The Numbers Game

The Rectory, March 1997

A great deal was made in the media last month of the small drop in the Church of England attendance figures. It was the biggest single fall in the last twenty years, which have seen a gradual decline in church attendance. What made it a particular blow was the fact that in the past two years the figures appear to have "bottomed out" and the hope had been that this trend would continue, or a gradual return to worship would be apparent. The disappointment was reflected in the immediate comments about who was to blame. The Archdeacon of York blamed Lord Runcie and the "liberal elite". Lord Runcie appeared to be blaming the poverty of popular worship which too easily degenerates into entertainment. I say "appeared" because his remarks were not necessarily about the decline in church attendance. And so it went on.

Decline in authority

Now it is easy to hijack statistics to serve your own cause, but the change in religious habits in this country since the war are complex and profound. They cannot all be laid at the door of one person's style of leadership or changes in liturgical language. Three factors however might be thought to have had an effect on the church. In the first place, all traditional institutions have suffered a decline in prestige and authority. Parliament, the Monarchy, the police and judiciary, Trades Unions, and the Church - none of them are held in the same public regard and respect that once they were. We live in an age where people are not inclined to find their identity through belonging to an organisation or by identifying with the values of an established institution. The inclination is to "pick and mix" one's beliefs as one pleases, and as "feels right" at the moment. This loss of corporate life and of shared values does not encourage the development of a sense of commitment or of belonging and obligation.

Mobile society

Secondly, the pattern of life has changed dramatically in recent years. We are a more mobile society and we have greater expectations about personal fulfilment. There are many more competing interests, and worshipping God on a Sunday becomes just one option among many, rather than the central focus of life. The impact of this on the church is noticeable at St Peter's as at many churches. The number of people coming to the church may be growing but the figures for Sunday attendance remain fairly static. In some ways the churches may have suffered less than some voluntary organisations who struggle desperately to find people who are willing to be committed week by week to an enterprise.

The local community church

Thirdly, the Church of England has always been committed to being the church of the local community, involved in its life and identified with its struggles and needs. This has been at the heart of its worshipping life. It has not been a gathering of like-minded people, but the local community at prayer. The fragmentation of so much of life today means that the sense of local community is very weak in many places, and this too has an impact on the church that remains committed to its locality. The Church of England has not regarded itself as a competitor in the market-place of religion, trying to lay on a product that will simply meet modern consumer demands, but a servant church engaged in the building-up of the community through the love and reconciliation of Christ.

Not fade away

As these factors make their impact on the church it is important to set alongside them other indicators which do not suggest a church in decline. If those who do attend are smaller in numbers than twenty years ago, there are far more who are actively involved in the work of the church, in the sharing of the gospel and in service to the local community. The number of lay people on diocesan courses of study and training for various forms of lay ministry has grown enormously, for instance. Also the way in which local churches, in this deanery alone, are involved in projects and partnerships in their community is impressive. All this suggests a church that is not disheartened nor fading away, but one that is visionary and vigorous with confidence in the imperative of the gospel

An obligation

Nevertheless the fall in numbers does indicate that the church is failing to communicate and convince. And I think worship is at the heart of it. I am not so concerned with the forms of worship, they will vary from place to place in response to the local setting, but with the depth and quality of worship which depends on prayerful preparation by all those who are involved - not just clergy, musicians and choir, lesson readers, intercessors and stewards, but by the whole congregation. What communicates is a depth of worship which only a community united in love and devotion to God can achieve. Our task as a church is to reveal God, and we have been given the privilege of doing this in the heart of the city (where many pass by and some drop in to see if God is real) as well as in our individual lives. We have an obligation not to fail those who seek God.

This is a challenge to each of us to take our faith seriously and to give ourselves fully in prayer and worship. If we could make sure we use what time there is before the service to be still before God, and in the time after communion to be still before the mystery and the graciousness by which Christ has imparted himself to us, then I've no doubt the stranger and the visitor would sense that truly God is in this place and I knew it not....

Leslie Morley
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997