Counting our many blessings – Scottish Episcopal Statistics

This Sunday is the day when the Scottish Episcopal Church counts how many people are in church. It isn’t a count of the number of people who want to be Episcopalians, it isn’t a count of those who say they are Episcopalians – in fact it isn’t even a count of Episcopalians at all. It is simply a count of the number of people who happen to be there on that particular Sunday.

I like this Sunday because when the people are counted, I find myself counting them as so many wonderful blessings.

I think that statistics are important and that they can tell us things. They can’t tell us everything but they can tell us a huge amount.

Now, whenever we talk about the stats in the Scottish Episcopal Church we end up talking about how we gather them and there’s always people ready to say that the numbers that we gather are the wrong numbers.

Some people want to make a case for gathering them as an average over a number of weeks. Others say that counting the number of people at Sunday services doesn’t come close to saying how many people the church deals with.

To an extent that is true but it then leads on to absurd suggestions that instead of counting the number of people at worship we should count the number of people who come through the building. You get people wanting to count the Tai Chi group, the AA group that hires the hall or the dog club. I think some people are so desperate to pretend that their numbers are not in fact going downwards that they’d be happy to count the dogs.

The truth is, we need to be fairly consistent in what we count. It isn’t the actual number that we arrive at that matters that much, however interesting it might be in any given year. The real question is how we are doing over time.

I’ve been in many a meeting in the church where we assign money or other resources to something that we claim to be mission and then talk in the rest of the meeting as though we have no expectation at all that the numbers will go in anything other than a downward direction.

I wish we did more with our statistics and I’m quite keen that we keep gathering them.

The extraordinary thing that we discovered last year was that there are over 100 000 people in Scotland who think they are Anglicans, Episcopalians, C of E or some other Anglican variant of answering the question in the Census. The question that really should have been at the top of the agenda of a lot of our meetings is why we don’t seem to see more than about 15 000 of them on a Sunday.

Here’s what I think:

  • The numerical trend has been going downwards for a long time.
  • The really steep fall is in those who claim to be part of the church but who are not communicants.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that non-communicants have disappeared when we’ve been pushing communion as the main service for 40 years or so.
  • We don’t generally behave as though we believe our mission plans, policies and strategies are likely to succeed.
  • All the evidence points to the fact that our mission plans, policies and strategies (and we’ve had tons of them) have not succeeded.
  • The national profile of the church needs to be fixed.
  • We need to discover a new, respectful ecumenism that will help us to turn our backs on the kind of ecumenism that harms our ability to speak of having something distinctive.
  • Getting people to turn up on more Sundays in the month would give an immediate and dramatic boost to our numbers. We need to speak of why it is important to worship weekly again.
  • Churches with poor websites are going to go going out of business and for good reasons. They shouldn’t expect bail-outs from others.
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church has only ever really grown when it has been in the business of  opening new congregations.
  • You don’t plant new congregations unless you are confident that you’ve got something good that’s worth sharing.
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church may not be doing as badly as some other churches. We may be increasing in market share but need a bit of research to see whether that is the case.

Anyway, all that being said, this Sunday counts because this is the Sunday when we do count.

If you want to be counted yourself then you need to turn up.

Like with most things.


  1. robin webster says

    I wonder if the church has thought sufficiently about making it possible for someone who is in a 9-5 job and perhaps is out of town on weekends to attend church? Should early evening weekday services, or early morning ones not be more in evidence?

    • There are churches which have early morning services – if I’m honest I know of none that is terribly well patronised by people who are heading out of town for the weekend.

      The question has certainly come up before as to whether it would be possible to establish a regular congregation in a city like Glasgow which met for a main weekly service at a time different to Sunday morning. (There are one or two services like this in the City of London, I think).

      St Mary’s tried for a time to use the 5-7 pm weeknight slot for events and services. This had been dropping off before I came here and it was hard to see a way forward for those slots. Good things came out of the experiment but it is interesting that the ones which continued and took on on a life of their own were not liturgical. The poetry group, for example, came from this time.

      I’m aware of a city centre church in Edinburgh which has just started to have a Saturday vigil mass like many Roman Catholic churches have. That doesn’t answer the question about people going out of town for the weekend but it is interesting that they are experimenting with that at the current time.

      • I do recall a church adjacent to a large factory that managed to hold a lunchtime communion service on a weekday. Only really works if everyone takes their lunch break, and has it at the same time, of course.

        On the wider point there are those of us who would be regular attenders at Episcopalian services were it logistically feasible. I would certainly consider myself an Episcopalian even though it would take a 28 hour round trip to enable me to attend on a Sunday. I can’t imagine there are more than a few dozen folk in that situation nationwide, of course.

        • Thanks Jo – I’m aware of a number of people who regard themselves as members of St Mary’s who can’t physically get here for reasons of geography. I’ve been trying to think through what might be done to make such links stronger for a while.

Speak Your Mind