By David Goodhew
What do the statistics say about the Church of England? Clearly, it hasn’t fared as well as many parts of the Anglican Communion. Does that mean it is “dying”? Or are parts of it dying? And how does the C of E compare with the rest of the Anglican Communion? Many parts are growing. But others are declining, and North American Anglicanism is generally shrinking faster than the C of E. Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2016), a new book by an international team of researchers, sheds light on all these questions.
Questioning “growth” and “decline”
Talking about the “growth” or “decline” of any church body needs great care. Numerical growth is not the be-all and end-all. Growth, for the Christian, means growth in personal holiness and wholeness in Christ, just as much as it means growing in service of others as well as “bums on seats.” But numerical growth of congregations and growth in the number of congregations are a crucial part of Christian life. Scripture, core doctrines, and key figures in the Christian Church — from St. Francis to John Wesley, from St. Cuthbert to St. Irenaeus — urge us to grow churches.
Talking about numerical church growth is tricky also because the data are far from perfect. Significant chunks of C of E data are unusable or contradictory, and statistical measures contain serious flaws. To gain an accurate picture, we need to use a range of measures and splice qualitative case-studies into the statistics wherever possible. The same is true across the Anglican Communion.
What is happening in the C of E?
Overall, there has been significant decline in English Anglicanism since 1980, but limited growth as well. Between 1980 and 2013 the number of members on the electoral roll (a loose list of those who are church members) dropped by 41 percent and usual Sunday attendance dropped by 37 percent. The number of infants being baptised remains large, but is now decidedly a minority of the birth cohort (around 20%). All dioceses, apart from London, have shrunk in recent years. But the decline is highly varied. Dioceses farthest from London, such as Truro and Durham, have tended to decline fastest. In both cases, their usual Sunday attendance has halved between 1990 and 2014.
But such broad-brush figures about England conceal as well as reveal. The Diocese of London, having declined in the 1980s, saw its adult membership rise by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2010, rebounding back to where it was around 1980. It is unclear to what extent London is an outlier or a harbinger of the future. All other dioceses have seen their electoral roll fall in that time, most by substantial amounts. Below are the “top five” dioceses measured by electoral roll in 2013, compared with 1990. This measure has its flaws, but the picture it presents is backed up by other data.
Top five dioceses by electoral roll for 2013, compared to 1990
The figures provide a striking narrative. The Diocese of London has done far better than any other diocese in recent decades — all of which have shrunk, aside from one (Southwark) that has been stable. London has shown a deep commitment to growing local churches focused on “mission action plans” for each parish, providing a priest for each parish and a vigorous programme of church planting, as well as other measures. The rest of the C of E — and other dioceses in the “Global North” — would do well to ask what they can learn from London.
That said, in the last decade a handful of other English dioceses have grown slightly, stabilized, or only shrunk slightly. An increased concern to combat decline seems to have borne fruit in these places. In the case of Ely and Oxford, they serve areas of growing population and vigorous university Christianity. In the case of Coventry, it has systematically adopted the “Natural Church Development” programme that, while no panacea, has yielded significant results. Also, dioceses that are clearly declining usually include some areas of growth.
Different kinds of churches are growing. Growth can be found in all types of church and tradition, but it is most pronounced among new forms of church, sometimes called fresh expressions, and growth is especially found in church plants. Fresh expressions have been critiqued for their limited theological roots and can suffer from being loosely defined. That said, they (especially those “fresh expressions” that are church plants) are undoubtedly reaching parts not otherwise being touched by the church. London’s Centre for Theology and Community discovered a dramatic example: five church plants in East London grew their Sunday congregations from 72 to 735 people across the ten years to 2015.
Anglican cathedrals tell a very different story of growth. Their overall attendance has grown by 18 percent between 2005 and 2015. This needs careful unpacking; the bulk of cathedral worshippers are white, middle class, and over 50. Cathedrals are also far better resourced than most local parishes. Nonetheless, the performance of cathedrals is a reminder that traditional worship, done well, connects with many.
But what about the rest of Anglicanism?
Across the Communion examples of dramatic growth in recent decades can be found in provinces as diverse as Nigeria, Singapore, and Peru. Significant growth of a less spectacular size has taken place in countries such as Ghana. Many areas are broadly stable — such as South Africa and Japan.
In the provinces most culturally akin to England, the story has, in the main, been decline, though the pace of decline varies markedly.
The Episcopal Church (TEC), for example, lost almost a quarter of its members from 1986 to 2011, within the context of a rapidly rising population. While decline was slower in the 1980s and 1990s, it became much more pronounced since around 2000, albeit with wide regional variation. The South grew slightly in this period overall, whilst the East Coast and Midwest did much worse. That said, all areas have declined in recent years. Average Sunday Attendance, another measure, declined by almost a quarter between 2000 and 2010. Most seriously, the number of baptisms halved between 2000 and 2014.
