It’s been that time of year again. A spring-like winter has deceived buds into premature flower and bulbs into breaking the surface. So, in that time-honoured round, the statisticians of Church House have orchestrated a chorus of the great and good to see signs of hope and new life and growth in their latest publication of gloomy figures. The familiar mantra (so often advertised in these pages) of ‘more people go to church than you think’ was never plausible and now sounds more irritating and dated than a 1970s chorus. The strategy that, if you tell a big lie often enough, it becomes an accepted truth is off-putting in a political party, in a church it is profoundly depressing.

The best that can be said for these new figures is that they could have been worse. But ‘good’ they are not. In order to sweeten the pill the CofE commissioned a survey, in advance of publication, to ascertain people’s views of the Church and their intentions in worship etc. These results led to a lot of pre-Christmas chirruping from episcopal spokespersons.

Amazing numbers of people come to church at Christmas, they trumpeted.

Actually less than last year and hugely less than the year before.

One in five people has been to a concert or cultural event in a church building this year, they cry. This, presumably, is because churches were designed to acoustically assist the glorious celebration of the liturgy. Mozart may be exquisite but he is not the Mass.

Local people value the church building as a sign of their history and culture. They would not want it to close. Indeed, they do not but several things need to be said here. Even in the most optimistic budgetary forecasts the Church of England is going to have to spend much of the next 20 years mothballing, demolishing or flogging off the architectural enthusiasms of our Victorian forebears. There is a limit to how many converted Art Centres a country can endure. Nor should we take an inconsequential show of hands from a sample of 1,000 (financially uncommitted?) interviewees as an indicator of policy direction regarding historical preservation. The Grade II listing of our local butcher’s shop has seen it restored to a condition even the oldest inhabitant cannot recall. It is quite lovely but it no longer sells meat. It is an antique shop. The restoration culture has little to do with dynamic evangelism or Catholic revival.

A surprising number of people use the church during the week but never on Sundays! Surprising, one might ask, to whom? If a church did six weddings and a dozen funerals a year on its own premises the total congregations would equal approximately 50% of the average Sunday morning congregation of an average Anglican Church. But this is nothing new. People have always married on Saturdays and been buried or incinerated on weekdays. The collections from these events have seldom kept pace with inflation and the commitment of the overwhelming majority of the attenders is to the event and not the venue. To build, wide-eyed, on the ‘discovery’ of such ‘remarkable’ figures is to confess an ignorance that makes the ordinary parish priest shudder for the governance of the Church.

Even the Bishop of Rochester, not noted for his soundbites, was wheeled out to proclaim the good news of a new enthusiasm for Church Christmas in secular Britain. The figures, when they came, did little to underpin his evangelical optimism, and the extensive leak of his forthcoming report on Women Bishops simply presaged another round of dissent, division and departure. But he was not alone in making merry noises and the band on the deck of the Titanic had more than adequate episcopal representation.

Not a few bishops of late have trumpeted the marvellous attendances at ‘our’ (Deans take note) cathedrals. Having had the privilege of working in a cathedral for five years, under the great Dean Peter Moore, I can understand why. Aesthetics are fantastic, the sense of history tangible, the music (usually) breathtaking and uplifting. With these in place the liturgy can survive all but the most ham-fisted priest and, if nowadays one has to endure ten minutes of saccharine-coated heresy from the pulpit, at least it is a different heretic each week and probably little different to the offerings of the less exalted Affirming Catholics still awaiting promotion from their senior incumbencies round about. Add to this that the cathedral pays no quota and the congregant can enjoy as much anonymity and under-commitment as she likes. These are severe attractions. Should she wish to be remembered for her generosity she can be sure that her name plaque will endure in the cathedral long after her parish church has become a record store or given way to a multi-storey car park.

The cathedral, it might be remembered, is the mother church of the diocese. For her success, if such it be, to be at the expense of her children is indeed a pyrrhic victory.

So what do the figures tell us? First, a health warning. You will recall, some years ago, when numbers threatened to dip below the 1 million per Sunday mark, statistical publication was suspended until a ‘more accurate’ way of counting could be devised. When institutions commit themselves to ‘more accuracy’ in their accounts of themselves, it is always a warning sign. (Readers may rejoice that the present government has brought us record low inflation of 2%. But they are puzzled to find how this equates with 100% rise in house prices, 60 tax hikes and 40% increase in council tax to name but a few. It is, in the circumstances, a small comfort to know that the price of bananas has remained the same.)

