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31 January 2014

IT IS not all about the numbers, of course. In our new series on the health of the Church of England, we begin by looking at trends in attendance. Official C of E figures suggest an overall decline of nine per cent in the past decade. We are not in the business of public relations: this is a sign of a body in poor health. If the C of E is to be regarded as a working body, it is able to do nine per cent less work than ten years ago. Less evangelism, less mission, less social work, less community action. Even giving, which for years bucked the trend, has been falling away in real terms for the past few years.

There are several reasons, beyond wistful optimism, why the C of E has failed to acknowledge this situation. First, it is not universal. One of the more interesting figures is that, in the decade to 2010, while 27 per cent of churches declined, 18 per cent grew. A narrow majority, 55 per cent, remained stable. Thus 73 per cent of churches have not experienced a crisis. Second, there is a justifiable scepticism about numerical measures of success. Faithfulness to Christ works to a different scale altogether. And, however universal Christ's offer, he gave no suggestion in his teaching that it would be taken up by all. Readers will be able to point to lively congregations with a weak grasp of theological understanding, and poorly attended churches where deep spirituality can be encountered. Third, social habits and attitudes have altered very quickly: regular weekly observance is no longer seen as necessary.

But numbers do matter. Churches are where, in general, faith starts, and is encouraged, and matures. The Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and Christ is encountered. Smaller congregations mean fewer interactions with the people of God, and fewer opportunities to kindle the spark of Christian faith which exists in many on the edge of the Church, and, similarly, to be enriched by them. If trends continue, the burden of the building will become too much for the remnant, and the Church's most visible witness in that community will cease.

It is not all about age, of course. The Candlemas readings, above all others, celebrate the ancient faithfulness of Simeon and Anna. It is natural that men and women, as they age, pay more attention to spiritual and universal matters. The best churches are indifferent to age. But Christ's appeal is to people of every age, and his Church ought to reflect that. A congregation that consists mainly of those aged over 65 will struggle to attract young people or families with children. If it loses that struggle, there will be no younger generation to take its place when the time comes.

Remedies exist, and their relative merits will be discussed on these pages. But a Church that denies that it is in crisis will not apply those remedies with the commitment that they will need in order to work.

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