Professor Stephen Bullivant has written recently of the Church of England’s latest set of national statistics. It is a lot to get through and Professor Bullivant pulls out a few points of interest to him. The Executive Summary has some bracing moments (with a little commentary):
- The C of E “Worshipping Community” in October 2016 was 1.1 million, made of 930,000 attending “Church of England churches” each week, and 180,000 attending “services for schools” each week.
180,000 sounds like school pupils with not a lot of choice in attendance at services so this figure needs to be considered with this is mind. Moreover the category of “Church of England churches” includes cathedrals, and these attract a large of number of people who are not Anglicans and attend for the beauty of the cathedral liturgy—aesthetic-liturgical tourists as it were. These two caveats n.
- Sunday attendance at “Church of England churches” averaged 740,000, with the same balance between adults (86%) and children (14%).
This seems far closer to what might be a meaningful understanding of the numbers of practising Anglicans, though this two would include a good number of aesthetic-liturgical tourists in the cathedrals (and Oxbridge colleges if they are included in the tally). This is not to dismiss aesthetic-liturgical tourists, as getting people into a church is a first-step to evangelizing them; but it is not accurate to count them as part of a stable “worshipping community” unless Anglican membership is now a very fluid thing indeed.
- 1.2 million attended “Church of England churches” at Easter 2016 and 2.6 million at Christmas.
Sadly, as no doubt often happens in the Catholic Church, attendance increases at Christmas for socio-aesthetic reasons, a suspicion that seems reasonable given the 1.4 million extra who attend at Christmas over Easter, the latter being the central and crucial season of the liturgical year, and of Christian faith in general.
- On most indices there was a decrease of between 10 and 15% between 2006 and 2016, though in 11% of parishes “usual attendance” increased (but in 38% it decreased, the other 52% having “no clear trend”).
As the summary itself states, the “overall pattern is one of gradual decline”. The word “gradual” is barely justified. I would suspect “inexorable” is more justified.
- Of the 1.1 million who make up the “worshipping community” of October 2016, 20% were aged under-18, 49% aged 18-69, and 31% were aged over 70.
The 18-69 age group is almost statistically meaningless, as it hides (I am almost certain) that the majority of this 49% are aged in the upper third of this range, maybe even the upper quarter. What it hides is the biological bomb, namely that with such an ageing “worshipping community” the viability of the Church of England beyond the short-term is very fragile, as things stand today.
What is admirable is that the Church of England openly shares these statistics. It is honest and transparent. Even more, it is healthy. It seems to me that while statistics can be abused and manipulated, of course (like that 18-69 age group!), reviling statistics is not always useful. While Christianity is not a numbers game, nevertheless decline is not acceptable if the Church is serious about evangelization, or even maintenance of the current flock.
In the Anglican statistics above, what really interests me are those 11% of parishes that experienced an increase in “usual attendance”. What is the magnitude of such increase from parish to parish? (I will trawl the statistics to see if I can found out.) What sort of parishes are they—traditional anglo-catholic, strict evangelical? In other words, what (if anything) can the C of E learn from those parishes that are actually pulling more people in?
However, this set of annual statistics raises a more fundamental question for the Catholic Church—where is a similar set of official statistics for the Catholic Church in England and Wales that can be openly accessed and studied? There is nothing I can find at the website for the bishops’ conference, but we know that individual dioceses collect statistics on Mass attendance and sacramental practice. Professor Bullivant found only one diocese that had statistics available, namely Hexham and Newcastle.
There is something on the national Church at the Faith Survey website, which uses the report produced by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, itself based on a larger, secular, British Social Attitudes survey (and so are not official Catholic statistics). From these we learn that:
- 27.5% of adult Catholics attend church once a week or more (as against 8.9% of Anglicans, 19.8% of Methodists and 58% of Baptists).
- Adult Catholics make up 8.3% of the population (as of 2014). With a total population of 45.2 million in England and Wales in 2014 (as estimated by the Office of National Statistics), this means that (to use the Anglican terminology) the “usual attendance” of adults at Catholic churches each week is 1.03 million.
- Only 17.1% of cradle-Catholic adults attend church weekly.
The real deficiency of these figures is that they only count adults. None of them is an acceptable substitute for official statistics based on counts taken at parish/chapel level, including university chaplaincies. What would be wonderful to see are official statistics that show how many attend Mass in reality, what their age spread is, and where there has been decline or growth and for how long. This latter category would allow us to see what parishes/chapels attract increasing numbers of Catholics and hold on to them, which would allow us to investigate why they do.
Of course, the danger of such statistics is that they would confirm what is the reality inescapable to all except those who will not see: the implementation of the Council (including its mis-implementation and non-implementation) in practice has coincided with a dramatic and consistent decline in the sacramental practice of Catholics. What these statistics would also show, I have no doubt, is that those places which offer a more traditional liturgy and a vibrant and practical social outreach consistent with the faith of the Church—these are the ones which have experienced growth.
The conclusion would be hard to bear for many: that things have gone seriously wrong since the Second Vatican Council, and that the Council’s implementation needs to be re-examined. Given that the Council was expressly aimed at dealing with the world of the 1960s, and given that the world of the 1960s has long since passed away long ago, a valid conclusion might be that it is time to move on from Vatican II, and using such tools as statistics, to discover afresh and anew the timeless qualities of the Catholic faith that have sustained it and allowed it to flourish over two millennia.
So if we look at the Hexham and Newcastle statistics referenced above, we can see that Mass attendance in the diocese has plunged from 100,019 in 1981 to 36,661 in 2013, a decline of 63%. Over the same period baptisms have fallen by 26%, marriages have fallen by 70% and confirmations have fallen by 80%! Between 1972 and 2014 the number of active priests in the diocese fell by 67%. Today 45.7% of its priests are aged over 65, and four active priests are over 80.
Hexham and Newcastle’s transparency is admirable. The plight these statistics reveal is dire. It is no good blaming it on changes in society and culture; these have always occurred, and by standing clearly against what was negative in such changes the Church maintained its vigour even in the face of secular disdain. Now, as we seem to court secular approval these last 60 years, the bottom has fallen out of the Church.
What has happened in the north-east would no doubt be seen as replicated across the country. If we had similar official statistics openly available from each diocese we would be able to confirm or refute that suspicion. Either way, we could better see where the green wood of the ecclesial vine is to be found, and where its dying, or dead, branches. With that knowledge, perhaps we could make the changes needed to make the Church great again.