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Christian Decline?

Cartoon by David Hayward “Naked Pastor” (used with permission)

The recent release of Church of England attendance statistics has sent some Anglicans into a spin. These are the sort of figures from 2019 (BC – Before COVID) to 2021 (with church back in in-person services):
Adult average weekly attendance -28%
Child average weekly attendance -38%
Easter attendance -56%
Christmas attendance -58%
The average all-age weekly attendance, which includes Sunday and midweek services, was 605,000 people in 2021, compared with 854,000 people in 2019. [Church Times summary here].

UK census figures show that, for the first time in history, a majority of people in England and Wales don’t call themselves Christian anymore. In 2011, 59.3% of the population identified as Christian; a decade later, 46.2% of people do.

Here are some statistics from Australia:

New Zealand Anglicanism is so large [ring the sarcasm gong] we cannot get agreement across our church how to collect attendance statistics – we have no idea how many people are in our churches last Sunday. Shall I guess? In many Anglican churches here, 20-40 is regarded as a good congregation. Some parishes, some cathedrals, have more than that. That’s about the number of people a teacher works with in the couple of periods before Morning Break. [And the parish with such congregations usually employs one or more persons – at mid-experience-teacher rates.] Shall I keep guessing? Would there be less than half a percent of our population in an Anglican church this coming Sunday? I’m going to say there’s fewer than 20,000 in our Anglican pews this Sunday.

If that guess is anywhere near correct, Anglican church attendance in NZ is a third or less of what it is for the Church of England! Let that sink in…

From the outside, NZ Anglicanism presents to the world as a large, impressive, well-organised institution, with an impressive-sounding title (that even insiders regularly get wrong), three archbishops, a pyramid of leadership with titles more impressive than judges or members of parliament, a seminary that was better endowed than (almost?) any other seminary on the planet (and yet, in a country where the smallest institution can offer its own accredited qualification, it has not managed to offer a degree, let alone an ongoing course in worship leadership), and well-kept buildings that regularly dominate the landscape. We do not present to others, and even to ourselves, as an organisation in accelerating demise. [Does NZ Anglicanism present to ourselves and to others as being the size of a CofE diocese?]

I am currently Priest in Charge of a parish where, people tell me, the congregation is now the second largest in our diocese. New people keep coming in because the building is open more (for prayer, looking around, silence, and daily services) and because they find us through our growing online presence, our social media activity, posters, and hand-outs. And people bring other people.

On a recent Saturday, I saw a lovely Anglican Church building, its doors wide open and welcoming. If I’d been in it before, it was long ago. I went in, enthusiastic. A choir was practicing. The conductor turned to me, brusquely asking what I wanted. I was just happy to look around. But I was told in no uncertain terms: the church is not open to the public. “Come back tomorrow,” someone called after me as I was already out the door. It sounded sarcastic [ring that sarcasm gong]. I’m not sure if that church building had a service there the next day. I checked the notice boards: there were confusing times and information, posters pasted on with differing, contradictory information. Later, I checked online – their web presence (if you can call it that – maybe sound that sarcasm gong again) was minimal, and clearly unreliable. This community had lost the nineteenth-century skills of using a notice board without acquiring the 20th-century skill of being online, let alone the 21st-century ability of social media, where people live nowadays. As for being welcoming…

What study, training, and formation are the leaders, those to be ordained, receiving in and for our post-Christian, post-modern context? I have regularly thought (and said) what is needed is a spiritual year to stand on, strong theological bones, agility in leading worship and preaching well, digital understanding and competency, and quality pastoral skills. Our huge [sarcasm gong] Anglican Church in NZ cannot even agree what standard is required for ordination. I am not convinced that systematically working on my list is anywhere near attempted at our national seminary. Furthermore, when did our NZ Anglican leadership begin to be alert to the significant shortage of well-trained clergy in our church? The lack of statistics, analysis, and reflection at a congregations’ level is mirrored in the lack of reflection about our clergy situation. The two, I posit, are interrelated. I recently asked a few deeply committed, long-serving Anglican laypeople (to anonymise further, not in the parish in which I am currently serving) what they thought the process was for becoming a priest – not one of them had any idea.

