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Empty Church

End of the Anglican Church (part 2)?

Empty Church

Doing the social-media rounds is the recent Guardian editorial on disappearing Christianity: suppose it’s gone for ever? It reflects on the British Social Attitudes data and says,

The study also shows that Christianity is extremely bad at either making converts or retaining cradle believers. The two big denominations, the Catholics and the Church of England, lose at least 10 members for every one they convert. The figure for Catholics would almost certainly be worse were it not for immigration from Eastern Europe and South East Asia. It is only the smallest and most self-consciously sectarian forms of Christianity that manage to retain believers, in part no doubt because they feel cut off from the society around them.

I don’t think the reality would be any different in New Zealand. My guess would be that it is “worse”. Attending an Anglican service in a town here recently, there was the vicar, in his mid forties, and three visiting young people from a Pentecostal church, interested in visiting an Anglican church. Other than that, I don’t think there was anyone under about 60 years old, certainly no one under 50…

NZ Anglicanism keeps no national statistics. My guess is that there will be between 20-30,000 people in Anglican pews this coming Sunday. That’s about 0.5-0.7% of the population. I would guess that the percentage of those attending under 50 years old is very low.

Two decades ago, I would have suggested that we needed (and could afford) an Anglican parish for at least every 10,000 people in the general population. I recently, formally asked, in relation to strategic planning for population movement, what would be the strategic population number that would signal the need to purchase land and plant a parish? The question was unanswered – and I was told that I ask awkward questions no one has thought about or discussed…

Half of the recent week’s meeting of our General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW) was occupied with debating blessing committed same-sex couples. There was no conclusion to the debate. There are echoes in the editorial:

Over the last 50 years “religion” has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. “The religious” now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both. But the Church of England was so much a part of the old imperial state that life in post-imperial Britain was never going to be easy.

GSTHW declared a decade of mission in 2014. I think the Church of England, which actually keeps statistics, dropped more numerically during the Decade of Evangelism than in any other recorded decade. Certainly every diocese, with the possible exception of London, ended up in a weaker position at the end of the decade than it had been at the start, up to -30% across an aggregate basket of indicators. And the churchmanship of the diocesan bishop made no difference to the results.

The Telegraph’s response to the church statistics is to encourage the use of the model of advertising:

Imagine, say, that the Anglican Church was like Tesco. If Tesco stopped advertising, people would stop shopping there. If Tesco constantly banged on about how its own products are old fashioned and in need of updating, people would stop shopping there. If Tesco said that it would be nice if you’d visit once in a while but entirely understood why you don’t, people would stop shopping there. Christians have become their own worst enemy – killing their faith with silence.

Advertise. Speak up. Tell people about your beliefs. At the centre of the faith is the truth that Jesus died and rose from death to herald a new era. The power of the Good News is so great that it cannot fail to win converts. Time to share it.

I regularly write about the poor quality of church communication, websites, even traditional means of church communication such as notice boards and newspapers. Parishes (with exceptions that prove the rule) seem incapable of using social media. That is the place where anyone under the age group of the pew-sitters now lives (and many of the pew sitters do too). They promote fund-raising events far better than core business – so you can find out easily when the parish fair is, but good luck trying to find out about services.

Services, also, are often constructed with a visitor-focus, working on an old paradigm that people interested will just wander in from the street. Evangelism has been reduced from lay people witnessing to Christ’s life in word and deed in their daily life and work to hoping people will come to seeker-friendly church services. Lay ministry has been diminished by clericalisation from transforming the world to getting them to be more clergy like up the front to lead bits or chunks of a service. Worship has been reduced from transforming and recharging ourselves in God’s presence to go out once more to love and serve, to poetry recitals from pages in a book or shows competing badly with theatre and pubs.

I saw two other articles in response to the statistics. The Church Times provides further statistics that the church has hardly any converts. And Stephen Cherry’s Blog makes a good point not to see evangelism as selling God as a thing (I absolutely agree – but I hadn’t taken the Telegraph article in the literal manner that he does). The point that Stephen Cherry makes that I do want to underscore, is that we who are people of faith live that faith now with people framing that with the axes of fundamentalism and antitheism.

Reading back over my post, I realise I’ve rambled a bit around the original Guardian editorial. What might be some of the things I hope for in bullet points?

  • Quality communication including contemporary means on social media
  • Quality services that are numinous, transforming, sending us out energised to love and serve
  • Quality formation of Christian leadership – priestly study, training, and formation that communicates with people’s real, contemporary concerns, issues, and questions; and enables them to facilitate numinous worship
  • Keeping statistics and being honest about them and using them for strategic planning

What might be some of your responses (rambling or otherwise)?

