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Church of England ‘R number’ suggests bleak future, says mathematician

27 May 2022

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THE Church of England faces extinction within 40 years because the faith it proclaims is not “contagious” enough, a new study reports.

The study was compiled by Dr John Hayward, a mathematician at the University of South Wales and the founder of the church-growth modelling site. He analysed data from 13 denominations to calculate their R-rate — a technique more usually associated with calculating the spread of disease.

For a virus such as Covid-19, an R number of more than one indicates that the disease is spreading rapidly, while an R-rate of less than one points to its dying out. Dr Hayward has now applied the same model to church attendance.

He says that he saw the potential of applying R-number modelling to church growth in 1999. “The analogy works when existing church members add new members through personal contact, whether directly or indirectly,” he writes in his report.

“We heard about R numbers during the Covid outbreak. For churches, I call it the ‘Reproduction Potential’. If this number is less than one, enthusiasts fail to reproduce themselves, conversions are too weak, and the Church dies out. . . If the reproduction potential is greater than one, conversions are strong enough to counter losses, and the Church may grow.”

He analysed attendance data from between 2000 and 2020, and found that Church of England and Roman Catholic churches across the UK have R numbers of just over 0.9. Their congregations could vanish by 2062, he concludes.

The Methodist Church has an R number of about 0.85, suggesting its extinction could come by the mid-2040s. The Church in Wales, with an R number of just over 0.7, may die out as soon as 2038. Baptist churches have an R number closer to one, and may survive until as late as 2085.

By contrast, the Elim Pentecostal Church and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches both have R numbers of between 1 and 1.1 and are growing.

Dr Hayward concludes that the next few decades may prove that the historic denominations have run their course. “One thing is clear, if things carry on as they are, the future of Christianity does not lie in the hands of the older denominations,” he writes.

“The Church of England will cease to be a national Church, and the Churches of Scotland and Wales will disappear by the middle of this century. Instead, God will work through the next cycle of denominations — Pentecostal and Evangelical ones, picking up the pieces left by the extinct historic churches.”

The trends identified by Dr Hayward are not new. As he acknowledges on his website, they are based on statistics that have been gathered for many decades by Dr Peter Brierley. And he draws a distinction between models and predictions.

“Models are based on assumptions. Thus, they are unlikely to capture a given Church’s membership dynamics fully,” he writes. “Secondly, models make forecasts, not predictions. There are always random events that prevent an accurate description of the Church’s numerical future. Also, the data is rarely that accurate or consistent. However, the forecasts can help Churches examine their policies to enhance growth or combat decline.”

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