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Hallo again to all.

Tapping sap The church statisticians have been busy again. They work in a remarkable cottage industry, the efforts of which help to inform persons and committees around the world about how to respond to institutional change. The Church of England has its own Research and Statistics Unit, whose data are collected through a dedicated parish returns website. The US Episcopal Church also has an Office of Research whose data are available in easy-to-understand charts comparing attendance, membership, and giving trends over time in dioceses and parishes with demographic comparisons to local communities. In New Zealand and in Scotland, it is the government that compiles statistics about religious affiliation. In Canada, the church compares its own data with those provided by government. Australia provides its own data. If other parts of the Anglican Communion are keeping information on a provincial scale, we have not been able to find it online.

What is to be done with all the numbers?

Generally—and because the trends of participation and membership are not encouraging in the places that keep them best—awareness of the numbers often ends in handwringing rather than constructive thought. There is what turns out to be a problem with finding the right sap to nourish the tree.

The Washington Post ran a headline this week to the effect that 'If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline [American] Protestantism has just 23 Easters left,' noting that 'While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out' in progressive Christian traditions. The Church Times wrote on the same day on this wise: 'Death of cathedrals: reports have been exaggerated' (in homage to Mark Twain) after a report that as many as half of English cathedrals need to be closed. The American Conservative looks at the numbers and asks 'Has the Last Episcopalian Been Born?' Still elsewhere, British Religion in Numbers looks more broadly at religious engagement in Britain, situating Anglicans in comparison with their neighbours and tending to an eirenic, scholarly application of information.

There are a handful of problems with the ways in which the numbers are reported. They are geographically and linguistically myopic in a way that Christianity has never been. Rumours of the End of the Church—or a church—are almost always about Anglophone or Eurocentric situations, ignoring the life of the wider Church in the Portuguese-speaking world, in the wider Sinosphere, in failing to be aware of the historical trends of church life before c. 1940*. They also often do not take into account the hybridity of belonging in ecumenical situations where Anglicans live in local, national, or international partnerships with Lutherans, Reformed Christians, Moravians, inheritors of the Wesleyan tradition, among others. And because Christianity is a religion of the Spirit as well as of the tactile, head-count-able flesh, patterns of belief and belonging will always have elements that cannot be measured on spreadsheets and parochial reports.

More to the point, the handwringing about numbers is rooted from what Bishop Richard Chartres of London has called a 'problem-led' rather than a 'vision-led' approach to Church life. Rather than singing 'change and decay all around I see,' the now-retired bishop presided over a period of what he describes as 'a lively debate about church planting strategy' in which parish electoral rolls grew by some 2.5% a year during the latter part of his tenure in contrast to the larger patterns of attrition. In addition to making structural changes and collaborations with professional church planters, the bishop realised that 'Growth springs from movements of the Holy Spirit, and from communities and individuals in whom there is life-giving sap.'

The numbers, stark as they are, remind us that sap has two meanings in English: the undermining of someone's strength or some thing's integrity, and the wonderful fluid that carries water and nutrition throughout a plant. With all the knowledge we now have about sapping of the one kind, it behoves the Church in places where there is a desire for growth to find and encourage the other kind of sap. We have a good God's promise of guidance in discerning how to find it if our hearts are open and our minds will learn.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana

All of us at Anglicans Online

30 April 2017

* The 1851 Religious Census for England and Wales found that just half of the early Victorian population attended Christian worship regularly; the same census provides the surprising datum that just a quarter of the English and Welsh population in 1851 reported an affiliation with the Church of England. There is still contraction today as compared with those numbers, but it is not a change from utter saturation to oblivion.

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