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28 thoughts on “End of the Anglican Church (part 2)?”

  1. Morning Bosco, while I might tend to agree with your bullet points I remain cinvinced that if we do them just to ensure our survival we are wasting our time. Survival is most certainly not a gospel imperative. I don’t care if the Anglican (or any) church dies. It’s not my problem.

    1. Amen. Yes, thanks for that clarification, Brian. In many places the life and mission of God is enhanced by reducing the number of Christians. Where the Christian community cooperates with the action of God in the world, embodies that mission, acts like salt (enhancing the good, limiting the bad) I think there is value in growing such communities. Blessings.

  2. Robert Murphy

    Or you might consider sticking to the reason there is a Church: to proclaim Christ and his Resurrection. Liberal churches (and liberal need not be pejorative) have lost their identity as the people who follow God and his word, regardless of the cultural moment in which they live. Your churches are dwindling, not because they lack communication, but because people know they can get the same “be nice” message anyway: why go to church for that?

    1. Thanks, Robert. I’m not sure why you begin your comment with “Or”? Nor who exactly “you” is (your second word). Do you mean me singular – or are you addressing readers here generally? You start your comment urging proclaiming Christ and his Resurrection (which I would be surprised if you are claiming I do not do), but conclude that communication is not an issue… Blessings.

      1. Robert Murphy

        Thank you for the reply. Sorry if I was accusatory or uncharitable: online communication lacks personal touches!
        The “or” represents a different strategy to consider. It is general. I do think you proclaim the Resurrection, but perhaps more loudly by your liturgy than by your doctrine. If Christ is bodily raised from the dead, as the Church has always confessed in the Creeds, and not in some internal/Schleiermacherian-sense, then he is in a position to demand total obedience over every aspect of our lives, e.g. ethics, epistemology, sexuality, etc. If such were a distinguishing feature of our lives, “advertising” would pale in comparison to the contrast we would present to the World.
        Blessings to you! 🙂

        1. Online or offline, Robert, you would still need to clarify what you meant by the word “you” in your first comment, which you continue to use, without answering my question about it, in this comment. If you are using “you” to refer to me (singular) personally – what experience do you have of the way I lead liturgy that gives you the right to make your declaration? What gives you the right to suggest that I hold to “some internal/Schleiermacherian-sense”. Rather than answer the questions I asked you to clarify, I think you have made even more unsubstantiated claims. Blessings.

    2. we do not go to church to get a “be nice” message. we go to church to give thanks and worship and praise to God.

  3. I was struck by this: “Over the last 50 years “religion” has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness.”

    In his recent Bishops forums, Auckland Catholic Bishop Pat Dunn said that religion is often perceived as “hipocritical, homophobic, abusive and violent”.

    If we can adress those then we will be faithful to Jesus.


    1. Thanks, Chris. Not only have Christians been perceived to be this way – we have been and are this way. Primarily we are called to address the reality. Blessings.

  4. Jonathan Streeter

    Visiting a friend in London (who is very anti-religion/anti-Anglican) we walked by an anglo-catholic church two blocks from his house and he said “that church believes that women are unclean when they are menstruating and so they are not allowed to take communion.” I was curious as to where he got this information. The church itself has no website and there’s nothing about it in the signage that indicates anything other than when weekly services take place (i.e. once a week). I’m not sure my friend is wrong but I find it hard to believe he’s correct in his statement. But since the church has zero communications, who knows what kind of beliefs/practices they follow. (‘m madly determined to find out, by the way!)

  5. David Tannock

    You have opened the lid of a very big box here, Bosco. In no particular order here are some thoughts I have had for some time:

    1. As our western culture has become less homogenous the more individualistic forms of Christianity seem to have made a better cultural match than the more catholic forms which grew in the soil of a more communal, corporate culture. Selwyn faced this issue with his combination of the idea of the voluntary compact and Synodical government. The second part of the solution has all the appearance of continuity with the cultural inheritance of Christianity while the first points to the more individualistic mind-set of the European settlers which has its logical outcome in today’s diverse, secular society. The first part is now the dominant reality in NZ Anglicanism and the second part is coming to look more like quaint clothing of a past age, although I personally (rather individualistically, perhaps!) think it symbolises a basic part of our identity.

    2. Communication is very important and it is easy to find a lot of very bad examples. The Telegraph makes some good points as you have, consistently and over quite a period of time. Yet the most powerful communication is still person-to-person. Brian Davis liked to tell the story of how as an uncommitted student he came to Sunday Evensong at Saint Mark’s. He came back the following Sunday and was greeted at the door by the vicar (Tom Pearson) “Good to see you Brian.” From that moment,” he said, “they had me.”
    I think one of the worst aspects of our communication over the last couple of decades has been our failure to communicate effectively within our local areas or even to be very interested in them.

