One of the more ridiculous claims being made by the Yes2WomenBishops lobbyists is that if we don’t go ahead there will be a missional disaster in the Church of England. Here’s how their argument goes:

Why vote YES in November?

There are five key reasons to vote YES to women bishops at the November meeting of General Synod:

5. To reject the measure would lead to “missional suicide” as the CEO of the Church Army, Mark Russell, described it.  Throwing out the legislation which the rest of the world thinks is basic common sense at this late stage would make us a laughing stock and further alienate those we are seeking to reach.

Well possibly. That’s a big claim and I wonder how they back it up with more than just anecdotal stuff. I only ask, because the figures themselves tell a very different story. While not conclusive in the matter, it would serve us well to go back to the last time we had a big discussion about women in ministry and took the vote to see what an effect it had on “those we are seeking to reach”.

So I did. And here’s how I did it.

  1. I took the weekly church attendance figures for the Church of England as far back as I could. There’s lots of copies of this data, I used the set for “Usual Sunday Attendance” at Church Society website. We should note the caveat that Church Society make: “The figures for Usual Sunday Attendance are not collected on a uniform basis from Diocese to Diocese, however, they do give a good indication of medium-term trends.” I’d agree – even if the measures are not consistently made diocese by diocese, they will be consistent year on year and that’s the trend we’re looking to examine. For those years where no figures were available I simply interpolated (considering that to be adequate since it is obvious there is a distinct trend in one direction). I took the figures from 1978 to 2009 since they were all that was available.
  2. On the basis that one form of measure of “missional success” would be what proportion of England are actually attending church, I then took the annual population figures for England from the Office for National Statistics.
  3. To measure missional success I then recorded usual Sunday attendance as a percentage of total English population, i.e. on average what percentage of England are in a Church of England church on a Sunday?
Too easy. And very telling. What follows is a graph of those figure with one added detail – a line in 1992 to show the point where the Church of England voted in favour of ordaining women as priests. You can click on the graph to give you a bigger version.

And now, I trust, the absurdity of the claim is apparent. You will note the following:

  1. There was a general downward trend in attendance over the period. In about 30 years attendance dropped by well over 40% (i.e. from over 2.5% to 1.5%)
  2. That trend picked up sometime around 1992 and increased substantially.
  3. The increase in that trend coincided with the introduction of women priests.

Now of course it’s wrong to insist upon a tight cause and effect. But it’s also quite ridiculous to make the claim now that a further widening of the ordination of women is going to somehow arrest “missional suicide”. On the contrary – if there’s one event the data makes clear did not arrest “missional suicide”, it was the precursor (women’s ordination as priests) of the event now looming before us (women’s consecration as bishops). In fact the opposite happened – missional suicide appeared to kick in in an accelerated fashion.

So when the Yes2WomenBishops crew run the “missional suicide” line at you the right response is

“well of course, it worked so well last time” 

Comments

comments

18 comments on “Women Bishops or Bust? Looking at the Figures

  1. The position of Bishop in our system, has the name of a chruch position but is really a parachurch position of which the bible seems to say little – so it seems best person for the job might be fine – 1 tim 2 etc are not really relevant – that was the view of the great leader of Moore College when i went through and i agree.

  2. I would have thought that overseeing a diocese would be a ‘church’ ministry and not para church. The role of overseer is in the Bible and someone who is a bishop is working with many parishes and giving spiritual guidance to clergy. Parachurch ministries would be things like Anglicare and other Christian organisations.

  3. Lets assume that woman shouldn’t lead congregations. That says nothing about them running the Anglican Superannuation board or whatever. Nor about women running the Diocesan structure because it AIN’t church – it smells like church and uses church names but Ang bishops ain;t NT bishops – they are parachurch. This was the position the great DBKnox used to articulate. We have got muddled – liberals might argue women should be bishops for dumb reasons – but we are now accepting a ewhole lot of unbiblical ideas abotu chruch structures and getting ourselves muddled

    • could well be, Powelly. In which case shouldn’t we be pushing to reform the office and the structure, not simply rejecting it?
      I know you’re not arguing that simplistically but we operate in a system where bishops, like it or not, are there and they make some pretty awesome promises when they’re consecrated. Why not concentrate on getting that role right?

      • A pox on your site – i just wrote a longish reply and got timed out and lost it all!!!! What the …?
        Basically and more briefly and so more brusquely.
        LUCY – i think DBK would suggest you have fallen for their line exactly as they want you to – they use bible terms in utterly unbiblical ways and so we think its biblical – its not – it is parachurch – like Navigators, CityBibleForum – all good things, very good but not church, therefore what is true of chruch not at all necessary for these structures

  4. Again – my measured comments got lost.
    So more briefly … A human institution can ask them to make any promise we like (like a government sponsored gay marriage rite) but it simply is ineffectual against the scriptures. Nice man made promises are no excuse for misusing and misappropriating biblical words and honour

  5. I should wash my teeth – my breath has frightened off dialogue – pooh
    Or should i dance in triumph for i have driven these weaklings from the field – the Bible seems to indicate women shouldn’t lead congregations ie church – though they do prophecy! but any other man made little position they are free to do eg bishops archdeacons, wardens, Synod reps
    Can’t help wondering … if Jesus believed what so many of my after-the-wars friends do about woman leading etc in life broadly, he should not have chosen to make Mary the First witness of the new age dawning – the Resurrection (he found her – she didn;t find him)
    Apostle to the Apostles she was called in the early days ….. worth a thought

    • hi Ian,

      I remain entirely unconvinced that Mary’s witnessing of the the risen Lord is somehow indicative of a momentous change in the way the Church ought to be led. That kind of line might get pushed by Wright et al but it’s hardly knock down stuff. None of the NT authors seem to draw that conclusion and the great Apostle par examplar, Paul, seems to go the other way.

