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Anglicans and headcounts  

31 March 2017

Michael Doe looks at number crunching

Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion: 1980 to the present

David Goodhew, editor

Routledge £24.99


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OPENING up a book like this about the Anglican Communion, one fears finding a superficial gathering of statistics which raises all the old arguments such as breadth versus depth, and the same old dividing issues. In fact, this volume turns out to be much more open, empirical, and nuanced. It provides very useful information, some varied interpretations, and, although there is an underlying assumption that growth is good, it avoids any easy prescription for turning decline around.

In the past 50 years, the Anglican Communion has doubled in size, and since 1970 the proportion of its members coming from Africa rose from 16 to nearly 60 per cent. Given that the claimed “membership” of the Church of England includes infant baptisms, now dropping markedly, that difference can only become more pronounced.

Two introductory chapters attempt an overview of a complex state of affairs, admitting the varied quality of statistics on offer, and the different measurements of affiliation (people who self-describe as Anglican), membership (people who have signed on in some way to an Anglican congregation), and those who actually and regularly attend. Its contributors then offer studies of 12 different countries.

On the one hand, there is Nigeria, where the dioceses have increased from 16 in 1979 to 164 today, but outstripped by Pentecostal and independent Charismatic churches. On the other hand, there is the United States, where the 2010 figures suggest a 25-per-cent loss in 25 years.

The authors rightly warn against generalised conclusions, but for this reviewer five causal factors stand out. The first is demography. The mushrooming populations of some countries facilitate numerical growth in a way that static or falling populations elsewhere do not, and for some reason a higher birth rate and a poorer standard of living tend to make people more religious. Few contributors give comparable statistics for other religions, leaving open the relationship between the work of the Holy Spirit and a culture of increased religiosity.

The second aspect is what is called here the “pentecostalisation” of Anglicanism. In recent years, many Provinces, notably in Africa and Singapore, have either lost members to Pentecostal or Charismatic churches or adopted many of their characteristics in both theology and worship. While the latter can stretch the meaning of “Anglican”, the book rightly records that, in some countries in South America, Anglicanism has shown significant vitality because it is offering a new via media, combining the best from Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism, and letting go their downsides.

Third, the various national studies contribute to the ongoing debates about secularisation and what happens to religion when societies modernise. The fact is, as Grace Davie’s work has shown, we should see “modernities” rather than “modernity”. The growth of Anglicanism in large parts of Africa, Asia, and South America shows that these cultures may well not secularise, or at least not in the same manner as Europe or North America. Places such as Singapore and Korea have accepted modernity, but Christianity flourishes, albeit with disturbing accommodation to a prosperity gospel or a continuing “worship” of the ancestors.

Here in the West, secularisation can result in the decline of religion, but it can also lead to the more conservative reaction of searching back (as in second-generation Christian and Muslim immigrants), or the searching around for a place to belong in a de-centred world, most likely to be found in the more Charismatic, privatised churches.

That leads, fourth, to the issue of context. History still plays a part: Ghana has seen little of the growth found in neighbouring Nigeria because its Anglican Church was associated with its Establishment roots, and in India, while the offer of English-speaking education may have been a great attraction, especially for those from the lower strata of society, the Church’s failure to address caste issues continues to inhibit growth.

Some of the authors cite London as an “exception” because it seems to be bucking the C of E trend of numerical decline, but fail to explore its particular context, especially around immigration, or dare to ask how far the growth of what some have unkindly called “Charismatic congregationalism” fits with Anglican identity.

Finally, the largest question remains: are any doubts about numerical growth, as this book sometimes suggests, a kind of inverse snobbery, leading to “decline theology”, or are there genuine questions about the nature of growth, and what does a theology of the Cross have to say about measurements of success?


The Rt Revd Michael Doe, Preacher to Gray’s Inn, is a former General Secretary of USPG.

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