 2002 ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey (see ND July, August, September 2002) Christian Research asked clergy about their electoral roll figures (ER) and usual Sunday attendance (USA) over the decade 1991 to 2001. Of the c.1750 respondents some 1500 gave the 2001 figures. Only about 1,000 gave the 1996 figures and just over 800 gave the 1991 figures.

Several things were immediately obvious:

1) the larger churches were the ones who tended to reply. The average USA figures were 50% above the known national figures.

2) churches that had declined were less likely to report their figures, especially where the present incumbent’s reign covered the disappointing returns.

Even with these substantial caveats the figures proved significant. The most recent Church House figures (1999) claimed an average ER of 104 and a USA of 74% of the ER. Our survey respondents had an ER average of 161 (1991), 152 (1996), and156 (2001) with a consistent USA of 64% of the ER. . This latter figure suggested they had slightly more irregulars but revealed a much more intriguing fact. The slump that has affected the Church overall during the Decade of Evangelism seems, largely, to have passed them by. A slight decline, about 6%, in the first half of the decade followed by a slight rise, about 3%, in the second half. A net loss of 3% contrasts astonishingly with the average national loss of about 20%. While it indicates that the decline in other parishes must be correspondingly much more widespread and severe to account for the national figures, it does indicate that the pattern is far from uniform and areas of optimism and, indeed, growth can be found. We are, of course, awaiting the new national electoral rolls for the revision of 2002 and these may reveal another plummet. The last year before any revision (e.g. 2001) is always a high point. But as we have USA figures for 2001 and a steady percentage of USA to ER across the decade, there would have to have been an outbreak of the Black Death in survey parishes in the last year to seriously undermine the essentially static trend.

Good news and Bad

This is good news and bad news. The bad news is the state of the non-reporting parishes which are clearly much more desperate. What, for example, is one to make of Durham diocese’s loss of 28% of it adult attenders and 42% of its children (1989–99 CofE official statistics)?

The good news is that there are not insubstantial pockets of growth and they seem to be around the above average size congregations. Hardly surprising if one looks at national figures for Protestant churches across the decade. In 1989 50% of all Protestants went to 26% of their churches. By 1999 the same 50% were attending only 15% of their churches. While some of this movement may be due to the simple act of closure, the overwhelming majority is the undoubted attraction of attending a ‘going concern’ with good morale, adequate staffing, reasonable funding, facilities etc etc. We are very aware of the enormous task facing churches which, by demography or decline, dropped below viability and struggled to attract or retain young families or even service and gather their elderly.

Overall, of course, the news is bad even from our more optimistic figures. Whereas the English Churches Survey reckoned 65% of churches to be in decline even our figures show a minimum of 50% with falling numbers. Allowing for a further 20–25% be static, this means that perhaps, best case, as much as 30% of churches are, growing.

Our returns indicated that the smaller the church, the more likely its Sunday attendance was to decline. Conversely the larger the Church, the more likely its attendance was to grow. Getting over the hundred mark on a Sunday swung the balance critically between growth and decline eg USA 100-150 saw 20% of churches decline, 27% static and 53% growing. It also indicates that the critical figure for the health of the Church is not its electoral roll which can fluctuate wildly but usual Sunday attendance.

Another voice

Now comes the complicated bit. No sooner had we received our survey figures and begun to analyze their implications with a view to publication than a rather strange thing happened. That CofE published a book on its own decline. It was called, in typical Anglican speak, Hope for the Church and was written by Bob Jackson, the research missioner of the Archbishop’s doomed evangelism initiative, Springboard.

Although I didn’t get an advance copy, I did get an early warning of its contents. A friend on a national daily phoned me. ‘Can you explain to me what is going on?’ he rasped. ‘For years they have been telling us that everything is fine and people like you have been lying about the decline of the Church. Now they publish a book saying, ‘the Church is in terrible decline. It’s time you faced up to it.’ It was a rhetorical question. My friend knows that I have never been a spokesman for the institution.

However what is going on is, politically, very plain to see. Those in authority now recognize that there is a crisis of membership, money and morale of such magnitude that further denial could only provoke ridicule among observers and fatal inertia among the faithful.

Jackson’s work is fascinating and wide-ranging and I do not intend to précis it here. Some of his material confirms our work and some of it contradicts. He accepts the serious pattern of decline of adult attendance along with the slight end of decade rally. We will not know for a decade if this is the beginning of a sustained upturn or what stockbrokers call a ‘dead cat bounce’. Jackson is inclined to see the 1990–97 catastrophic decline as largely the fault of the women priests row. He goes on to suggest that some dioceses’ samples of women priests parishes are declining less than their male colleagues. Such interesting selection may, of course, suit diocesan policy. After reading his assertions (no evidence given), I went to a set of diocesan handbooks for the last ten years and monitored the first 20 parishes listed that had women priests . The parishes showed an electoral roll average decline of 21% and an Easter communicant average decline of 38%. I find this random evidence no more or less convincing than Mr Jackson’s bishops’ wishful thinking. It will be a long time before reliable evidence is in. What we do know indisputably is that, post ’92, child attendance is in free-fall, that the overwhelming majority of departing adults are men and the attendance of fathers at church is hugely more significant for a child’s future commitment than his mother’s faithful attendance. We know also that women priests are massively less credally orthodox than the priests and laity who oppose them.


