In the document written about my husband and me by Lee Gatiss for Church Society, the (now resigned) Churchwardens ‘report’ that during my husband’s time as vicar here, the electoral roll and church attendance shrank massively. However, the electoral roll and attendance figures quoted in the Church Society report are highly misleading.
As Lee Gatiss and the other anglican clergy on the Church Society Council are well aware (Church Society being a Church of England patronage society), Church of England parish electoral roll figures are a notoriously unreliable indicator of a church’s health or even its actual attendance. Some incumbents encourage as many people as possible to sign up, whereas others encourage only those who attend regularly to be on the electoral roll. Lee Gatiss and the other senior leaders of Church Society will also realise that many people reading the widely circulated report are simply unaware of the unreliability of electoral roll figures and would likely make a negative inference about my husband.
At the start of my husband’s time as vicar, there were many people on the church electoral roll who did not attend – and had not been attending church. Electoral roll numbers are one of the factors used by dioceses to calculate the amount of parish share that a church pays, a higher electoral roll resulting in greater costs for the church. My husband inherited a very high parish share contribution for the church when he started as vicar, but with the departure of the previous incumbent, the church no longer had the same ability to pay (see my post entitled Money, money, money). My husband therefore only actively encouraged actual members of the congregation to sign up for the electoral roll. This meant that there was a big drop in the electoral roll as it started to look more like actual church attendance. Many evangelical ministers in the Church of England take the same approach with the electoral roll in order to help the church financially and so that those involved in voting at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting are those who actually attend the church.
What is also striking is that my husband’s policy on the electoral roll was both understood and supported by one of the very Churchwardens who gave this information to Lee Gatiss for the Church Society ‘full’ report and ‘executive summary’. Why would she choose to give such misleading information for publication and why would Lee Gatiss and Church Society choose to publish such misleading information?
The attendance figures mentioned are also unreliable, as Church of England attendance figures often are, because it depends on how they are collected. However, the attendance figures given to Church Society by the Churchwarden do not even match those that we obtained recently from the Church of England Statistics Unit for the period of my husband’s time as vicar. The Church Society report wrongly claims that while my husband was vicar, usual Sunday attendance went from 200-250 down to 80 people. According to the Church of England statistics, however, usual Sunday attendance during my husband’s time as vicar went from 167 down to 139 people by 2016, the last figure recorded before we were bullied out and went on pastoral leave (figures from Statistics for Mission dashboard for St. Peter’s Stapenhill). By 2019, usual Sunday attendance was 98, which means that 40 people left after my husband had already been bullied out rather than because of anything he had done. In contrast to the distorted picture presented in the Church Society report, attendance held up reasonably well throughout my husband’s time, especially when compared with other Church of England churches in the area, and probably across the country. I would be interested to know how the numbers provided by Church Society were calculated, as they should surely take responsibility for their report.
Before my husband arrived in Stapenhill, I already attended the church here regularly (we first met here and then got married). I was astounded to read that Church Society is suggesting that there was a regular attendance of 200-250. I do not recall the attendance ever being as high as the Churchwardens suggest, except perhaps at special services, e.g. Christmas Carols by Candlelight etc.
It is true that the congregation at our traditional 11 a.m. service decreased in number over the years because of age and death. However, our younger congregation at our modern service outgrew the hall that we were meeting in and in 2017, we had to make the decision to relocate to the larger building and to pioneer a new meeting. There has actually been an increase in terms of children and young people and an increase in youth work during my husband’s time. Attendance was pretty steady until 2016 / 2017 when the bullying towards us started. A number of families made us aware that they had decided to leave the church after my husband and I went on pastoral leave in 2018 because they were unhappy about the way that we had been treated and the behaviour of the group who had driven us out.
I am dismayed by Lee Gatiss’s unbiblical focus on numbers in his document. However, questions should be asked about the unreliability and inaccuracy of the data included in the Church Society report. Their figures appear to serve no purpose other than to undermine my husband’s ministry and tarnish his reputation.