A clear statistical picture is a key part of Christian mission

The Church of England has just released its latest set of pastoral facts and figures, Statistics for Mission 2015, which you can (and, quite frankly, should) download here.

As with previous instalments, this is a treasure trove of concrete information on all manner of practical topics: everything from average Sunday attendance (roughly three-quarters of a million, or 1.4 per cent of the English population), to the proportion of churches that have a toilet (64 per cent). Who knew, moreover, that there are 152 churches that are also Post Offices?

Even more usefully, most sets of data are given for both the Church of England as a whole, and for each of its 47 dioceses. This permits – for those of us who enjoy close readings of dense statistical tables, at least – some fascinating things to emerge.

Take, for example, the Diocese of Hereford. In terms of absolute numbers of regular attendees it ranks second lowest (behind only the tiny Sodor and Man). Such measures can, however, be deceptive. For in fact, Hereford’s Sunday worshippers make up the highest proportion of both the diocese’s total population (2.4 per cent), and its total Christian population (3.5 per cent), among all the English dioceses

Hereford’s vicars are by far the CofE’s busiest in terms of funerals (57 per cent of all local deaths, compared to a church average of 30 per cent). They are also the second busiest with baptising (27 per cent of all births – only Carlisle’s 32 per cent tops it – compared to just 11 per cent countrywide).

Based on such figures alone – which may, of course, have all manner of explanations – it should perhaps be Hereford that gets singled out as the CofE “success story”. Meanwhile, London diocese, to which that honour usually goes, holds its own in these statistics, but hardly stands out. (Although, again, there are of course different socio-cultural and demographic factors in play here.)

Such successes are all relative, of course. For most readers, the overarching message of the report, which its authors do not flinch from, is one of decline. It is, for instance, a rare diocese which hasn’t lost at least a few thousand regular Sunday worshippers since only 2005.

Even Christmas attendance, which has remained buoyant-ish, has lost a good quarter of a million over that period nationally. (Though in 2005 itself 46 out of the 47 dioceses reported an uptick in festive churchgoers on the previous year. I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into that, mind. Weather wise, 25 December was a much nicer day in 2005 than in 2004.)

Remember, though, that the report is titled Statistics for Mission. And that’s both what they are, and why they are so critically important. If a Christian body is serious about evangelisation, then it needs to have as a clear-sighted a view of the terrain as possible.

To its credit, the Church of England clearly recognises this. The time and resources it puts into collecting, analysing, and – crucially – making available these kinds of statistics are clear testimony to that fact. (There are Catholic quasi-equivalents, of course – most notably the diocesan figures regularly published in The Catholic Directory. But these don’t come close to the kinds, or quality, of what the CofE’s impressive Research and Statistics department consistently puts out.)

As a Church, we have much to learn here. To touch on a theme from the previous week, secularisation is a genuinely ecumenical issue. How better to grasp its concrete ramifications is one area, at least, where we might hold out realistic hopes for future “sharing”.