Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Hacker: The statistics are irrefutable...
Humphrey: Statistics? You can prove anything with statistics.
Hacker: Even the truth.
Humphrey: Yes... No!
The above quote from the British comedy, Yes Prime Minister (the episode entitled "The Smoke Screen" for those who are interested) admirably captures the problem that Anglicanism currently faces. Later this year, Ashgate will publish Church Growth and Decline in Global Anglicanism: 1980 to the Present Day to which I have contributed the chapter on the demographics of The Episcopal Church (TEC). Statistics of church growth (and decline) have been the stuff of interdenominational wrangling for the past thirty years and frequently generate more heat than light. TEC is roughly at midpoint in terms of decline among the major mainline Protestant denominations. Furthermore, particularly in the last decade, almost every major denomination except the LDS Church has reported, if not a decline, at least a diminution in growth. A case could thus be made that recent declines in TEC’s membership are part and parcel of the general shedding of the nominally religious from membership rolls in recent decades and a consolidation of the faithful remnant.

While I am not convinced that the loss of the “nominals” is the sole basis for TEC’s decline (particularly since 2003), it is comparatively easy to draw conclusions about the state of the Protestant mainline generally (and TEC in particular) given the efficiency with which statistical data is gathered year by year. Definitions of membership are clearly articulated and congregations and dioceses (or their equivalents) are routinely encouraged to update their statistical returns to take account of recent changes. Compare this with, for example, three of the largest African-American denominations, the Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention, USA and the National Baptist Convention of America, which claim 5.5 million, 5 million and 3.5 million members respectively. In these cases, few local statistics exist to either sustain or refute the accuracy of the national figure (which has not even been updated in recent years).

It is important to acknowledge here that while there are dangers in associating church growth with ecclesiastical health (dysfunctional or spiritually unbalanced churches can be extremely “successful,” as the Prosperity Gospel attests), most observers would agree that church decline, while sometimes inevitable, is problematic, whether in a congregation, a diocese or a denomination. The only sure way to judge growth and decline is by means of statistics that are current, reliable and consistent across the jurisdiction under scrutiny, all of which brings us to a recently published article by Daniel Munoz in the Journal of Anglican Studies.

For conservative Anglicans, “North to South: A Reappraisal of Anglican Communion Membership Figures” will come as a shock in that it questions the narrative of Global South growth and Global North recession (at least in respect of Anglicanism) that has dominated recent debates. Some readers will be familiar with the findings of the 2013 report of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, which shows significant gains for Christianity in Africa and Asia.

What Munoz reveals in his analysis, however, is that if such growth does occur, Anglicanism may not be the main beneficiary. He notes, with some plausibility, that for conservative Anglicans to question the reliability of membership figures for the Church of England, while accepting uncritically those statistics provided by African provinces is to make a mockery of global comparisons, all the more telling when one considers that the Anglican Communion Office lacks current statistical data from 32 of its 38 member provinces. Although his focus is on statistics, Munoz offers some anecdotal – but revealing – evidence from African church leaders about the rise of nominal Christianity within their own flocks as well as the challenge posed by newer Pentecostal groups. His main interest, however, is in exploring a possible gap between what he terms “outer circle” membership (the kind of cultural Anglicanism that lingered on in Britain until at least the Second World War) and “inner circle” membership, or those actively engaged in the life of the Church. To determine the latter, he appealed to national and provincial church offices and also sampled information on websites where those existed. Focusing on Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, and relying on a degree of extrapolation from such data as was publicly available, Munoz estimates that inner circle membership within the Global South may only be about 3.9 million compared to outer circle membership of 41.4 million. Conversely, he estimates the Global North to have 4.6 million inner circle members compared to 35.7 million outer circle members. 

On this basis, the Global South would be considered to have 45.9 percent of inner circle Anglicans as against 53.7 percent of outer circle Anglicans. Such a finding hardly makes the Global South an insignificant presence in Anglican affairs but it serves as a reminder that playing the numbers game is a risky business. Judged in terms of inner circle membership, there would not be nine African provinces with over a million members but only one, Nigeria (which would actually be smaller than TEC). 

If a word of caution is needed it is that Munoz’s estimates suggest that the inner circle constitutes no more than 10 percent of the outer circle in most African provinces, comparable with figures for the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Australia. Were the same approach to be applied to North America, one would expect Canada to have an inner circle membership of no more than 144,000 and the USA of no more than 240,000, but Munoz reports their inner circle membership as 545,957 and 1,588,057 respectively. While one might believe there to be a greater religiosity among American Anglicans than those of Britain and Australia, it seems unlikely to be greater by a factor of between five and seven. [I added the below calculation from the figures in Munoz's article after publishing this post.]

Global South - Outer Circle: 41,451,522
Global South - Inner Circle:    3,952,373
Global South Active Membership Share: 9.5%

Global North (less USA and Canada) - Outer Circle: 32,123,599
Global North (less USA and Canada) - Inner Circle:    2,709,038
Global North (less USA and Canada) Active Membership Share: 8.4%

USA and Canada - Outer Circle: 3,852,080
USA and Canada - Inner Circle:  2,134,014
USA and Canada Active Membership Share: 55.4%

That said, Munoz’s research should serve as a reminder to the Global South that inflated membership figures are ultimately self-defeating. It may be wrong to articulate definitions of membership too narrowly, but definitions are needed and congregations and provinces have a responsibility to report numbers accurately and consistently. Anything else is ultimately a betrayal of the men and women in the pew who look to their leaders not only to proclaim the Gospel but to acknowledge the Church as she is, even while looking for the Church as she should be.

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