    3. The number of clergy has increased in inverse proportion to the number of parishioners. Ordination has become almost an extension of confirmation so that anyone who has been active for quite a while in the parish is seen as a good possibility for priesthood. The more we have talked about mission the more clerically oriented our concept of mission has become. As our theology and practice of ordination has weakened so has our theology and practice of mission. Related to this is the nature of training for ordination. In many cases it amounts to very little. Where it is still important it seems to be almost exclusively academic (very important) but lacks the priestly formation which used to come especially from a curacy where the training came from an experienced vicar (usually effective) and from parishioners (at least as important and not usually clerically-focussed).

    4. After 18 years as a hospital chaplain I came to realise the importance of chaplaincies and ministries which were community-facing, yet felt that these ministries were being increasingly marginalised. In these secular settings the Gospel has to stand on its own merits and it does when it is authentic.

    5. We often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on peripheral issues – e.g. same-sex blessings – and rarely deal with them in a Christian way. That seems to me to be largely part of the way we take ourselves and our part of the Church so seriously but push God and the world out to the edge.

    6. A good deal of “mission” has been motivated by fear. We know the figures are not good and we think the answer is to follow the examples of other Christian groups who seem to do better than we do, so we try to imitate them (often not very well). But mission is not about church growth or “church planting”. It is about faithfulness to a God who knows a few things about humanity and about communication.

  6. The catholic and anglican church is dying because there is very little, or any love left in it at all. Its extremely structured, provides no interaction with the audience and does literally nothing at all to demostrate the power of God.
    Jesus said we would do greater things than he did, and told us to go out into the earth healing the sick and proclaiming freedom to the captives. The reason why catholic and anglican churches are dying is because God is not there. He is with those who actually follow him instead of following manmade traditions and structures which only old people are ignorant enough to follow.

        1. Sorry if I was a bit all over the place.
          I’ll put it a bit simpler.

          I think the Catholic & Anglican churches are full of luke-warm people, and this is why nobody wants to join the church.

          Young people don’t like Catholic or Anglican churches because they are structured around man-made traditions, and do not provide any supernatural proof of the Gospel. I don’t see the fire of God moving in the church. If a Church is losing numbers, its because God is not there.

          When Jesus walked the earth he had tens of thousands following him.

          If Anglicans and Catholics focused more on miracles & spirituality instead of traditions, people would want what they have to offer because there would be life-changing results.

          Don’t get me wrong; I respect the good that the Catholic church does in society, but i feel very saddened by the lack of faith I see in the Catholic & Anglican church.

          The church in the first century exploded in numbers because they proved the gospel through signs and wonders, and the radical internal transformations that happened to those who believed.

          I believe that if we had the faith of the Apostles in the first century, the same thing would happen today. But instead I see a lot of people hiding in a building every Sunday, performing rituals and not applying the Gospel to their lives.

          I know there are some Catholics out there that have strong faith, but every catholic I have met is borderline Atheist and they just go to church out of tradition and respect; not because they hunger for God.

          1. Thanks, Justin, for your perspective, which is different to mine and approaches this from a different direction. I think we are all a mixture of motivations. The tens of thousands you say followed Jesus when he walked the earth were nowhere to be seen when the chips were down. Clearly, the miracles you say we should focus on was their primary motivation – rather than growing into the life of God. I have grave issues with following that paradigm. Blessings.

          2. Hi Bosco.
            I understand your confusion on my perspective.

            My Paradigm is not to primarily focus on miracles and disregard everything else.

            My paradigm is that when a person has faith in God, miracles will follow.

            God is by nature, a supernatural person, and thus, when God is in a church, supernatural events should be happening.

            The miraculous by itself is not a sign that a church is correctly following Jesus (Matt 7:22)

            But a lack of miracles is also a sign that a church is not correctly following Jesus.

            I am not saying that we should be miracle chasers.
            I am saying we should be like the apostles; having faith to heal the sick and preach the good news without fear.
            My paradigm is simply to do what Christ commanded us to do.

            A church that follows Christ will do the same works that he did. Jesus said so himself.

            All I am doing here is pointing out the difference between scripture and modern day churches. Because if there is any reason why people are leaving a certain church, its probably because God is not present in the Church.

            People are innately drawn to God, because God is Love. If God is present, there would be a loving community that draws people in, and demonstrates the Gospel with the supernatural power of Christ.

