Salvaging the Church of England
Since otherwise Cranmer would be talking about wars and rumours of wars, or the Prime Minister's fraudulent creation ex nihilo of 100,000 jobs or some other manifestly depressing topic, he shall indulge the boundless optimism of his curate:
When the decline of the Church of England comes under the spotlight, the focus is on usual Sunday attendance, and rightly so. Your usual Sunday attendance is the group of people sitting in the pews in front of you on a normal Sunday – your core congregation.
Analysing the latest statistics, Reform Council member, the Revd Mark Burkill, vicar of Christ Church Leyton, has written an excellent article in January’s Evangelicals Now, which Cranmer’s Curate commends.
Mr Burkill points out that usual Sunday attendances have fallen from 1.67 million in 1968 to 0.87 million in 2007, having gone below the million mark in 1997. He observes: ‘The 1994 ordination of women to the presbyterate was trumpeted by some as the way to reverse this remorseless decline. There is no sign of this yet.’
Cranmer’s Curate asked Mr Burkill about electoral roll figures. The roll includes your core congregation but it also includes what you might call 'fringe' - people who are not there every Sunday but who might come occasionally; people with whom we are in touch. There are therefore usually more people on your electoral roll than in church on a usual Sunday (our roll is twice the size of our congregation). The roll is the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council, which appoints an officer to maintain it. It is revised every five years and the people on it are entitled to vote at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting.
Mr Burkill told Cranmer’s Curate: ‘The electoral roll figures show the same pattern of steady decline as other Church of England membership statistics. In 1980 the roll stood at 1.82 million. Despite lowering the eligible age to 16 after that year we find that by 1994 the figure was 1.48 million. In 2006 the figure was 1.27 million. In recent years electoral roll figures have gone down by about 0.17 million whenever there has been a complete revision of the roll, so the likely figure now is probably not much over 1 million. Even this loose measure of membership can therefore offer little comfort.’
Little comfort indeed when considered from the perspective of decline – the ‘fringe’ has been receding as fast as Cranmer’s Curate’s hairline. But how about considering the fringe from the perspective of growing from a small base? We are in touch with a million people.
To see how this more optimistic perspective earths at parish level, let us consider an ‘Urban Priority Area’ in Merseyside – the parish of St Catherine’s Tranmere.
The vicar, the Revd Darren Moore - one of the unsung heroes of the Church of England - told Cranmer's Curate that when he arrived the church had typically 25-30 on a Sunday morning, mostly retired or about to be. It now has 40-50 adults with up to 15 children on a good Sunday. The average age has dropped with the growth mostly in the 20-30s age range, but with some growth in the 40s and 50s range.
Building friendships and running good fun social events has been key to getting people in, he said, but getting people to go on the ‘Christianity Explored’ nurture course leads to conversions. And Mr Moore has seen some of his fringe converted.
He is in a tough parish, much tougher than Cranmer’s Curate’s, and he is seeing real church growth. Does this not show that by God’s grace the Church of the nation is salvageable? What it needs is more front-line clergy of the likes of Darren Moore to proclaim the living Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.