Christopher Smith considers the joy of stats

Fr Geoffrey Kirk took the title of this column from a book by Anthony Trollope, in which he satirized the dishonesty that he believed to be rampant in public life, a dishonesty so brazen that it had become normalized.

So let’s have a look at a recent press release from the Church of England information office. They have slipped the latest attendance statistics out with a cheerful gloss to distract attention from the grim truth. The figures are always a year behind, being released in January based on data collected during the previous year through those cursed ‘Statistics for Mission’ forms, containing the information about the year before that, and you always have to wade through the ‘good’ news before you get to the difficult facts.

So, on the bright side, there was a 4% increase in marriages (although they had fallen by more than that over the previous five years), and over a million people attended church at least once during an average week, and significantly more did something church-related during an average month.

But the hard data should concern us all. The Church of England changed its method of reporting the numbers in 2000, so the last year of ‘old style’ statistics was 1999. The ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ figure, now somewhat unfashionable, fell during the following ten years by nearly 15%.

When the 2000 figures came out, they were issued according to the new system based on the ‘Statistics for Mission’ form, which makes grown clergy weep, and itself raises serious questions about the reliability of the data, because of the incentive to ‘up’ the numbers. Usual Sunday Attendance became Average Sunday Attendance, based on the October mass count, and was recorded in 2000 as 1.06 million.

That figure is recorded in the newly-released 2010 statistics as 923,700. That’s a drop of very nearly 13%.

But the preferred modern measure is the Average Weekly Attendance, which asks clergy to declare how many additional attendees they have during the week.

This is where ‘Fresh Expressions’ can show in the statistics, and the data collected include any group for which the gathering is ‘in effect, church for that group of people’. This can include ‘mother and toddler groups, some school assemblies, and Alpha courses etc.’ The ‘Fresh Expressions’ website gives examples like ‘a luncheon club for the elderly [which] might add worship after the meal’, and ‘an after-school meeting’ with an element of worship.

The key thing is that these are no longer being looked on as steppingstones to regular Sunday worship, but as churchgoing in their own right. Is that really what we would want to call being a practising Christian? Are those activities, all of them perfectly decent mission initiatives, good enough as an end in themselves, or is there inevitably something incomplete about them? It all seems a long way from the Catholic understanding of the people of God meeting around his altar to celebrate the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Day of Resurrection. There are also questions about the collection of those AWA figures, and how often people are being counted more than once.

Even so, AWA was first published for 2000 as ‘approximately 1.3 million’, and in 2010 as 1,116,100, a drop of over 14%.

In other words, however you measure it, church-going is around 14% lower than it was just ten years ago.

As if that were not troubling enough, the ASA for ‘children and young people’ (and you have to look quite hard for this one) fell over the same ten-year period from 180,000 to 139,000, a drop of nearly 23%. That statistic is possibly the most significant, for obvious reasons. If we can lose almost a quarter of regular attendances by under-16s in ten years, we can see the future trend more clearly.

There ought to be a slowing of the decline as the less-committed fall away, but the more-committed remain. But if we are haemorrhaging young people’s church attendance at a rate of 2.3% per year (and more like 3% recently), we are losing our pool of future church parents who will bring their children in due course. As the committed elderly move to higher things, there will be no youngsters to replace them. The total number of baptisms (including adult baptisms, which have increased in number) has dropped by 10.5% since 2000, and confirmations by a heartbreaking 38.4% since 2000. Only 22,400 people were confirmed in the Church of England in 2010.

It is stating the obvious to say that if the rate of decline gets any worse, the Church of England will soon be in serious trouble. The ‘fringe’ won’t keep the show on the road, and we might wonder why on earth, given that 25 years on we might have only half the seats in church occupied that we have now, the establishment can be bothered to persecute us. The whole shebang is facing a massive crisis, and they want rid of a few thousand Anglo-Catholics!

A final thought: the Church of England claims to have around 16,000 open churches and cathedrals. Taking the latest USA figure, if you have a total Sunday attendance of 50 people, across your services, including non-communicants and children, you’re above average for a parish church. And if you get more than one confirmation candidate a year, you’re doing better than average. You see? You’re not doing so badly, are you? ND