        2. Justin,

          I was at a healing prayer meeting of hundreds in our parish last night which I think was pretty much like the crowds that came to Jesus to be miraculously healed of their illnesses. It is important to focus on the supernatural nature of faith.

          Bosco raises a good point about a faith which simply seeks miracles for personal benefit vs a faith which is about really following Jesus to the cross of resistance to Empire.

          We can, of course, do both, as Christ did.


          1. Hi Chris,
            It is greatly encouraging for me to hear that there are some Churches within the Catholic/Angligan denomination which focus on the supernatural.

            I also completely agree with Bosco.

            Miracles by themselves are not a sign of correct theology. But correct theology will certainly demonstrate itself in the miraculous.

            Love is the most important thing in the end; and I think if anyone sees a loving church, they will want to join.

            I just don’t see both love and the miraculous in many churches these days; Catholic and Protestant.

  7. Perhaps the west’s issue, and thereby the Anglican and RC’s, is that we have become overly fond with doing what we want irrespective of what God expects – maybe that attitude makes the pickings harder than usual. Everyone wants forgiveness but no-one wants to repent.

    It seems there is always life abundant somewhere and my local at least is alive and well although we’re not playing a numbers game. It is recently planted, orthodox, attended by well educated people and as a couple between late 40’s and 50’s wife and I are among the oldies. The pastor communicates very well but what got me instantly upon visiting (we had become very concerned about the services style and preaching where we were previously) was the quality of preaching and sound doctrine. At last there was somewhere I could invite people where they could hear Scripture passionately preached by someone well trained.

    Maybe there is a consistency with the Anglicans in Sydney. The staff at the cathedral, like Phillip Jensen, have stuck to their orthodox guns over the years despite pressure to do otherwise and I gather the Anglicans there, and Sydney generally is relatively healthy across most denominations. Perhaps we just box on faithfully (faithful to the great commission) and trust God is working out everything for good – Anglicans and RC’s may disappear but Christianity and Christians will always be around.

  8. Peter Carrell

    I am not quite sure why some voices above, including a Kiwi one are boldly proclaiming the dearth if not death of “catholic” forms of Christianity. (Nor why you agreed, Bosco!). Last Sunday at my wife’s Catholic school mass which was also a First Communion, 500 people gathered, standing room only. Normal attendance for that one service time is c. 300, more than matching the regular attendance of three neighbouring Anglican parishes. 25 children received their first communion but I hear the Catholic parish local to where I live in Christchurch had 82 children recently receive their first communion. Catholic Christianity in NZ is expressive of a catholic Christainity that is a long way from either dearth or death.

    My surprise is that our Anglican Church with its own valuation of catholicity does not spend more time learning from what its Roman counterpart is doing so well in these islands!

    1. Thanks, Peter. The focus of my post was Anglicanism – if I appear to be “boldly proclaiming the dearth if not death of “catholic” forms of Christianity” that was not my intention. I tend to support sticking to our liturgical knitting – with an eye on RCs more than on “non-liturgical” traditions. As well as strong spirituality, and liturgy, I think one of the strengths of NZ RCs (and elsewhere) is their schools. How much strategic reflection has been given within NZ Anglicanism to founding Anglican state-integrated kindergartens and primary (and secondary) schools (alongside parishes) conscious of significant population movements? Blessings.

  9. Cameron Pickering

    Hi Bosco,

    I think your comment is an important one (and agree with Peter’s that we have much to learn from our RC brothers and sisters). Having no idea of exactly how much RE is taught in the local Anglican Secondary School – perhaps you can illuminate me? I do know how little is taught in the local Presbyterian one. One period a week for three of the five years of school, 16 lessons at year 13. Chapel once a week (20 mins), one slightly longer service per term. My colleague at the local RC secondary school advises, “four periods a week with one half period of chapel. Benediction every Friday for the entire school. Wednesday morning Mass for the entire school. Sunday evening Mass every week. A full sacramental/catechesis programme (which is optional) with forty students to share first communion in two weeks”. Justin may well think the RCC is dying, but it won’t be for a lack of effort on behalf of their educators, or those who prioritise that dimension of the curriculum. I read recently that Chapel attendance at one local Anglican School was being halved. Not every student that goes on to become a GP would take science were it not compulsory…I wonder whether as C.S.Lewis says, ‘We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful”. That is all.

  10. Yes Bosco i think you are right about catholic schools. My two sons had attended catholic schools. Catholic children, even those of parents who were lapse catholics jolted many to become active in the Catholic network. For Catholics, its been said that the Catholic school has become ‘the antechamber of the church’.

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