Discussing Church Attendance Statistics on BBC Berkshire

This morning at just after 7am, rather than eating my breakfast as I would normally be, I was instead on the phone talking to Andrew Peach on BBC Radio Berkshire in a phone in discussion about falling church attendance, triggered by the provisional 2010 attendance figures published last week. In terms of the Oxford Diocese they show a fall in various weekly attendance stats that in percentage terms is middle of the pack, but thanks to the large number of churches in the diocese sounds a lot more of a crisis if you quote the actual number, which BBC Berkshire did – frequently. However the stats also show that membership across the diocese has gone up, and a rise in church weddings, and similarly healthy figures for baptism.

The discussion was trailed as the main topic of discussion yesterday, so I actually e-mailed in talking about our church St James’ Finchampstead where attendance is doing anything but falling, and at lunchtime I had an e-mail from a BBC researcher wanting me to participate.

I’ve listened enough to the Peach show to realise how they work, generally the discussion is kicked off by a couple of people, usually with opposing opinions, and since I was asked to be one of the first it looked like I was being lined up as one of those people. I didn’t find out who the other person was until I heard them on the radio with everyone else, and it turned out to be a chap from Ascot, now member of the Reading branch of the Catholic Ordinariate who was previously a member of the Church of England (I’m guessing at All Saints) who was quite clear that the reason numbers were falling was because the Church of England was going all liberal and ordaining women.

Now in my experience whilst the press and media absolutely love a good scrap between Anglicans over women priests, or women bishops, or even better a good gay story, and whilst there are parts of the church that regularly make a big noise over it, for the overwhelming majority of the average people in the pews it’s a non-issue. Since the Vicar of Dibley most people outside the Church of England, and a good few inside it are surprised, even shocked that there are still churches in the Church of England that will not recognise an ordained woman as a valid priest. It really is not something that figures in their thinking. What people are interested in is whether the services are interesting or boring, whether their kids will be welcome, whether the sermons will be too long, whether the music is to their taste. For the vast majority of people the sex of the person up the front, or what they do in the bedroom doesn’t figure at all.

So, with him having said his piece, Andrew came to me, and basically asked for my comment, to which I gave much the same response as I’ve just explained above. Given that the Priest in Charge who started the growth at St James’ Finchampstead was a woman, which I’d mentioned in the discussion with the researcher yesterday, I’m thinking they were hoping I’d angrily point out that a woman had turned our struggling church around, but I didn’t. My thought was very much that this shouldn’t be about the hot button issues, but should be much more about what we and other growing churches were doing. In my little slot I got in the point about services catering for a broad range of people, and Andrew moved on. What was particularly pleasing is that although there were one or two texts and tweets who provided some media pleasing bashing the other Christians with bible verses many of the people followed me talked about their thriving churches and didn’t rise to the bait. Interestingly they even tried to bait Bishop John with replaying the same interview an hour later, but he didn’t rise to it either. At one point they also had Sean Green who is a pastor at Reading Family Church who made a comment about falling numbers not being his experience with Church of England colleagues in the town, and how you can show a lot of things with statistics – very true given the line the programme was taking.

So the big question is why are some churches growing, and others shrinking? Given our experience at St James, it can’t be generalised into saying that the evangelical churches are growing and the liberal ones are shrinking, nor can it be categorised looking at worship styles or anything else. All across the spectrum of churches there are some that are growing and some that are shrinking. Fundamentally I think it comes down to which churches are connecting with their current and potential members and which ones aren’t. The strong welcoming communities are the ones that are growing, so in our case the people who come are perhaps looking for a more traditional type of service, something that is recognisably a traditional church. For our part we make sure we do traditional church well, and provide a broad range of different services, activities and event under that umbrella each of which brings in a different group of people. As to why other churches have falling numbers you can’t make sweeping generalisations, they have falling numbers for a variety of reasons, and to be honest those churches need to sit back, and look at themselves and the people they are called to serve to understand themselves what is going wrong and why.

You can hear the discussion and my contribution to it for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer – anyone in the UK should be able to listen to the programme, those outside the UK I’m not so sure.

2 thoughts on “Discussing Church Attendance Statistics on BBC Berkshire”

  1. Read your interesting thoughts on church decline above. You need to be wary though of personal comments about the person from the Ordinariate and where he or she may have come from. It does not do intelligent argument much good. It surprises me that you don’t recognise that liberalism has brought about a drastic decline in Anglican Church going since I was a child in the 1950s. I think you can say that the Church was pretty conservative small c until the mid 1960s. If you then look at a graph produced by the Church of worshippers census you will see clearer that the steepest decline was between 1967 and 1977. There are a variety of factors but one might just be that why should people go to Church if the church is simply an extension of social services. Few churches have a daily service which was common place in south London when I grew up. It is interesting to note that the thriving parishes say in the diocese of Southwark are those that are committed to the spiritual dimension rather than the banality of clergy who spend their who week in committees discussing Statements on this or that. Yet these churches many of them that reject women clergy have to pay for those poorly attended liberal bastions with the diocesan quota. I suspect that soon this quota system will be killed off as churches realise that it rewards failure. I don’t live in Southwark but with a diocesan debt rising to 20 per cent of income by 2014 its finances as indeed in the Midlands where I live are unsustainable. At present failing clergy and churches are protected by quotas but not for long. As you are a Canadian you probably don’t understand that Faith in the City was the start of the rot. It was grounded in an idea in part socialist inspired in part a romantic notion of a national church. Most of the writers I knew in one way or another and from their radical middle class perspective they bought into a view of the industrial classes of which Ruskin would have been proud. It was of course a nonsense as was the later claim that women priests would turn back the tide of decline and re engage the Church with quote ordinary people. That was 20 years ago and have women priests re engaged the populace. Simple answer: no. The huge decline of men going to church and particularly C2 young men shows the nonsense of that claim. Roll back the years and the average population reflected the national demography. Today in many churches you will be hard pressed to find a man under 55. I have written enough. I realise that there are many factors for decline but clearly the identification of the Church with a failed socio economic system from the 1960s is one of them. And the Church as demonstrated by the silly words of the Bishop of Grantham still doesn’t get it. You see Thatcher represented the aspirations of the majority of so called ordinary people but her views of economic betterment, stable families and individual freedom and responsibility were dogmas eschewed by a left leaning hierarchy. It was in that deliberate dividing of the Church from its flock that decline became inevitable. And what does the Bishop of Grantham want more of the same and in the midst of that there is rejoicing about the recession and the bankers greed. I have no doubt when the recovery gathers steam as it will inevitably do the Church will decline more rapidly still because it still doesn’t get it! People who bought their council houses and who worked hard for what they have font want a gospel which tells them to feel guilty that they own their own homes from prelates who have country retirement homes. Enough. I must stop. Thank you for making me think and write. Laus Deo.

    1. Thanks for your comments, however you have essentially made the same point that was made on the radio – that the liberal churches are shrinking, and the conservative churches aren’t. In our part of Berkshre this is simply wrong.

      Our church has grown significantly over the past decade under clergy of both sexes. I would describe as as a broad church rather than liberal – as a village church we try to offer something for everyone. In terms of numbers we have an electoral roll of 450, and fill our parish church building twice every Sunday. Your suggestion that there is nobody under 55 is also way off the mark here as our biggest growth service is our family service which is aimed squarely at young families where we get men and women attending along with their children in large numbers. At Christmas our Christingle service has now grown so large we hold it as a ticketed service in a local school chapel that can hold the 800 people who come.

      Certainly I can show you many churches that are struggling, but the idea that only conservative churches are thriving is rubbish. Churches are thriving where they connect with the communities they serve.

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