Statistics and the Church

There’s a reasonably prominent article in the Sunday Times today on page 4 in Scotland highlighting the numerical decline of the Scottish Episcopal Church over the last five years.

There’s quite a few quotes from what they expect the Primus to say when he opens this week’s General Synod and there’s an old recycled quote from me into the bargain.

The headline figure which they quote is a decline in membership of 15% over the last five years. That figure should make people sit up and take notice.

The pattern on the ground is more mixed of course. There’s good news to report in Argyll and The Isles and also in Moray, Ross and Caithness.

I think it is interesting that the two dioceses which have invested most in Mission Action Planning are not doing as well as I think might have been hoped for. That isn’t surprising to me. I expect to be told that it just hasn’t had time to work yet. The time is surely coming when it will¬† have had time to work though.

There’s a quote from me in there which I think they’ve lifted from something I said a few weeks ago. I’m quoted (as “one of the Anglican Church’s most prominent clergy”) as saying that I look forward to “an Easter Day when I can celebrate new marriages for gay members of my congregation just as I can for straight couples”.¬† The implication, which the paper makes on behalf of its readers, is that churches which drift far away from common sense, public goodwill and what most folk think of as decent morals don’t really deserve new members. It is a fairly obvious thing to say though my suspicion is that most church folk still think that churches are highly regarded in society and haven’t realised that with a huge number of people they are not. Pitching themselves on the wrong side of the gay marriage debate is not the only reason that churches are in decline. However, it is a factor and one that needs to be thought about.

Those of us going to General Synod this week are going to have the chance to think about the statistics. There are several short sessions where we will get the chance to talk about them. It is more than timely.

A few years ago we agreed a mission strategy called the Whole Church Mission and Ministry Policy. It puts a greater emphasis on dioceses and less on the province (ie Scotland-wide organisation). In some ways it seems like common sense to make decisions as locally as possible. However, there are a number of reasons why that is quite a hard path to follow. I voted against that strategy when it was proposed at Synod a few years ago. It was obvious to me that unless the dioceses were better resourced than they are then it would be too difficult to bring about the changes that are needed. I also think that the Scottish Episcopal Church is capable of having an identity that can be promoted. I don’t think any diocese is capable of that nor do I think they should try. Identity matters hugely these days. Deprecating the national identity of the church in favour of diocesan identities is a policy almost designed to promote decline.

The best example of “Whole Church” thinking which is struggling at the moment is the report on TISEC, the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church. That institution is found wanting in some areas, not least those which are most devolved to dioceses.

It remains my view that there are significant things that we can do better together than we can do apart. By that I mean things that we need to do on a provincial, Scotland wide basis. TISEC is the most obvious of those things.

The statistics that we have to look at this week are interesting. They are mixed and not universally poor across the board. Notwithstanding that, they are very serious indeed. The obvious reality is that although some places are doing better than others, some are doing significantly worse and they include some areas that we’ve always regarded as Episcopal heartlands.

The statistics seem to suggest that some of the ideas that we’ve been promoting are not currently working. The Sunday Times today seems to imply that the longer we prolong the debate about whether or not to accept that gay people should have the same rights and responsibilities in the church as anyone else, then the longer the slide will go on. I happen to agree.

Not all statistics are bad, of course. Some of those which we don’t regularly gather are rising significantly. Take the readership of this blog, for example. In the last five years, it has risen by 24%. Indeed, it has more readers now in a year than the number of people who belong to the Scottish Episcopal Church. Significantly more in fact.

Makes you think, that, doesn’t it?


  1. Well yes but some of us are (a) humanists and (b) 6,000 miles away.

  2. The question of denominational identity is one to which I have given a good deal of thought (in relation to the United Reformed Church). It seems to me that Scottish Episcopalianism (oops I almost said Anglicanism) has a set of quite particular difficulties in this regard which it would be fascinating to see worked through:
    – Anglicanism as a tradition has particular ties to Englishness (including in the Scottish context) which makes for a peculiar position for it in Scotland
    – Since the Scottish province in particular has come to combine Anglo-Catholicism with liberalism as its distinctive flavour (or at least appears to have done so from the (Scottish) outside) its character is particularly difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with Anglicanism as a whole, who would tend to see these two identities as in conflict (I know that this is untrue WITHIN Anglicanism but this always surprises everybody else)
    – non-conformist Anglican itself is a slightly peculiar formation in a country with a (semi-)established church

    What identity (other than an Anglophile one) is available to the SEC seems to me a really vexed question. Your post seems to imply a desire to occupy the “progressive” (gay-friendly) niche, one many of my Scottish colleagues in the URC also covet. There is little evidence, though, that this is a recipe for growth (which is not to say that it isn’t a good nice to fill, of course) nor is it obvious that a high liturgical tradition and emphasis on the personal episcopacy as custodian of the apostolic succession (the other obvious components of the actually existing Episcopalian identity) are a good fit with this particular position (although the commonalities of the SEC and TEC in the US might give it some plausibility).