Finally, are people too frightened to shift the paradigm and point to God at work in the world? Do many/most still think that the image to present is of in-drag from the wicked world to be saved into our safe sanctuaries? If we point to God at work in life beyond church walls, true, people won’t be scared into coming to church – part of the old paradigm – but they might fall in love with this God who is clearly in love with them, and join with others who seek to grow in this love. I recently spoke with someone who appeared to have lost their faith – when they articulated the faith they had inherited, my response was that what they had inherited was a faith worth losing. Is the decline in much of current church-going a loss?

Bishop Peter Carrell blogs about decline:
NZ churches sliding, sliding, in bewilderment, into irrelevancy?
Tough Anglican times England, Oz, NZ

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5 thoughts on “Christian Decline?”

  1. Excellent Bosco Thankfully I’m in a parish which is quietly growing and, not insignificantly, following at least the majority of your agenda. One minor quibble though. We’ve been told that on any given Sunday, you can expect around 60% of your committed core to be at a service. In these days of internet banking and streamed services that is likely to be reducing further. So the Sunday attendance figure, on it’s own, can be deceptive

    1. Thanks, Phil. Yes – people who know about these things tell me that a “regular churchgoer” is once in 3 weeks now. We have just done a survey in our diocese – and people filled it in once in the month, rather than once on a Sunday. Your 60% might be right. Our lectionary, of course, assumes every-Sunday attendance. It is worth a reflection: if this trend continues, and Christians start coming to church monthly, do we need a completely different style of lectionary. I am hoping not. Blessings.

  2. There’s a double-whammy here for Anglicans who do not identify as evangelical. I read recently in a Guardian article from back in 2016 that evangelical Anglican missions in England are being planted apace, and that 70% of ordinands in the CofE are from that tradition – and when I say evangelical I mean the extreme end, with rock concerts rather than recognisable liturgy on Sundays. This implies that not only is overall attendance dropping, but that the Anglican Church is morphing into something that looks like the Baptists with bishops, with no room and a bleak future for the broad-church people and the Anglo-Catholics. There has to be something these last two groups are not getting across. Perhaps this relates to some of your points above, Bosco?

    1. Thanks, Chris. Your reflection deserves much more analysis – there’s an area of study there for someone.

      In NZ, Anglicanism seems to now have a suspicion of predictable liturgy – as far as I know, there is no ongoing study of how to do that well in our national seminary?

      There is a culture of “finding a church that fits with you”, so that the same catchment of people are moving around to find something they are comfortable with. Growing Anglican parishes are, hence (anecdotally, at least – someone needs to do the statistics), often filled with people from other denominations looking for a less-fundamentalist flavour of Christianity. Having such a community needs the approach taken in Anglican schools – forming liturgically from scratch. I am unaware of people doing such formation in parishes.

      My quarter of a century primarily ministering to young people is that they are enthusiastic about predictable liturgy done well and connecting with their actual lives. The complaint that such young people do not go on from our Anglican schools into Anglican parish pews might be because they can no longer easily find Anglican parishes that present the predictable liturgy that nourishes them.


      1. I think you have it there, Bosco. I can tell you here and now that I know personally a not-inconsiderable number of young people who have gone to the Orthodox Church and to Extraordinary-Form Roman Catholic (read Latin Mass) parishes looking for the stable and reverent liturgy you describe. I worry a little about these young folk because while they will avoid overt fundamentalism in these places they will nevertheless encounter deeply entrenched views, with little willingness to engage in the ‘Reason’ part of the ‘Scripture, Faith and Reason’ trilogy. I also worry a lot about what future Anglicanism will look like with this sharp and extreme evangelical lurch. It won’t be any church that I can identify with (n.b. so that’s another adult member lost). If I wanted that kind of worship I’d go to the Baptist or Life Church. You know my views on this, I think (i.e. what is an Anglican, anyway?).

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