The accuracy promised by the Church of England amounts to instituting a system of counting that makes it much more difficult to compare with bygone annual returns. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), for example, because of its method of accounting turned out to be much more favourable than the old Usual Sunday Attendance (USA). And the average weekly attendance (AWA), the temporary measure to imply a better attendance, is, as we shall observe, about to turn into a spectacular own goal.

Because the Usual Sunday Attendance (USA) figures have comparable antecedents it may be safer to start there. 2002 saw adult USA decline to 765,000 – a decline of 2% on the 2001 figures. This may seem, at first glance, disturbingly high for one single calendar year. At second glance it is considerably more so, for this is a far from unique event. This pattern has been firmly established throughout the 1990s. Whereas the 1980s, considered at the time a decade of vigorous decline, lost (only) 9% of the church’s attendance, the decade from 1992–2002 has achieved a staggering 18.5 % decline in adult Sunday attendance.

More alarming still are the returns for USA in children. The previous million plus high water mark of 1960 had long since collapsed to just over a quarter of a million (273,000) in 1980. The 1980s saw further decline of 17% down to 220,000 in 1992. The 2002 figures of 151,000 reveal a catastrophic fall of 31% for the decade. The only good news is that even this severely reduced attendance is ahead of some of the most pessimistic forecasts. Some commentators and statisticians have been privately estimating children’s attendance to pass below the 100,000 mark within the next three years. There is, however, one caveat even in this minor piece of good news. The National returns of USA, suspended around the millennium, were brought back enhanced somewhat so that the 1995 children’s figures were only marginally above this year’s returns. Two things need to be said here.

1) Either, for a brief but miraculous period, the children’s attendance figures bucks every other church trend including their own or something peculiar has been going on.

2) Even with this remarkable breathing space 1992 to 2002 still shows a 31% decline in children’s attendance and the 2001–2002 figures with a drop of 4% shows that, if anything, it is accelerating.

When the statistical publications were suspended towards the end of the decade in evangelism, it was widely believed to be a way of avoiding the inevitable headline: – ‘CofE falls below 1 million’. It was a piece of public relations that the Careyite modernizers had to avoid all costs if the ‘Project’ was seen to be working. After a period of silence the new improved formula was announced – the Average Weekly Attendance (AWA). This, it was claimed, would give a more realistic picture of church attendance in a rapidly changing society. Now it is true that the last 25 years have seen increasing pressure on Sunday. The explosion of home improvement and garden centres, the curse of Sunday shopping as unimaginative parents drag bored children round retail never-never lands and Sunday Sport where millions of the nation’s least fit berate their television heroes from the safety of the sitting room sofa. If only we included the mid-week attenders, it was argued, we could stay comfortably above the one million mark. This was true – but only for a while. The 2000 figures gave a reassuring 1,274,000 return. This year (2002) it’s down to 1,166,000, a drop of 9% in two years. If we look at adults alone the AWA has dropped from 1,031,000 to 937,000 in those two years. Closer examination may give further cause for alarm. If we allow the maximum for midweek adult attenders by subtracting the Usual Sunday Attendance (USA) from the Average Weekly Attendance (AWA) we get 172,000. This sounds a lot but averages approximately 14 people per church per week. This is not a vast number for all mid-week services combined. When you recall that it also includes attendance at weddings and funerals it is astonishingly low. The Church would only need to clock up a total of 700 attenders per annum at these offices to account for these figures which have been trumpeted as the good news!

For what it is worth, marriages are averaging five per church per annum and funerals ten per church per annum. Death, of course, remains a constant although coming, on average, more slowly nowadays. The Anglican share of the funeral market continues to diminish with increasing numbers of officiants being freelance and a gradual growth in the agnostic ‘celebration’.

Marriage is suffering from a variety of problems. Less are getting married, more are living in sin. Of those who do marry many are not for the first time and not widowed thereby excluding themselves from many Anglican churches. The Government’s liberalization granting permission to register marriages in delightful venues has also had its effect.

CofE marriages in 2002 were down to 54,700, a drop of 5% on the previous year. While we cannot hold ourselves entirely to blame for the moral decline of the nation and the shattering of the fabric of family life, it is painful to witness a further marginalization of the sacrament of marriage.

