Annual Church Attendance Story

The annual survey of Church attendance figures has just been published, and as usual it is an opportunity for the media to publish a load of stories highlighting the figures. The Times in particular really went for it including this article – Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour – which in particular plays the Muslims will outnumber Christians card, and is being disputed by the organisation who conducted the research. As the Church of England response to the survey points out it does this using a figure taken from census data and compares it with the actual Church attendance – if a similar ploy was used to calculate numbers of Christians from census data the figures would show something like twenty million active Christians in the UK.

Ruth Gledhill also backs up the main piece with a comment article which includes a number of juicy quotes:

As the Religious Trends Survey shows, an ageing generation of churchgoers is about to die out and there could be, within a generation, a God-shaped hole at the heart of our society.

and

The decline forecast for the Church of England is so severe that its position as the established church of the nation with the Queen as Supreme Governor can surely no longer be tenable.

however this point does get to the heart of the problem:

Yet, as the report notes, the decline in attendance coincides with a surge of interest in religion, reflected in the growing numbers of children opting for religious studies at GCSE and A level. There are also increasing numbers of students at theological and Bible colleges.

Somehow, the churches, despite innumerable studies, reports, synod and assembly debates, are failing to get these people into church.

The thing is that whilst as a bit of rabble rousing all the press coverage is good, it doesn’t really reflect the true picture – needless to say that is a lot more complicated. David Keen, a vicar in Yeovil, looks in more detail and points out that a significant number of diocese have already reversed the decline. Bishop Alan gets straight to the point too, highlighting a cutting from the Times in 1971 that said the same thing, and on the basis of which the church will cease to exist in a couple of years. (Amusingly to show the ‘power’ of statistics he goes on to prove that the Diocese of Oxford Reporter will have a larger circulation than The Daily Telegraph by 2050…)

The main Times article again puts forward that only the evangelical churches are growing – which from my point of view is wrong. Seriously, Ruth Gledhill should come along to Finchampstead sometime as St James is anything but evangelical. We’re a mainstream middle of the road Anglican church, and yet for the past two years our electoral roll figures have gone up by more than 10% a year, and as I mentioned back at Easter we were struggling to find seats for everybody then. Whilst it is certainly correct to say that our growth area is in the young families, as our Rural Dean pointed out at his recent inspection we manage to produce a respectable fifty to sixty or so people at our prayer book services too.

As far as I am concerned the parts of the Church are growing aren’t anything to do with their Churchmanship – churches of all denominations and types are growing – it’s about getting the basics right, and looking at what people want. In the case of the prayer book services what people are looking for is familiarity and authenticity, so those are done absolutely straight with traditional hymns, and the King James bible. On the other hand the young families, who often come in via our play-group, are looking for accessibility, which is what they get through our 9:30am Family Services. The main 11am services are a bit more of a blend of the two, so we’re relatively traditional, with organ, choir and sermon, but with more accessible elements. The biggest thing though is to be a welcoming community. It is always frustrating to hear of other churches that are spending more time turning themselves into a private club and excluding people – as far as I am concerned whilst things have changed at St James to bring about our rise in numbers, they haven’t been particularly radical, and to be honest if they were radical we’d only end up marginalising a different group. The whole basis of what we do is to be inclusive of the broad range of people in the village rather than exclusively focusing on one group. Whenever the “how do you do it?â€? question comes up though, most people at St James’ really can’t explain, as from our point of view we aren’t doing anything particularly special or out of the ordinary, and equally the area around the church from which our attendance is drawn isn’t that much different from much of the surrounding area either.

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