The Church of England has published the 2014* ‘Statistics for Mission‘ - as ever it's another challenging read as the numbers and trends make it onto paper and screen to encourage or dismay in equal measure.
The key numbers, if you're a bishop of other 'senior' clergy member has to be the report that the weekly attendance (figures collected for each October) has dipped below the million mark for the first time - the actual stated figure being: 980,000.
There is a hint that this dip is due to a the removal of school services from the annual stat's (which began in 2013) but let's not kid ourselves, the trend (after a static 2011 - 2012) is downwards and there is a decrease for the 2013 numbers.
Now this isn't perhaps a gloomy as it look (said he cheerfully) because my own minuscule experience is that the past five years have seen a number of the older communicant members of the churches around me depart this life; many other are no longer able to come - perhaps we should include home communion in the statistics as I this week alone I have communicated eighteen people?).
Bottom line is that as the old depart the new aren't filling the pews behind them!
What does this say for those to us engaged in mission and about the impact of the many, many, mission and growth departments and the effect that the numerous experts who encourage us from their diocesan ivory towers regarding growth? Now there's a gauntlet laid down!
Another interesting trend to look at is the numbers coming to church with regard to Easter and Christmas and looks at the Average and Usual Sunday attendance trends too:
The good news for 2014 was that Christmas held quite steadily over the previous year whilst Easter rose slightly and overcome the losses of the previous year. There is a message to be taken on board here with those who think we should restrict or limit the services offered at the two principal feasts of the year: DON't, this is a time when we are able to engage with people in numbers and be effective in the preaching of the Gospel and the ministering of God's Grace as seen in Jesus, the Christ.
Dare I suggest (of course I dare) that the continuing decline in Sunday attendance has more to do with erratic and variable attendance than it does with people not being around? One of the interesting things I have noticed of late is the usually consistent members becoming less os as Garden Centre sale, family commitments and other 'distractions' make themselves know. Those who came every week now seem to be coming two (or three is keen) out of four rather than all four, and once the habit of attending begins to be lost so the habit (and ease) of being elsewhere is taken up - and this means lower average Sunday attendance stats.
The average weekly stat's, which are diminished but not in line with the ASA, is surely part of the effect that Fresh Expressions is having and also, if where I am is something that is happening elsewhere, the introduction of midweek services. Interestingly, around me I find people who baulk at having house groups and midweek services (did I mention that we had to keep putting chairs our for those who came to the January 1st 'Naming and Circumcision' service - why have so many stopped doing the red letter days?)
I'm not going to go through the whole of the stat's but suffice to say you'll find the challenge of a 12% decline in attendance over the past ten years and a continuing decline in the CofE being the 'go to' people when it comes to occasional offices:
Despite the Marriage and Funeral projects and the various oadshows and evangelists that have come out of it, the bottom line is that too many undertakers now look to Humanists (is there a side of issue of improved income for those who use 'in house' officiants and there are some I know who keep a small fee for recommending and engaging those who might not be 'clergy' in the sense we understand it (Humanist Minister is surely an oxymoron! But we have to ask ourselves is this is a response to the deceased 'not being religious' or is there something else here?
Weddings are interesting because many I meet who are getting married do so in the many hotels, castles and other 'pretty' places and so the demand for our buildings decreases on financial (some churches are rooking the customers - sorry, but needs to be said) grounds and on the fact that there is no relationship with the clergy or the members of their churches. One of my acquaintances is being married in a posh hotel because 'everyone is so affirming and polite' - of course they are, they're paying £3,500 for the day - many of my colleagues see the wedding as a one-off encounter and a 'day off' lost!
Baptisms were regarded as the new marriage as we blessed the product of a relationship we would not agree with under constraints of the marriage, formication and adultery approach to sex! But even here have people offering baptisms (or naming services) as secularists. One snake oil salesman I know does Anglican, Christian, Wiccan and whatever you fancy in terms of initiation and naming - another outcome to be expected as we lose the relationships with the people around us.
So, grab yourself a copy of the report (you'll find one HERE ) and have a read, a reflect and do some praying and then take it to your church councils, leadership and others and see what effect it has on others. Hopefully it won't be the shrug I was greeted with as a response.
Come on people - read the report, smell the coffee and get on your knees first and then get out of your blinking buildings and take Church where it is meant to be.
I'll leave you with a couple of controversial comments. The first came from a church council I was attending (not my own) :
"If only the people at the top would spend as much time, money and energy talking about same-sex stuff and making managers of the 'senior' clergy on helping small rural churches like us to expand the growth and community influence we have here. But no, they close our buildings and take away our clergy to fund the stuff that touches no one and blesses even were of us'!
The second comes from an ex-Anglican evangelical believer:
"Of course the Church of England is in decline. What do you expect when you set aside the commandments and ignore the demands that the Bible places upon our lives and the way that we live them? Decline is a response to the liberalism and weak-willed secularists who pose as ministers ing your church. When church look like those around them then surely it is no loner able to consider itself to be Church? I know atheists with more integrity and faith than the church I left behind - may God have mercy on you all!"
Not comfortable to hear either of those viewpoints voiced - right or wrong - not a joyful experience.
* Yes, it takes a couple of years to compile what in the real world would be present at the AGM at the start of a new business year. Still, let's not moan, we can live in the past now and feel better than we might were today's figures available!!