With apologies to North American readers - your statistics are important too in the story of global Anglicanism, but the past week or so has highlighted the statistical realities of England and Australia ...
Continuing on from last week's post, but this time with an eye on statistics rather than on an argument re loss of influence, and focusing on Anglican churches in England, Australia and here in the Blessed Isles, there is sobering news to continue to ponder.
@austanglican whom I follow on Twitter, and who mostly keeps TwAnglicans up to date on anniversaries of bishops and deans, has done some statistical analysis and published the table below on his@austanglican thread
The point of the table being that every one of the Australia's 23 dioceses have lost Anglicans through the past few censuses, and Anglicans in every diocese are a smaller percentage of the general population of thir diocesan area.
There is no reason to think NZ Anglicans are any different.
England has been in the news because recently published census data shows that for the first time, census-identifying Christians are a minority and not a majority of the population.
"On census day, 21 March 2021, 46.2% of people identified themselves as Christians, compared with 59.3% of the population in the 2011 census, a 13-percentage point drop in a decade.
A key finding from the census helps to explain this: the significant rise in people identifying as of no particular faith at all."
Cue much hand-wringing re CofE bishops remaining in the House of Lords and much delight in dusting off the longest word in the English language from the shelf of unused dictionaries: antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course, the word being used by the pundits gleeful at the demise of English Christianity generally and of the CofE particularly is "disestablishment"! This issue is not the concern of Anglican Down Under.
But, also, cue some hand-wringing on social media about "if only" the CofE had in 19XY changed its mind about Z then "things would've been different"!
Maybe, maybe not.
The Guardian published an interesting article in which several people said why they had lost their faith. I suggest it is far too simple to say that "if only" the church had done this or done that then things would have been different. Life is complex. Bad things happen, for instance, to people who have faith and doubts about the love of God understandably rise up and overwhelm faith. Alternative explanations for life and its meaning become more plausible as culture changes. Even when a brilliant book such as Tom Holland's Dominion shows that much of what non-Christians treasure in Western culture is deeply Christian, that doesn't mean that "nones" scurry back to such theological roots and declare a new found Christian allegiance in census box ticks.
Actual Church Life
Of course there is another story to tell in Australia, England and New Zealand. That is the story of actual church attendance, of children and adults' participation in the life of faith communities. There will be in the other two countries, as also here, a mixed bag of growing and declining church congregations, of shifts in allegiance from Anglican churches to, say, Pentecostal churches, and back again. As the general population grows in a district, region or country, Anglican allegiance may decline percentage wise but be relatively stable numbers-in-pews-on-Sundays wise.
But, let's not fool ourselves, even within this "other story" of actual church life, there are perceptible signs of the decline of general Christianity (e.g. church buildings being sold and becoming restaurants or being demolished and houses built on the land) and signs that we are in tough Anglican times because, despite many encouragements, and lovely stories of new people joining congregations, some even because they do so as a result of brand new faith in Christ, there is diminishment in the overall attendance numbers.
It is not rocket science that if I am the vicar of a parish which this year has counted 15 new people into the regular congregational life and I have taken 20 funerals of regular attendees, then the sober reality is that decline has occurred, despite the joy of welcoming those 15 newcomers.
Comments to last week's post made some good points, which are worth keeping in mind at all times, though tough Anglican times sharpen our minds.
Two stand out for me.
One is that we should keep questioning what we believe, asking whether a belief (an example was penal substitutionary atonement) is fit for purpose in the times we live in.
Two is that we should keep focused on Jesus and the basics of his gospel message in word and in deed.
Tough times call for faithfulness rather than fear.
As we head towards the end of this year, I want to celebrate the faithfulness of Christians, and of Anglican Christians in particular. Wonderfully, we have many faithful believers in the Diocese of Christchurch. In the middle of this year, when Teresa and I travelled to and from the Lambeth Conference, along the way, and, of course, at the conference itself, we met many faithful believers from other countries.
Who knows where our times are heading. One startling aspect of the statistical decline of Christianity in Western countries is that it is not giving way to another (more vibrant, more exciting, more plausible, more ...) religion. Going on the English stats, it is giving way to people making their way through life preferring to avoid any explicit religious commitment, to live with either uncertainty about the reality of God or with certainty that there is no God.
There is room in the course of this century for a new wave of believers, converts who turn from being "nones" to being convinced that in Christ all fulfilment of life is found.