Turning Up and Being Counted

I’m currently going through a strange time. I’m away from my congregation on sabbatical. It is a good thing to do and I’m having a great time, meeting fantastic people and learning a thing or two by stopping for a while to breathe.

There’s always things that you miss when you are away from the place you know best. For me, the fact that Branston Pickle has not conquered the world is astonishment and I’ve missed it in far flung places all around the world over the years. However, there’s something more quirky, churchy and odd that I really missed this year.

Last Sunday was the day that the Scottish Episcopal Church counts all the people in its churches and reports the numbers back to each diocese, which then sends them to the General Synod Office in Edinburgh and the numbers are published in the new year. The count always happens on the Sunday next before Advent – the one we call Christ the King. The idea is that it is a fairly normal Sunday at a time of the year when most people are not on holiday and so you get a fair idea of the size of the worshipping population of the church.

They key thing though is that you have to turn up to be counted.

You might be on an electoral roll for a congregation (we report those numbers too) but if you are not there you would not be included in the annual count of who is in church on the Sunday next before Advent. You might have been baptised in the church or confirmed in it. You might have had the most glorious nuptials that church ever witnessed or have buried your great uncle Albert’s surprising bidey-in in the churchyard. You may have had tea with the rector once or even been to a carol service in 1972. But no matter how close you think your relationship is with the congregation, on the day when the count takes place, you won’t be counted unless you are there.

And I missed it.

Somehow not being counted made me feel a long way from home.

There’s all kinds of criticism of the kind of congregational statistics that we gather in Scotland, as there is in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. But the trouble is, we’ve got a great data set of next before Advent statistics and we need to keep measuring that one, even if we want to start to measure other things, if they are going to be of any use to us.

I’d quite like us to record average Sunday attendance as well. Some people want to count the number of people who enter the church at any time to measure the effective reach of the church. And some people don’t like the idea of counting at all.

But I do.

I don’t particularly want to rehearse the arguments for how we should count people in church but it does seem to matter to me that we have some sense of the trends and patterns of people’s worship patterns.

Quite a lot of people care more about the numbers of people whom the church is in contact with through the week and through the year than about the numbers of people in church for worship.

I’m probably in the minority by not counting myself amongst them.

I do care how many people are in church to worship and tend to think that worship is not only the most distinctive thing that churches offer but also the most interesting.

There are currently some very deep fears amongst clergy and lay leaders in a great many churches and of different traditions and theological persuasions around the numbers attending. It is also very difficult for Christians to talk about these fears openly.

There are obvious fears about how to keep paying the bills and the fact is, the greatest and most glorious expenses that most churches have are the people who work in them. Clergy, lay workers, musicians are all looking at attendance figures at the moment and thinking about the future a little nervously.

Clearly churches have to pay the bills and usually this money comes from those who turn up. One of the questions that the pandemic has raised is whether the link between turning up and coughing up (cash not phlegm!) is being broken.

I seem to be hearing stories of congregations being significantly down in number but where giving has risen at bit during the pandemic but no-one knows what that really means.

I have another anxiety which goes beyond worrying about how we are all going to pay the bills though. My primary anxiety about current changes in churchgoing is that what is done in church only really makes much sense if you are there every week to experience it.

The Liturgical Movement, which led to the kind of worship that many mainstream congregations now have, is predicated on the very idea that if you turn up, week by week, your personal faith will become deeper and more satisfying by being formed by the worship that you experience. Not just that, but when you gather all those individual experiences of deepening faith together, you build the strength, confidence and witness of the whole people of God who, acting out of that renewed faith, will turn the world upside down, usher in God’s kingdom of justice and joy and all the world will be saved.

(I know it isn’t particularly fashionable to talk about all the world being saved, but some of us still think it kind of matters).

One of the things that I realised as the events of 2020 unfolded was just how badly the Liturgical Movement had prepared us all for the pandemic. Somewhere along the way we’d become so focussed on community piety and devotion that we’d lost the idea that individuals on their own can deepen their faith.

Two years on, our communities can gather again in most places. However, all around the world, people are reporting that numbers are still quite disappointing.

It is clear that in many places some people have simply given up coming to church during the pandemic. Links were broken. Relationships were harder. Some people got angry in the midst of it all. And as usual with anger, it is difficult to pin down. Anger at oneself, anger at the pastor, anger at God, anger at those one lives with and anger at just about anything were all part of the pandemic.

However, my hunch is that numbers are still down in very many churches not primarily because of people who have left but more because of people who are turning up less often than they used to do. That was already a feature of life in the pre-pandemic church but as with so many things, the pandemic itself seemed to hit the accelerator on this process.

It is also the case of course that some people have changed health circumstances and are simply not able to do what they used to do.  (Online worship is a joy to some but we’ve no idea how to count those attending that way).

This year’s statistics, gathered in many different ways and in many different denominations, are going to show that a lot of people did not show up and were not counted.

But how are we going to talk about this in public?

Clergy are very wary of telling people that they must come to church every week and for good reason. We don’t need people to come to church because of a guilt trip that someone has induced in them. We need people to come to church for more positive reasons.

I want people to come because turning up helps them make sense of life. I want people to come because it is gloriously fun. I want people to come to be inspired to help make the kingdom of justice and joy a reality. I want people to come because it helps us to learn how to live when life isn’t gloriously fun. I want people to come because friendships formed as we worship together challenge us all to live as salt and light in the world. And I want people to know that sometimes,  out of what I can only describe as a very strange sense of humour, God even seems to enjoy teaching us good things through people whom we would never otherwise be with.

It has been the universal expectation of Christianity that worshipping together weekly is the norm for Christians. I suspect that there have been very many times in the history of the faith that those who count the numbers have sighed deeply and wondered how to convey the giddy joyful truth, that deepening one’s faith by committing to weekly worship, is life changing and life affirming.

Clergy and lay church leaders are planning how to deliver another festive season that will be both wonderful and exhausting. Very many, I suspect are also trying to work out how to convey that maybe, just maybe, part of our healing from pandemic-driven exhaustion might be found in finding regular, weekly rhythms of faith.

You know the drill. Advent Sunday is upon us. A new church year dawns. Ecclesiastical new year resolutions are the best new year resolutions of them all.

In a few weeks time we’ll be celebrating someone who turned up and was counted in a census just over 2000 years ago.

And a God is for life, not just for Christmas.

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.