Aside from this Jackson does come to one other conclusion starkly at odds with our research. He has discovered that most of the decline is occurring in the larger churches while the smaller ones are most likely to be growing. This does not stop him concluding that ‘there are more of us on the Titanic than we thought but the Titanic may still be going down.’ However, the political and economic fall-out of our different conclusions has major implications for the current life and future planning of the Church in this land.

Let us assume that Bob Jackson is right. Growth is small, big is burdensome and failing. The current projections place Anglican attendance at just over 500,000 by 2030 with virtually no children. (1990 figures were 1m adults and 200,000 youngsters.)

The 2030 remnant would, à la Jackson, be housed in the same number of churches. ‘The very smallest congregations cling tenaciously to life, so it is possible that few buildings will actually be closed even if total numbers are half what they are today’. The prospect of half the present team supporting the same crumbling heritage industry is not cheering.

Jackson also seems happy to accept the bishops’ and dioceses’ assurance that stipendiary clergy cutbacks, after the current massive pruning, will be considerably less 1% p.a. Although his book is filled with ideas for growth, none of which seemed to aid the Decade Evangelism, there is, it seems to me, a serious flaw in this projection. It is to assume that no further financial crisis will afflict the CofE – an assumption undone before the ink was dry on his book. And also that people are going to want to join a top heavy, badly governed society for the maintenance of old buildings.

Jackson recognizes that church plants grow fastest of all with some 63% new Christians attributed. The fact that they are run by the most committed section of the church and attract talent from declining churches, have fewer overheads and can devote almost all their energy, in the early days at least, to mission gives them an overwhelming advantage.

Small is expensive

But the maintenance of endless small churches – which our figures show declining – has other implications. Let me tease these out using my own neck of the woods as example. There are four parishes between here and the nearest major conurbation. Between them they have six church buildings (including a £1m new build!) and six full-time clergy. They have combined electoral rolls of 571 (36% of that figure from one church). They have a combined Easter attendance of 932 (60% of that figure from the same church). The usual Sunday attendance on national ER/USA figures should therefore be about 360. It is, in fact, 450 (with the same church providing 48% of that figure).

On the same stretch of road the Baptists (growing nationally and locally) have one church and membership of around 300, one minister and a youth pastorate. The Catholics have one church, one priest, huge lay involvement and 1,200 at Mass on Sunday.

It is arguable that, except at Christmas and Easter, the CofE could get by with one building and luxuriate in a couple of priests. In reality we could easily cut to three buildings with three priests. Any spare capacity would enable us to employ a youth pastor, a missioner, an educator. That is, of course, if we were not, in reality, four wholly different churches misleadingly operating under a common franchise. Therein lies the problem for the rationalizer. Historic buildings and rival churchmanship cannot easily be wished away.

Jackson’s gamble on the small would be a very long shot indeed. He argues that 75% of churches with 400+ members are declining while 60% of tiny (less than 10 members) churches were growing. This is well and good but if you put a performing dog in the church porch you could get a congregation of 10 to increase. The economics of this strategy simply don’t bear examination.

Bucking the trend?

Much of the current information is fascinating but inconclusive. How did London diocese buck the trend? (12% adult and four% child growth in the decade). Why did Truro lose 48% of its children but only 12% of its adults? There are huge variations across dioceses and parishes operating in the same culture. Success and failure do not seem to be related overmuch to environment either. Jackson’s work confirms much of what we already know. Churches with youth provision, catechism (Alpha/Emmaus/Credo) and a good ethnic mix are all significantly more likely to grow.

He also dares ask about leadership at all levels. We have seen the church that is brought alive by the dedicated industrious priest and one that is killed by his idle neighbour. But we also know men who have laboured long and faithfully in very unproductive parts of the vineyard. Jackson simply notes that the ethos and leadership of the diocese is critical and the Church should look for ‘clergy who have led parishes into significant growth’. Senior clergy with this background will be best equipped to lead others to do the same.’

If I have laboured the differences between our findings and Jackson’s, I nonetheless admire his work. He has tried to inspire strategic thinking in a church establishment that has shown little management skill and a tendency to be overtaken by foreseeable crises. He is the first spokesman for the establishment to acknowledge the scale of the disaster. If his initiative could be taken up by the bishops as a wide invitation to involve others in the Church who have charted the territory and share his concerns, it may yet be the beginning of something positive.

Whoever is right about size and growth, one thing will undoubtedly be critical for the future of all our parishes – viability, spiritual and economic.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.