Declining figures noted with ‘a heavy heart’

23 September 2016

Gavin Drake reports on the meeting of the governing Body of the Church in Wales

(CREDIT: CHURCH IN WALES)

(CREDIT: CHURCH IN WALES)

AVERAGE Sunday attendance in the Church in Wales has fallen to below one per cent of the population, the Membership and Finance Report said. And the Governing Body was in no mood simply to “receive” the report, as the motion on the order paper asked it to do.

“The membership figures in last year’s report had suggested that the trend of decline had slowed or been reversed in a number of key areas,” the report said. “However, all measures of attendance demonstrate substantial decline between 2014 and 2015, with average adult Sunday attendance and average attendance of under-18s falling at a rate above the longer-term trend.”

Average Sunday attendance for over-18s had fallen from 30,424 in 2014 to 29,019 in 2015: a fall of five per cent. Easter communicants were down one per cent to 51,435, while the number of Christmas communicants had fallen three per cent to 49,972.

“I’d like to make clear I am not here as a doom-and-gloom merchant, merely to present the facts,” the chairman of the Representative Body, James Turner, said.

“Attendances appear to be falling, but that is not the case in nearly half of our parishes. We fear the church is losing touch with our young people, but there are indications that, through hard work and intentional investment, good things are happening around the country.

“Even at a purely provincial headline level, we must be careful about the way we interpret these figures. Average adult Sunday attendances fell by some 1400 between 2014 and 2015, which represents a fall of five per cent. However, it is equally true to note that this decline can be measured as less than two people per parish.”

He said that the Church should “remain confident in our ability to reverse the decline and plan for growth”.

The motion on the order paper asked members of the Governing Body to “take note of the report”, but the Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) described it as devastating, appalling, an embarrassment, and deeply depressing. He said: “I would hate us just to take note of it.”

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He recognised that the Church in Wales was attempting new things, such as pioneer ministry and licensed evangelists, and said that these would take time to produce fruit. But he was concerned about the “huge amount of time, effort, energy, and money [spent] on propping up stuff which has failed”.

He moved an amendment to the motion, to say that the Governing Body received the report “with a heavy heart”, and added a new clause calling for more research into what made a growing Church.

“I want to know what those places of growth have in common with each other; and, in contrast, I want to know what is different about those who are not growing,” he said. “What common features prevail in both camps?”

He continued: “Across our Church, in many places, faith is weak, or has even died, and we are just going through the motions. The Church in Wales is now — according to these statistics — a small and insignificant church in Wales . . . but we act as though we are large and important.”

Despite the figures, he was not hopeless, he said. “We have such great treasure, but it is being locked away in structures that are not working. We have the gospel: the fully trustworthy word of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is my guess that the growth that is there is clearest where this hope is most evident, where the gospel is preached with the expectation that people will come to faith, where the fullness of God’s word is taught and applied such that the Church is a radical force for good in its community.”

He said that the Church ought to be prepared to prune and to “call time on that which is dying”.

Seconding the “strong amendment”, the Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andy John, said: “I think that it is time that we, with some real seriousness, said that the trajectories that have been reported on, year after year after year, must be now halted, and we must intend to reverse those trajectories.”

He said that learning lessons from those churches that were growing would enable the Church to do mission and ministry in a way that was “more faithful, more hopeful, and more engaged with the people of Wales whom we are called to serve”.

The chair of the session said that the words “with a heavy heart” were problematic. This was a “personal emotional response”, and she did not think that they could be part of a substantive motion; but she had received conflicting advice, and wanted to hear the Governing Body’s views on this aspect of the amendment.

The Revd Steven Bunting (co-opted — unbeneficed clerics) supported the wording, saying that he was “thoroughly depressed” when he read the statistics. “At every meeting we seem to be skirting around the major issue: that slowly but surely the people of Wales are turning their back on the Church in Wales,” he said. “The census tells us that 57 per cent of people are Christian, yet less than one per cent joins us for worship.”

He said that the Church needed to “wake up to the stark reality”; otherwise the celebrations for the Church in Wales’s centenary in 2020 would be “just a few cucumber sandwiches at a wake”.

The timing of the debate on the report, “after lunch on the final day, when people want to go home”, was criticised by Daniel Priddy (co-opted — Under 30), who said: “It should be our core business.”

The Revd Justin Groves (Monmouth) supported the wording, suggesting that “a heavy heart” reflected God’s heart; and Robert Wilkinson (St Davids) said that the wording was inadequate, and that he would have liked the Governing Body to say that it was “ready to repent”.

Much more was happening than could be recorded by attendance statistics, and “you can’t put a price, you can’t put a value, on that,” the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff, the Rt Revd David Wilbourne, said. “We might be having decline, but Christ is still Christ, and God is still God; and they don’t depend on our permission to thrive. If we look hard, there are signs there, and the call is ‘Come fishing, come fishing.’”

Mr Turner did not oppose the amendment, saying that it was “a much stronger motion”.

The amendment, and the revised substantive motion, were both approved unanimously:

That the Governing Body

(i) do take note of this report with a heavy heart; and

(ii) request that the Standing Committee, as a matter of urgency, identify the minority of parishes which are growing, investigate the factors behind this, and suggest what we might implement from this good practice.

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