  6. David

    You can find much better statistics at the Church Growth research website, and on the Church of England’s own statistics pages. They show that church attendance has been flat for the past 10 years (look at the recent attendance chart). The trend is very clear – rapid declines in the 1990s, which halted at the turn of the millennium (about the time women priests started to graduate from theological colleges in large numbers).

    http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/statistics

    Afraid you’ve also got your dates a little confused. 1992 was the vote in synod. The legislation didn’t pass until 1993, which means that women priests did not start to graduate from theological colleges until 1994/5 at the earliest. So in just 5 years (ish) of women priests, they had totally eliminated the dreadful decline of the 1990s!

    However, I tease a little, as I think overall you are right that there isn’t really a close cause and effect here. What is more problematic is the cultural view of the church now and going forward.

    Just so you know, the ‘missional suicide’ line wasn’t ours – it was used by the CEO of the Church Army, the (evangelical) Mark Russell, to describe his fears if this legislation fails.

  7. Just so you know, the ‘missional suicide’ line wasn’t ours – it was used by the CEO of the Church Army, the (evangelical) Mark Russell, to describe his fears if this legislation fails.

    Indeed, but you used it in your argument. Seems a little silly to distance yourself from it now.

    I went to the statistics link. Here’s the Usual Sunday Attendance figures for all to see. Contrary to your claim that attendance is “flat” the decline continues, albeit not at the rates previously. The % of people in church would show a steeper fall along with a growing English population.

    The argument, I fear, still stands. Ordaining women as priests has seen no measurable missional success for the Church of England. I don’t see the consecration of women changing that trend in any way.

    • David

      I wouldn’t dream of distancing myself from the ‘missional suicide’ line. I merely point out that it originated from an evangelical who leads a major mission organisation. I thought you might therefore provide Mark a little more respect than you do me.

      The stats are very clear on attendance. In fact, Christian Research posted on it on my blog – http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/christian-research-church-attendance-in.html

      It is true that usual sunday attendance shows a slight decline over the past decade, contrasted with very rapid declines in the 1990s, but most statisticians consider average sunday, average weekly and average monthly attendance to be better measures now. These are all broadly flat for the past decade, again contrasted with big declines in the 1990s.

      In terms of the dates, I did note in my comment that the synod vote was 1992, however, my point is that the first women weren’t ordained until 1994, and even then there were only 32 of them. And further, at that point they would have taken up curacies rather than taken charge of parishes. If you want to assess the impact of women’s ordained ministry on church attendance, it would be better to look at the impact they had when they started to be ordained in more significant numbers, take charge of parishes etc. This was not until the late 1990s, when the nose-dive of the 1990s attendance decline ended.

      • I wouldn’t dream of distancing myself from the ‘missional suicide’ line. I merely point out that it originated from an evangelical who leads a major mission organisation. I thought you might therefore provide Mark a little more respect than you do me.

        I think you’re confused. It’s not a lack of respect to not agree with someone. I’m not showing you or Mark less respect by disagreeing. I’m dealing with the argument itself which I take to be patently flawed. Last time the ordination of women was pushed through we saw an acceleration in the decline of the church.

        The stats are very clear on attendance. In fact, Christian Research posted on it on my blog – http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/christian-research-church-attendance-in.html

        It is true that usual sunday attendance shows a slight decline over the past decade, contrasted with very rapid declines in the 1990s, but most statisticians consider average sunday, average weekly and average monthly attendance to be better measures now. These are all broadly flat for the past decade, again contrasted with big declines in the 1990s.

        Yes, they’re “broadly flat”, yet still declining. And even if there were a very slight increase it wouldn’t change the argument one iota since the argument you put forward is that the expansion of ordination for women will prevent missional decline. On the contrary, the last time round it was concurrent with an increase in the decline.

        In terms of the dates, I did note in my comment that the synod vote was 1992, however, my point is that the first women weren’t ordained until 1994, and even then there were only 32 of them. And further, at that point they would have taken up curacies rather than taken charge of parishes. If you want to assess the impact of women’s ordained ministry on church attendance, it would be better to look at the impact they had when they started to be ordained in more significant numbers, take charge of parishes etc. This was not until the late 1990s, when the nose-dive of the 1990s attendance decline ended.

        But that’s entirely inconsistent with the argument you and Mark made which is public perception is at stake – that’s different to saying “women in vicar’s positions will change things”. If you want to run that different argument then, by all means, run it. But that’s not the argument on your website.

        Again, the reality is this – Once the measure passed in 1992 the perception of the church changed or at least was arrested (which is what you and Mark are arguing will necessarily happen again this time if we pass women bishops – if not, then your whole argument collapses). But with that change (or at the least maintenance) of perception we got an increase in missional decline. It didn’t take women to be placed as vicars to change that perception – it came when the vote happened.

        And yet you’re arguing that it will, instead, arrest decline. Your claim is inconsistent with the facts of the 90s

    • oh Mouse that’s a disappointing way to try and bale out.
      There are no straw men here – your argument in this matter is one of perception; about what England will think of us if we don’t continue on this path.

      And there are no “contrary facts”. I never said the figures you put forward were wrong – I just don’t think your interpretation of the facts that we agree on explains the facts.

      That’s all. If you’re in a huff because I won’t lie over and accept your version of reality then all well and good – but let’s not make out that it’s my intransigence. Although I do note that accusing others of intransigence in this matter generally is already a position you’ve taken elsewhere – as I pointed out to you then it’s not very charitable to sincerely-held positions.

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