Empty Church

I have a Maths degree and I’m not afraid to use it. NZ’s Anglican Church does not collect statistics nationally. I will come back to a recent international study, but first want to pull from my shelves the diocesan statistics that I have for the 25 years being a member of synod as an ordained person (each diocese keeps its own statistics – what each diocese keeps may vary from diocese to diocese, and from year to year).

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Essentially, the number of people receiving communion at Christmas in Anglican churches in our diocese has halved in 25 years. If we had kept growth with population growth the 19,784 should have grown to 26,107. So, in percentage of population terms, we have dropped 60% in that time.

For visual readers, here is a graph of those figures:
Communion at Christmas

Sunday attendance in 1990 was 472,025 in total for the year. In 1996 the statistics-gathering changed, and instead total church attendance across all days in the year was collected. So in 1996 (I am not making this up) our synod records show an increase from 436,840 (1995) to 584,703 (1996)!
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If we had kept pace with population growth, that number (356,290) would now be 701,643. In any case I think this measure, total church attendance, rather than total Sunday attendance, is open to too much subterfuge. In a parish with say 35 on Sunday, a couple of clergy and a couple of laypeople meeting for morning and evening prayer and a daily eucharist, throw in a couple of rest-home services, and count 2 for every home or bedside communion, and you soon can represent yourself as a parish with a weekly attendance of 150ish.
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The responses to the ageing church shrinking in numbers, if it is discussed at all, is often with comments like, “The church has always been full of babushkas (older women); there are always more babushkas to take their place”. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Or it’s the pious, “I know revival is coming. We’ve been praying for it.” Or, “God is in control. It’s God’s work. God converts – not we. We just need to be faithful.” Or quoting scripture, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against my church.”

I have spent time in every country across North Africa except Libya. That used to be a thriving Christian area with over 400 bishoprics (dioceses). Read my lips: with the exception of a few faithful remnants, the church’s presence is pretty thin there now! The Donatist controversy weakened the church. The Vandals didn’t help. We have our own Donatist-like controversy weakening the church now. And the quakes, rather than being our finest hour, haven’t helped.

Internationally

The oft-cited figure of 80 million Anglicans worldwide could be out by millions, according to new research.

According to official Anglican Communion figures, the estimated number of Anglicans in the world today is about 80 million. However problems with the reliability of the figures mean the number of active Anglicans could be far lower.

The figure of 80 million includes 26 million Anglicans in England, when there are in fact just one million regular churchgoers.

Daniel Muñoz, lecturer in church history at the Protestant Faculty of Theology SEUT, in Madrid, Spain, challenges the official figures in a paper published by the Journal of Anglican Studies….

Regarding Nigeria, often cited as a fast-growing province claiming 18 million members, he reports there could in fact be fewer than two million active Anglicans….

His analysis shows that of the nearly 80 million people claimed to be Anglican, the actual number of active Anglicans worldwide could be below nine million.

Just to bring in the NZ figures: the government census figures have Anglicans dropping from 17% of the population in 1991 to 11.79% in the 2013 census. 459,771 people called themselves “Anglican” in that last census. As in Australia, only a tenth of these might be actively involved.

Does it matter?

I think a small community thinks and acts differently to a large, lumbering institution. I think the general population reacts differently to a small community than to a large, lumbering institution. And I think we present ourselves to ourselves and to the general population as large, with daunting buildings, ever-increasing numbers of opaque titles, and incomprehensible distinctions of robing and rankings. I find we are not even asking or seldom asking ourselves the questions about what is an optimum community size? What is the number in the general population that such a community can best serve? How can we train and form our leadership to enable the mission of such a vibrant community? It is certainly affecting our worship style, with the gross, implicit misunderstanding that our worship services are our primary (in some cases only) means of evangelism (by which many really mean keeping the club going).

Internationally, of course, the statistics are abused in our current Donatist controversy with, for example The Episcopal Church cited as shrinking in comparison to a thriving conservative Global South network which calls itself “the vast majority of the active membership of the Anglican Communion.” It may be merely that The Episcopal Church is honest, and actually counts people appropriately and accurately.

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