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.

Turning Up

There are a number of reasons why church statistics make for depressing reading these days. One reason that I’m not sure we give nearly enough attention to is how often people come to church.

I find myself regularly in conversation with people who seem to believe that they come to St Mary’s far more often than I see them there.

When I was young, you used to hear people talk more about the benefits of weekly churchgoing. I’m not sure you do hear that much these days. Is it that rather than being a way of life, Christianity is seen more often than it used to be as something you fit in to your way of life?

I think that you get more out of going to church by going weekly. The cycle of the seasons makes sense. You get nourished regularly. (If you don’t get nourished, go to a different church or work out ways of topping up your God experience online or elsewhere). You also get more of the chance of the joy of friendship which isn’t just a sideline. Friendship is one of the ways that God touches us.

Turning up is also an offering. It is the offering of time that is so precious these days. Of couirse, not everyone ever turned up every week. But more did once.

A big part of the decline in actual bums-on-pews numbers could be resolved by rekindling the idea of weekly churchgoing. Once upon a time churches told people to do things for to do otherwise was a wickedness and a sin. In its day, that worked in its way. It doesn’t now. And I thank God the world has changed in a way that makes that sensibility untenable.

I’d rather tell people about the benefits of turning up. But then generally speaking, I’d rather be a priest who preaches joys not woes.