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Empty Church

End of the Anglican Church?

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).

[table id=1 /]
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.


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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35 thoughts on “End of the Anglican Church?”

  1. Thanks for this. I find the argument that we don’t need to respond because its up to God frustrating. I also believe that most of the changes we’ve tried (in TEC anyway) for at least a generation (Bivocational!, Team Ministry!, parish clusters!)are mostly aimed at trying to sustain a model best described by George Herbert.

    At the same time, there are many parishes that are doing well and engaging in creative ministry. This gives me hope. I am also hopeful because many young leaders entering into positions with real sway are people who have never know the “good old days of yore.” Most of my recently ordained colleagues have only ever known and ministered in a church that is losing cultural influence. I am hopeful because their energy may go to propagating more of that creative and engaging ministry and way less to upholding institutional structure that are relics of a past age.

  2. Thanks for raising this, I know that Danni’s research is well founded.
    For us the figures in our Tanzanian links seem to bear out the same trends.
    Is it time for a wake up call to the Anglican Church or is it already too late?

  3. There is the reality of statistics and there is the reality of acknowledging the statistics. It will be interesting to see when the latter reality becomes reality for our whole church!

    In the meantime, I would thrown in the observation that in my experience many Kiwi Anglican leaders are realistic about decline. They may not shout their acknowledgment to the rooftops but they are acknowledging the reality you draw attention to, e.g. with revised diocesan budgets, with recalibration of positions (1.0 FTE is now 0.75 FTE …) and with constant efforts to find a solution even though no one seems to have one!

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      Agreed, obviously, about reality for our whole church.
      I would obviously not say our leaders are naïve about the reality on the ground, but let’s be honest that there is a measure of insulation of bishops from that reality. They themselves are aware and articulate that when the bishop comes to a community it is normally for a major do – confirmations (extra young people), inductions, centenaries, etc.
      In the case of reduction in remuneration for a position, is that cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth? In other words: is that budget driven? Or is it strategically motivated, based on vision founded on careful analysis of statistics?
      Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on us.


  4. Yes. Time for honesty. In our parish, now some 250 at least occasionally attending and 90-ish “pledging units” there has been high anxiety. The Silicon Valley is one of the most secularized locations in the United States. Attendance at religious services hovers somewhere south of 23%. We are also very multicultural, with high percentages of Hindus, Moslems, and countless “Spiritual but not Religious” and “Not even spiritual”.

    So, in this environment, what is our purpose as a church? The Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw, from Stanford University, preached and spoke to this at our recent Diocesan Convention. She said, “There is nothing more foolish than to set about to lead people from where they are not, to where they do not want to go.” Is there a fundamental flaw in what we think of as evangelizing?

    We don’t have “the answer” but boy, are we talking about it.

    1. These are great points, thanks, Lou. Just to clarify – I would think in NZ we are south of 10%. Parishes of 35-50 would not be uncommon. Parishes of a dozen exist. We have pledging units at 5, 6, 10, 13, 14, 16,… you get the picture. The lowest pledging units for a full time clergy position is 21. Blessings.

  5. I’m wondering about the bigger picture (since I’m not Anglican). My understanding is that a similar trend is observed across all denominations. We no longer live in a “Christian” culture, and there is a challenge to all believers (not just the leaders) about how we respond to this. I’m conscious that I don’t discuss my faith very much in my workplace, or with unbelieving family and friends. Yet I’ve been taught that those one to one conversations with ordinary believers are the most effective form of evangelism. How can I do my part better? And how can the clergy better equip and encourage their congregations to respond to the increasingly secular world?

    1. Really, really important points, thanks Claudia. You saw in my post my hope that we move away from the mistaken obsession that the worship service is the primary focus for evangelism. Also, as you are so helpfully highlighting, church leadership is called to equip the mission and ministry of the Christian community as they live, work, and play in this (as you point out new) world. I think your one-to-one conversations are one side of the coin. How we live is the other. I have a post in the pipeline that begins this conversation. Begin being the operative word. Blessings.

  6. Thanks for this Bosco. My impression of your pessimistic analysis is that it is not quite pessimistic enough as it doesn’t take account of the demographic make up of our churches. The largest segment in almost all of our churches is that pre war generation. They are all now starting to fall off the perch together and the decline is accelerating.

    In our diocese attendances have in fact increased over the past few years but numbers of people on parish rolls and numbers who are committed to regular giving are continuing to decline. That is while some of our churches have managed to generate some activity those who are choosing to belong to the institution are dropping. Of course this pattern is echoed in the Presbyterian and catholic churches. I think it is realistic to fear that in a fairly short time huge swathes of Otago and Southland will be devoid of any visible Christian presence.

