Now it came to pass in those days that a decree went out
from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. (Luke
THE Gospel reading for midnight mass gives us a Christmas
parable about the sinister aspects of collecting data. The Emperor
Augustus, who initiates the census, was hailed in the Roman world
as "chief priest", "saviour", "Son of God", and "bringer of peace",
but Luke's infancy narrative clearly, if subtly, contrasts the
overweening, bureaucratic type of power represented by Caesar with
that of Jesus Christ, born in a manger in Bethlehem. Moreover, even
in Luke's Gospel there is a clear connection between collecting
data and wielding economic power. In the ancient world, the purpose
of taxation was not to raise money which could then be
redistributed for beneficial purposes, but rather to extract
tribute from subservient people.
More than 2000 years later, data collection is again supreme. In
21st-century Britain, children's educational progress and
attainment are assessed by a hyper-statistical approach which, for
all the rhetoric about "inclusion", presages a reductive view of
the human person.
It implies that each child is not so much a unique and
God-imaging reality, to be cherished and respected for his or her
own sake, but rather as a set of performance data and, ultimately,
a cog in the economic wheel.
Similarly, in the Church of England in recent years, we have
seen an increasing number of projects that adopt a data-driven
approach. A prominent example has been the British Religion in
Numbers project associated with Professor Linda Woodhead, and her
surveys on the part played by religion in public life, recently
featured in the Church Times (Comment, 31
Equally high-profile has been the report From Anecdote to
Evidence, based on the findings from the Church Growth
In my own diocese, the success of our current diocesan
initiative is to be assessed by a succession of "key metrics", such
as the numbers of "ambassadors for Christ" and new worshipping
communities that the diocese can produce.
Elsewhere, two bishops, clearly rattled by the statistics, have
commented on the need for radical change. One of them has
apparently suggested that the appropriate response to declining
numbers in his parish churches might be a reduction in the number
of times they celebrate the eucharist.
THE Church of England should surely be very wary of colluding
with the prevailing managerialist delusion of contemporary Western
society: that any important information can be expressed in a set
of numbers; and, concomitant to this, that pressure can then be put
on individual men and women to drive those numbers upwards.
Statistical data may tell us how people behave, how they perform,
and what their opinions are at a particular moment; but, for all
their promise of focus and precision, statistics offer, at best, an
extremely blunt instrument for analysing the very subtle things
that should be our particular concern.
These include the mysterious workings of the human heart, the
depth and reality of our contemplation of God, and the unseen
workings of grace in the lives of individuals and communities.
Moreover, reliance on statistical data tends towards quick
fixes, often dressed up as strategies, initiatives, and
interventions. What is actually needed may be precisely the
opposite: a slower-burning and more painstaking engagement with the
scriptures, the Christian tradition, and the reality of life in
For example, while a reduction in the number of occasions on
which the eucharist is celebrated may be the obvious solution, if
the data tells us that fewer people are attending, it may not
actually be the best solution. Perhaps we should rather try to
deepen the way in which it is celebrated, or help people (including
ourselves) to enter into it with a new heart and a new spirit. We
might even want to increase the number of celebrations - as the
Wesleys did, before their own revival of the Church.
THERE are particular dangers for clergy in the hyper-statistical
approach, when the focus of our work changes from doing, faithfully
and joyfully, those things that we are called to do, and becomes
instead meeting targets, data, and outcomes. Such a focus tends to
foster a nervous competitiveness between fellow workers in the
It may also breed an insidious form of clericalism, as we come
to view members of our congregations not as fellow pilgrims and
members of the body of Christ, but as customers, or statistics on a
Data collection is usually linked to economics, and it is all
too easy for the Church unwittingly to default to the ways of the
capitalist economy rather than witness to the Gospel's more hopeful
account of what it means to be a human person.
THE Gospels present Jesus as a lover of anecdotes - however much
we may wish he had adopted a more evidence-based praxis. The
parable of the sower (Mark 4.3-9) appears to advocate the most
hopelessly- targeted mission strategy imaginable. Careless of
projected outcomes, a sower cheerfully and liberally scatters seed
around the place, even in areas where it is highly unlikely ever to
And yet grow it does: thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold.
The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of St John and St Luke,
Clay Hill, in the diocese of London, and Director of Continuing
Ministerial Education in the Edmonton Episcopal Area.