The Church of England may be in decline, but it’s got at least one thing right

Salisbury Cathedral (Getty Images)

The Church of England has just released its annual load of “Statistics for Mission”. I know exactly what you’re thinking – for I’m thinking it too: “Has it really been a year? Time just flies in the world of ecclesiastical stats, huh!”

Now autumn has really begun! No doubt, like me, you’re now conjuring up warm, happy memories of my blog about last year’s set of pumpkin-spiced stats. Here at the Benedict XVI Centre, it’s not so much falling leaves we spend October on the look-out for… as, err, falling church attendance graphlines. (Okay, okay, I’ll stop now. It’s been a long week.)

Anyway, here’s some (very) quick takes:

  1. As is now to be expected, almost every indicator of genuine commitment (as opposed to the rather more nebulous notion of social media “reach”) has fallen across the Church of England as a whole. Normal Sunday attendance, Easter attendance and communicants, baptisms, marriages, funerals… all slightly though appreciably down on the previous year.
  1. The single main indicator bucking this trend is Christmas attendance: 2.58 million attended a Christmas church service in 2016, compared to 2.54 million in 2015. Admittedly not a huge jump – and the unusually “balmy weather” may well have had something to do with it. Interestingly, however, the number taking communion at Christmas fell, ever-so-slightly, from 2015.
  1. Little, year-on-year changes are one thing, and in themselves might not be taken too seriously. But as St Josemaría Escrivá – not quoted in the report itself, oddly enough – once asked: “Have you ever stopped to consider the enormous sum that many ‘littles’ can come to?”
  1. Church decline is a case in point here. For example, between 2006 and 2016 (not in itself a vast span of time): “Usual Sunday Attendance” has fallen by 14 per cent (and 23 per cent, even more worryingly, for children), Easter attendance by 17 per cent, baptisms and “thanksgivings” by 15 per cent, marriages and “services of prayer and dedication” by 21 per cent, and funerals by a striking 28 per cent.
  1. Of course, while these are the headline trends, there are many possible diocese-specific substories to tell: data for all forty-six of them is provided in exhilarating detail. I haven’t had time to peruse it much myself yet. Still, from a quick glance, the Diocese of Hereford seems likely, once again, make the shortlist for “All-round Best Diocese” at this year’s Bullivanties (quite the razzamatazziest of all the church statistics awards ceremonies, natch).
  1. Sadly, this year’s report – in contrast to last year’s – doesn’t tell us the proportion of Anglican parish churches that either have a toilet and/or moonlight as a Post Office.
  1. Finally, how does all this compare to what’s going on in the Catholic Church? Well frankly, I’ve no idea, since our dioceses aren’t normally in the habit of releasing the reams of similar statistics they collect. (Though the good folks in Hexham and Newcastle are widely-tipped for a Bullivanty nomination in the “Lone Voice Crying in the Wilderness” category). From a PR perspective, maybe they’re right: the constant drip, drip of dispiriting news such regular reporting tends to engender doesn’t exactly send an enticing message. But I dunno… call me crazy, but I’ve always thought it’s better to know what precisely it is we’re up against.