    1. Thanks, Kelvin. You will have noticed I didn’t attempt a prognosis. I didn’t project the graph’s line and estimate its future. And that is precisely because of your point. My guestimate is like yours. This is not going to continue as a straight line; it is most likely to curve down. Another dynamic: once most of the youngest people in a community are of a certain age (ie old), it is much harder to have new young people feel comfortable to join. So there will be even fewer join as the bulk ages and dies. Blessings.

  7. Thanks for this detailed analysis.
    I suspect they are an accurate basis for any assessment of the health of the church as the C of E which are based on national statistics.
    Two questions.
    Are the funeral service figures only for those conducted in church or do they include those taken at Crematoria by Anglican ministers?
    Secondly you focus on Sunday figures, as indeed do our national statistics, but is there any upward movement in midweek worship of any sort and do they include fresh expressions such as ” Messy Church”
    Behind both of these questions is the point that the point that there is just less focus on Sundays and that there is a more diverse approach to church worship engagement.
    Overall I believe that attendance is in decline but that there is some reshaping.
    But… A lot of work to do to sustain the Kingdom.

    1. Thanks, Roger.

      My understanding is that the funeral numbers are the total done led by the Anglican Church in whatever context – church building or elsewhere. We have largely handed over funeral ministry to the one-stop funeral directors. I think it would be a rare person that thinks of ringing the priest first at a death – most would ring a funeral director. I have written more on this site about handing over our wedding ministry.

      Contrary to what you say – the statistics in my post abandoned Sunday figures in 1996 in favour of totals during the whole week. And I explained how these can give a very opaque picture.


  8. Couple of things come to mind – first, like myself Bosco, you tend to sign off ‘Blessings’ – It sometimes makes for an interesting read . . . 😉

    Secondly – the thing that came immediately to mind was some wisdom my brother passed on to me from his defensive driving course – if you veer off the road and it seems inevitable that you will hit a tree, you MUST look away from the tree. If you keep looking at it you WILL hit it . . . Of course, if there were something of infinite beauty to look at apart from the tree, then perhaps ones gaze might be averted . . .

    1. Maybe I should use a synonym generator for “Blessings” and create a WordPress plugin that inserts them randomly at the end of my replies, Eric? 😉

      Do you know of the studies that if you say to a child “Don’t… ABC!” the last thing the child’s mind picks up is “ABC!” If you want to avoid ABC you need to phrase it in a positive way. Saying, “Don’t run inside!” is less effective than saying, “Walk slowly!” (“We walk inside”; “Use your walking feet”).

      So how will this move us forward positively?


      1. 😀

        Well . . . the only small thought which present itself is tied up with your comment on ‘a small community’ . . . listening to the voice of the One (to change the Sense metaphor) who said ‘do not be afraid little flock’. . .

        My experience down through the years has tended to lead me to the conclusion that there is no direct correlation between size and health of churches – except that often it is an inversely proportionality. Given the Dunbar number research this is hardly surprising . . . but small congregations who pray together, love Jesus and one another, tend to have an impact far in excess of their size. I’ve seen it happen. Also small churches, even if not initially healthy, can be places where truthful and transformative conversations might take place.

        As robin Gill showed, there never was a golden age of the church. Certainly the gospels don’t seem to resonate with our modern (perhaps idolatrous??) desire for larger churches, and revivals (whatever they are . . .)

        1. put another way – whilst constantly chanting Doom Doom Doom will lead inexorably on to the relinquishing of Hope (and my sense of things in my locale is that the deadliest Sin of despair has taken deep root) – perhaps the hope we are called to abandon is more like a covetous dream for something more shiny than the Gospel.

          Anyway, enough blue light for one evening – I won’t sleep! Pax 🙂

        2. Yes, Eric. I have stressed small community has great value. The issue I was trying to underline was precisely small not valuing small and pretending to be large – to itself and to others. Blessings.

  9. Oh, and good call on ‘Donatism’ – unfortunately Church History isn’t seen as being terribly significant for Priestly formation in our province, so when I’ve made this point it has been responded to with blank incomprehension . . .

  10. Of course – it could be that as the ecosphere collapses and the world dissolves into a state of total war, we are experiencing a slow motion rapture?

  11. Without church buildings and worship happening in them, the situation of decreasing congregations would not be a problem. However, fortunately, the buiidings are not everything about the Church in Aotearoa/NZ (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has a goodly influence in the community. The Anglican City Mission in most dioceses is alive and active – the Gospel in action.

    Nevertheless, I would submit that, where there are church buildings, unless they have a daily witness of worshipping people, one might ask where is the power and motivation going to come from for the purpose of mission?

    In my experience, the ongoing witness of the Daily Mass is an important testimony to the ongoing power of Christ-in-the-midst of a praying community, that takes upon itself the daily task of upholding – not only the Church, but also the world around us for which Christ died.

