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.