    At any rate I will continue to observe developments with interest, particularly given the very painful period that would seem to be in prospect for the Church of Scotland.

    • admin says

      Thanks for that thoughtful comment Nick.

      I tend to agree that the Englishness of the concept of Anglicanism is not particularly helpful to the Scottish Episcopal Church at the moment.

      I’m quite keen on being non-conformist myself. I think we’ve probably got a task in witnessing to some across our southern border what it means to be a disestablished Anglican church. It can’t come too soon for the Church of England if you ask me.

      I don’t really recognise the particular combination of Anglo-Catholicism and Liberalism though. I think most of our churches are vaguely high church and vaguely moderate on both social and theological questions. However, I don’t come across much self-concious Anglo-Catholicism and little strident liberalism either. Liberal Catholic is probably a better description. A bit more confidence about that identity would probably help those for whom it rings true. However, it doesn’t by any means embrace everyone.

      I’m not chasing a progressive gay-friendly niche for the church. That happens to work for us here at St Mary’s but that’s not what I’m particularly suggesting the whole church needs to jump into. What I am suggesting is that churches that expend their energy bickering about the gay issue are not terribly attractive. I find it hard to think that there is any solution to this other than that those who have differing views in the church need to respect those with whom they differ. That means equality of opportunity that is not compromised by evangelical/liberal, gay/straight, male/female polarities.

      Chasing a solution in which we all are claimed to believe the same thing is nuts. Chasing a solution where we can live together seems to me to be more achievable and more profitable in the long run.

      Being a liturgically resourced church offering spiritual nourishment to those unable to submit to the most rigid theological and social certainties seems to me to be not only a nice niche to live in but one where we can grow. I happen to think that is true for most evangelicals as well as so-called liberals.

      • “Liberal Catholic” seems reasonable to me as a description of the predominant “tone” of the SEC. I remain unconvinced it works as an identity beyond the confines of Anglicanism (within which it is very attractive).

        I also agree that being a “liturgically resourced church” that is able to sit lightly to contested doctrinal and ethical matters is true to one possible core Anglican identity. I saw a number of churches in Edinburgh doing a fair job of expressing that in their different ways.

        I wish you luck in developing this argument within your denomination. We would all do well to pay attention to what “our thing” is, in my view, and what you’ve articulated here would be an interesting direction for the SEC to take from which others might well be able to learn (in terms of method rather than content).

  3. Angus says

    Could you please direct me to the evidence from which you suggest “there is good news from Argyll and The Isles.”

    • I don’t have the Sunday Times piece in front of me, but I seem to remember that the Primus was quoted as saying that Argyll and The Isles was up 3 % over a five year period.

      Happy to be corrected if that is wrong.

  4. Anne Tomlinson says

    The WCMM Policy is indeed about ‘resourcing the dioceses better’. As was made clear at its launch, and likewise in this year’s papers, it seeks to engender a dynamic relationship between Province and Dioceses, as between Dioceses themselves. It describes ways in which the Province can act as supporter and resourcer of the dioceses by the way it allocates money targeted at missional endeavours and encourages greater inter-diocesan collaboration and co-operation. ‘Hard path’? Yes indeed, but introduced, as I remember, with a ringing cry about ‘death-defying joy’.

    • It is perhaps worth remembering the overwhelming optimism and overwhelming majority with which “New Century, New Directions” has not led us to a place where TISEC is up to snuff. Synod does not always get it right. We have a rather shaky heritage of big policy documents coming from the Mission and Ministry Board which are then ratified overwhelmingly by General Synod.

      By resourcing the dioceses, I’m not just thinking about money but also about personel. Money divided between 7 dioceses cannot necessarily achieve as much as money pooled together centrally. The TISEC experience also does underline how difficult it can be to have confidence in the competence of diocesan work.

  5. There’s some good comments on this over on Kirsten’s blog:

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