Women Bishops or Bust? Looking at the Figures

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”

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