As worrying for the self-appointed managers of the Church are the continuing revenue implications. Some bishops are beginning to make threatening noises to retired clergy who are augmenting their slender income at the crematoria. They are generally picking up what the parish clergy cannot (and in some cases will not) do and without them parish ministry would implode. Less frequently vilified, for obvious political reasons, are the Methodist ministers many of whom, with no parish and little congregation, survive by doing everyone else’s funerals (and successive marriages). Unity and rationalization cannot come soon enough for the Anglican Auditor, never mind Jesus.

Of the two great sacraments such information as we have suggests continuing serious decline here too. Infant baptism depends, initially, on birthrate. In a society wholly given over to the idea that the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is entertainment, reproduction is predictably late and low. We are also now into the second generation of parents with little or no knowledge of the Christian faith, much of their religious education having been reduced to multi-culturalism and superficial comparatives. Unsurprisingly therefore infant baptisms are down to 103,000 – a drop of 6% over two years. (From an evangelistic point of view it is worth noting that if 1 in 10 of those families started coming to church – or indeed one mourner for every tenth funeral, the tide of decline would be halted overnight!)

The returns for the great festivals (Easter and Christmas) are among the most alarming of the lot. Easter 2002 saw just over 1 million communicants (1,058,000) – a drop of 300,000 over the decade and a fall of a staggering 7% on the previous year. Although Christmas numbers were only slightly down this year (1%), the previous year had registered a terrifying 10% fall.

In the lead up to Christmas, church spokespersons were trumpeting the joyful tidings of their survey (see above) and its implications for the forthcoming attendance figures. In the cold light of publication it is difficult to see why. They are bad, very bad indeed, and only a buffoon would pretend otherwise. The key question must be why they are so relentlessly bad and what, if anything, we can do about it.

It is often argued that this is a bad time for the faith in a secular and secularizing society. It is certainly true that the media (and successive Governments’ policy) are hostile to Christianity in the way they would not dare to be to other faiths. Nevertheless, as we have noted here before, some Christian witness, mainly Orthodox and Pentecostal, in Britain is growing. Both are biblically driven, both involve demanding worship.

One certainly cannot argue that it is a bad time for faith in general. Being part of a secular society is not emptying the mosques or the temples. Indeed in societies where it is a very bad time for the Faith (in much of the Third World) churches are filling. It is, almost exclusively, in the West that the light has failed.

The Church of England is not unique in its problem of decline. It is a problem it shares with almost every other liberalizing church. But its approach to the crisis has been bizarre, to say the least. For most of the last forty years it has been fiddling with its liturgy and spending countless millions disordering its churches in a headlong quest for modernity and relevance. The conclusion is a missal of shuddering banality, a scriptural translation as unmemorable as it is inaccurate and politically correct and a ‘performance’ of the liturgy condemned in the most sweeping terms by its chief architect and planner. Some church buildings have survived the new brutalism but many now ‘enjoy’ a sanctuary which has less sense of the holy than the average doctor’s waiting room. Worshippers have voted with their feet and many of these expensive white elephants will already have a sell-by date in the diocesan auditor’s files.

Clergy training has majored on outmoded and unscientific scriptural literary criticism for far too long. The conclusion, as the great ‘Mind of Anglicans 2002’ survey revealed, is great swathes of clergy whose biblical understanding and credal orthodoxy has been almost wholly replaced by a liberal social agenda. For much of the last 25 years and, to a hugely accelerated degree after the Careyite Schism, it is from these very same clergy that the overwhelming majority of the Church’s leadership has been chosen.

Needless to say, this self-same leadership has been unwilling to face the awful truth that the great experiment is failing and failing on an epic scale. For most of the last decade it has followed a double-minded policy. First, to deny the reality. The figures are wrong – we need new figures. Hence the risible jiggery-pokery of the statistical reinventions. But second, and behind the scenes, to talk about ‘the management of decline’, amalgamating parishes to place insufferable burdens on multi-beneficed clergy, to close, to sell up, to turn freehold into licence and to make redundant both buildings and people. It is perfectly clear that most of these men have no vision for the mission of the Church in this land. Perhaps it is unsurprising that there is no plan either.

What is abundantly clear from the latest figures is that the long-running charade is over. Even the ‘new, improved’ figures testify to a massive and unsustainable decline. What once claimed to be the Catholic Church in England and the church of the nation is rapidly degenerating into an eccentric liberal sect for those who like that sort of thing. The numbers are down. The game is up.

Robbie Low lives in Cornwall