    The real question for us all might be: if all our churches were to be demolished by ‘an act of God’ tomorrow, would there be a faithful remnant to carry out the witness to Christ as Redeemer of all the world, despite its seeming indifference?

    (Incidentally, I heard Jane Shaw preach, on her final day as Dean of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral not long ago. It was sterling stuff, and she had already done a great deal to revive the worshipping community in that city. The Cathedral was sad to lose her to the academic world in which she is currently situated.

    Another thing about the ministry of our diocesan cathedrals, is that they have a daily worship schedule to encourage people in their daily prayer life. This can be a power house of mission

    1. Thanks Fr Ron. There is very much value in the regular daily round of praying the Offices and Eucharist in church. My point above was the way that impacts how we have decided to gather statistics since 1996. The issue is with the way we gather statistics and interpret them. Blessings.

  12. I’m an atheist but can still see some worthwhile social value in churches. What seems to be wrong to me is the Augustian theology of Sheol below ground ,a flat earth as the centre of the universe, and a spirt home somewhere above the clouds. This is essentially still church teaching but just doesn’t cut it any more. Lloyd Geering’s religion as metaphor is a better prospect. People today are just not going to be turned on by a faith that has at its core a talking snake, a God-the-Son two natures Christology, and inter-gerational sin. If there was no fall there needed to be no atonement and no judgement. You’ve got a bit to work on.

    1. Thanks, Gary. Religion as metaphor is, of course, not “Lloyd Geering’s”. Only a couple of days ago on this site I quoted the 13th Century church teaching: “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.” Yes, there have always been people who misunderstand metaphor literally. That is the same in all domains. Many people think electrons are whizzing marbles, or that light actually is a wave. The bigger issue IMO is once people abandon the misunderstood way of looking at faith they don’t grow into a maturer version, but abandon faith altogether. Go well.

    1. Really, Sebastian, that’s your “Sign of decline”?! I wrote “As an ordained person” because I meant “As an ordained person” and not “as a priest”. I was ordained a deacon 25 years ago. I have not been a priest for 25 years, but I have been an ordained person for 25 years (first as a deacon, then as a priest) and, because of that, a member of synod for 25 years. And yes, I am a priest, and I have no hesitation of saying I am a priest (see here and here, as just two examples). I hope that helps. Blessings.

  13. Sebastian, I can’t see what nomenclature has to do with it really? The good Rev Peters replied to me that ‘once people abandon the mis-understood way of looking at faith they don’t grow into a maturer version but abandon faith altogether’. Perhaps the problem then is the replacement. From what I’ve read it consists of a reworked metaphysical ontology and a wishy washy inclusiveness. Perhaps Bosco you could set out the current concept of God and our ultimate destiny as it seems to be puzzling to modern worshipers. . For me, returning to star dust and nihilism is just fine. It sharpens the focus to get the most out of every day. But each to his own as they say.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I think there is a lot that atheists can offer in dialogue. Perhaps realising that time, just as every other thing, is a creature, a creation, (and, hence, a “means”) helps? [That’s not a new idea] Blessings.

  14. Hi
    I was interested in your comments about no statistics. I am interested in confirmation till 1940. Is there information on this in Christchurch? how could I find out?

  15. I have had a very friendly reply. Thanks for your advice. Seem there are records from the very beginning. Is there a good history of the church in Christchurch? What happens at your school?

    1. Again, Phillip, worth checking with the diocesan office; there are a number of histories – I’m not aware of a diocesan one, or a city one, completed recently. Good you got friendly help. I’m not sure what you mean by “what happens” at school – do you mean the history of confirmation at school? Blessings.

  16. Thanks again. After Rugby and Arnold confirmation seems to have been weaved into the life of private schools in a way that created a sub culture. So while parish confirmations have declined they have held up in schools. So about one third of the confirmations in Oxford are through schools. I assume we exported a similar approach. I suppose my questions are, was confirmation made a part of the school ethos from the beginning and how was that done?Then how many were getting confirmed in the history? I assume there are records with the school. I am off to visit Radley soon which had a Tractarian philosophy.

    1. The story around confirmation, Phillip, will be complex, and differ from CofE. The diocesan archivist is also the school’s archivist – so that could be a good source, but currently the offices are preparing to move, so maybe not the best time. The earlier pattern was an early Communion service, and a mid-morning Matins. Only the confirmed could go to the earlier service – communion was limited to the confirmed. So, if you wanted a longer Sunday out, you would go for confirmation as soon as you could (age 16?). 4-5 decades ago, NZ moved away from confirmation as a requirement for communion, via “Admission to Communion” (aged 7ish), to communion for all the baptised (regardless of age or denomination). Confirmation became a rite looking for a reason – in school confirmation preparation and confirmation became something between Anglican schools, with others joining in, and at the cathedral; to the cathedral and parishes inviting students to join confirmation preparation and confirmation. Blessings.

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