The dreaded "R" number signals good or bad news, <1 or >1, in respect of contagions in pandemic times. In a Church Times article this week R, with respect to church attendance, (could) signal the imminent death of various churches within the lifetimes of some readers here.
But on Twitter Madeleine Davies (responding to a Times paywalled article) questions this bleak outlook:
"Not a statistician but isn’t this model flawed? In 40 years there will obviously still be *some* people going to CofE churches?"
One reply is from Down Under's own Bosco Peters:
"Do most people know about Christianity in Asia? Which was where Christianity used to have the majority of the church. No. Because it died. And in North Africa? Well, that’s the history we are heading towards."
(There are a number of interesting things in the thread to the Davies' Tweet, including an ACANZP sets of points and counterpoints. However this post is not about each and every aspect of our statistical situation (or lack of) and discussion thereof (or lack of).)
Having enjoyed three excellent services through this weekend past, two of which were re-openings of churches repaired after our 2010/11 earthquakes, and one of which was an "ordinary" Sunday morning service, and an excellent Diocesan clergy conference during the week, I have been reflecting in the light of the Twitter thread on the situation we face, as Anglicans primarily, but with a nod to other churches, here in our Blessed Isles.
In no particular order of importance ...
1. While there are problems collecting statistics on attendance in our churches (for a variety of reasons), I don't think, I cannot think of anyone in our leadership, at diocesan or national level, who is unaware of our decline in numbers, increase in age profile, dearth of baptisms/confirmations/weddings/funerals. What we see with our eyes is as important as what our imperfectly collected statistics tell us.
2. It is possible to take a quite bleak view of the whole of our NZ church situation: our mainstream churches are in decline; the Catholic church (the bright statistical exception to the mainstream churches) is struggling to grow its numbers of priests; recently our "megachurches" (the bright statistical exception to Protestant decline) have been in the news for "all the wrong reasons", the most alarming of which, arguably, is that their growth in numbers has been at the expense of fair expectations re the involvement of interns and volunteers; and so forth.
Below, I give some specific statistics about the Diocese of Christchurch, recently shared by me at our Clergy Conference. (Our attendance figures are not particularly fit for analysis, partly because of difficulty in collecting them in recent years - some parishes, despite entreaties, are not sending them in. Then Covid has played with our numbers through 2020 and 2021. So the stats I give are another way of measuring change in our Diocese.)
3. I personally take a much brighter view: in a time of social and spiritual upheaval, in which all verities of former times are being questioned, and in which indifference or hostility to religion (except non-Christian religions of immigrants) is strong, I see across our churches a strong quest for being church relateable to the (ever) changing circumstances we encounter. Mainstream churches are engaging with different ways of being church; the Catholic church is drawing in priests and seminarians from other parts of the world; the megachurches will learn from present difficulties and reconfigure themselves.
4. I have no prediction as to which churches/denominations will survive the "R" factor in their current statistics, and I do not understand the God of Jesus Christ to have a secret codicil to the New Covenant which ensures the survival of the Church of England or the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia :). I know that sometimes Anglicans act as though that codicil exists!
5. I think we should be cautious about fastening on shortcomings of churches relevant to our current age and contemporary culture in such away that we may (even if unintentionally) imply that fixing the shortcomings will lead to a turnaround in our situation. There are shortcomings and they should be fixed. We (Anglicans, at least), for example, are not strong (across all our ministry units and episcopal units) on excellence in web presence and social media communication. We should do something about that. As a matter of fact, in my Diocese, this year, we are doing something about that as our new Archdeacon for Regeneration and Mission, Mark Chamberlain, leads a process of improvement in our parish web communications. But ...
6. It's my conviction that the "big fix" is something we (individual leaders, ministry units, episcopal units, regional presbyteries, national denominations) have little control over because what we are grappling with here (and, as best I understand other Western, English-as-first-language speaking countries: the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Australia) is a zeitgeist which blows across our lands:
- a material improvement to life, including lengthening of life expectancy, which undermines our talk of the promise and hope of resurrection;
- a diminution of any sense that we are wrong-doers and are accountable to God for those wrongs;
- an approach within our cultures to religion which is both dismissive of Christian faith and commitment and respectful of all other faiths;
- an amazing array of opportunities to do interesting, exciting and fulfilling activities on Sundays, from sports to shopping, from brunch at the local cafe to lunching in a far off winery (so, even when Christians are involved in Sunday church life, pastors lament that attendance 1 in 5 Sundays is the "new regular.")
7. Might the zeitgeist change in our lifetimes?
8. Nevertheless, in these strange and challenging times for Western Christianity, and Western Anglicanism in particular, it is worthwhile continuing to reflect - every day, every Sunday, every season of the church's year - What is the gospel? What is Anglicanism's distinctive "angle" on the gospel and on what it means to be a follower of Jesus? And, to adjust and adapt accordingly what we did last week as we engage with this week!
9. All is NOT bleak. We have some churches doing well, fighting against zeitgeist. What might we learn from them?
Some interesting stats from the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch
In 1989 we had 73 ministry units (including 3 added to our numbers from the Diocese of Nelson that year). In all but two of the units we would have had (I think) fully stipended ministers, and in one or two parishes there would have been at least two fully stipended clergy). (Ministry unit here = Cathedral and our parishes but not our schools or other places with chaplains).
In 2010, the year I returned to the Diocese (having left in 1990), and the last full year before our most damaging quake in 2011, we had 67 ministry units. By 2022 this has become 55 ministry units. It is not rocket science to discern that by 2030 we likely will be 50 ministry units.
Currently, by my count, we have 38 fully stipended ordained ministers and 28 ministers on part stipends (ranging from 0.8 FTE down to 0.4 FTE). We have a number of ministers serving significant roles in our ministry units who are non-stipendiary.
In 2010, before the quakes, we had 46 churches in the greater Christchurch city area. Today we have 36.