Although most Episcopal dioceses are now in decline, those in the interior are most vulnerable (a number of rural dioceses are barely viable) while those in metropolitan centres tend to be more robust. Figures for the main Anglican alternative in the US, the Anglican Church in North America, are not precise, but even if added to those of TEC, they suggest that a large number of those who were Anglicans in the US in 2000 ceased to be so by 2010.
Canadian Anglicanism shows a similar trajectory of marked, but variable, decline. Two thirds of the parishes of the diocese of Quebec expect to close or amalgamate with others in the next five years. But the Diocese of Toronto has neither markedly grown nor declined.
What causes growth and decline?
The causes of church growth and decline are many and complex. But some overall patterns are discernible.
Demographics clearly matter. The mushrooming populations of some countries facilitate numerical growth in a way that static or falling populations elsewhere do not. But demography is not destiny.
Congo and Ghana have both seen dramatic growth in population. Yet Congolese Anglicanism has grown much faster than Ghanaian Anglicanism. The city of London (confusingly) is covered by three dioceses. All three dioceses have seen the same demographic growth. But whereas one has grown (London), one has been broadly static (Southwark), and one has shrunk (Chelmsford).
Significant “Pentecostalization” has taken place across the Communion. Leading areas of growth such as Nigeria and Singapore are considerably influenced by Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality. London, the best performing diocese in England, has benefited from the presence of the HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) family of churches, which has embraced many elements of the charismatic movement — though London’s growth is due to a range of factors.
That said, plenty of other parts of the Anglican Communion that have been little influenced by this tradition have grown. The Anglo-Catholic and liberal traditions are prominent in parts of the Communion that have seen more decline and less growth, such as North America and South Africa. Yet significant growth has happened within areas which have been deeply influenced by the Anglo-Catholic tradition, such as such as Papua New Guinea and Melanesia.
Britain, Europe, and Australasia face the challenge of marked secularization, a challenge increasingly felt in North America too. But the impact of secularization is varied. The larger “gateway” cities such as Rotterdam, New York, Sydney, and London show much religious vitality. It is often in the more remote, more rural areas where church decline is pronounced.
It is important to compare Anglican trajectories with other denominations. In England, Anglicanism has tended to lag behind churches with more defined theologies such as Baptist or Orthodox churches, and all have lagged behind newer denominations. It is particularly of note that black and minority ethnic churchgoing has mushroomed in England in recent decades, mostly outside of the C of E. That said, Anglicanism has, in England, not performed as badly as Methodism and Presbyterianism.
The C of E and wider Anglicanism as a whole need to have the humility to learn from often newer denominations that are often more missional. But it also has gifts to offer. The newer churches can struggle to build on the gifts of charismatic founders. Here the structures, liturgies, and theology of the C of E can help. Anglicanism in the Province of South America has grown from 150 churches in 1980 to c. 400 churches by 2015. It has done so in an ecclesial context dominated by Catholicism and Pentecostalism. Yet Anglicanism in South America has grown, in part, by offering a new via media, which values the best parts of Catholic and Pentecostal traditions but avoids some of the downsides.
Overall: Death and resurrection?
The overall statistics for the Church of England show significant decline in recent decades. In some areas this decline is acute. But there are also significant pockets of growth/stability. All is emphatically not lost. As noted before, the Diocese of London is important in this regard, having grown for the last 25 years. But church planting, fresh expressions, and cathedrals are centres of vitality too.
The C of E has a habit of neglecting areas of great opportunity. A gospel shrewdness will focus energy on areas of possibility (such as areas that are ethnically mixed, contain universities, and where populations are growing). A gospel shrewdness will learn from the dioceses, churches, and denominations that have been growing and from the wider Communion in which there is far more growth than decline.
Is the Church of England dying? Is Anglicanism in much of the Global North on the way out? The answers to these questions are not simple. The C of E has died, in part, but is vigorous, in part, too. It is experiencing death and resurrection. For a Christian church, the rhythm of death and new life ought to be familiar. But the C of E, like much of Anglicanism in the Global North, has a tendency to cling sentimentally to what it once had and was, while ignoring what is struggling to be born.
The central fact for growing any church is that following Jesus is good news. It means purpose in a world that can feel aimless, pardon in a blame culture, and peace at the last in a world deeply fearful of its own mortality. New churches, new forms of churches, and new populations are arising in Britain. And traditional church, done well, has a powerful draw too. Guitars and pipe organs are neither superior nor inferior to each other.
Anglicanism has something wonderfully rich to offer into such a context. But it has to display a gospel shrewdness if that potential is to be realised. If it treats its most vigorous dioceses and churches as things to be resented, or, worse, to be shamelessly milked in an effort to prop up everything else, it will not thrive. And it will not deserve to thrive.
We have before us the choice of death or life. Which will it be?
The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is director of ministerial practice, Cranmer Hall, St. Johns College, Durham.
Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present has just been published by Routledge. Its findings are the subject of a day conference on Friday, February 24, at Whitelands College, part of the University of Roehampton, London. For more information about the conference, click here.