Every year, Church of England churches are asked to complete their Parish Returns with numbers for aspects of the church’s mission and finances. Officially, it’s the responsibility of the churchwardens to see this is done, but other people can and do help.
The data is collected so the Church can produce statistics and get an overview of how things are, and to help plan for the future. The latest results are now available in Statistics for Mission 2021.
The statistics for the last ten years are also published for incumbents and officers. Why not take a look? You may be surprised by what you find. The data in the charts is only as good as the data reported. To badly paraphrase Matthew 12:33, make your data good and the charts will be good, or make your data bad and your charts will be bad. Please don’t dismiss data just because you know it is less than perfect - even weak data can show us things we might otherwise miss.
The available charts (taking into account some obvious errors and inconsistencies) show some trends that lead to interesting questions, particularly to help you understand why things are going well.
It can be quite dispiriting to see the secular, media-friendly graphs of the decline of the church, but there is a lot of value in understanding where and why that trend is being reversed. The underlying reason for Parish Returns is to better equip parishes across the Church to serve their communities.
Accessing the Parish Returns Parish Dashboard
You will need to log in – the website gives you instructions on how to get access if you don’t already have an ID, or you can follow the instructions on page 2 of the User Guide. This is the same login you may already be using to enter data, but instead of selecting Enter Your Data, select View Data. Once you’ve selected View Data, select Charts and Dashboards.
Here is where you’ll find the data about the number of people who engage with your church, including Sunday attendance, occasional offices, age profiles and other numbers entered on Parish Returns.
Click the icon and you will be taken to a page that summarises your returns since 2011 – with data presented as both a graph and table of numbers.
These graphs are not produced to pass judgement, but they do give the opportunity to ask questions. One incumbent was a bit dismissive of the statistics, thinking they were useful to ‘senior’ people but not to him, but when shown the data and prompted with some questions (which he could easily answer), he realised it was a useful exercise after all.
One graph shows church attendance. On Parish Returns, you have four lines: usual Sunday attendance, the October ‘average week’ and Christmas/Easter attendance.
Graphs that go gently up or gently down show a trend, but when that’s not what we see, maybe something else is happening. Imagine your church has a U-shape in attendance for Christmas 2014 and a ∩- shape the following Easter. Did something happen to cause this? What happened? Was it just inaccurate data on the return? Imagine Easter has another increase, why might that be? Are there opportunities to follow up it?
Another interesting thing to look at is where different graphs move in the same direction at the same time – or in a different direction at the same time. For example, if we look at the chart of the occasional offices, we might see a big drop in funerals for 2014 and a drop in baptisms in 2017. Is there any link here to other graphs?
This is where you’ll find data about income and expenditure, where money comes from and how much you have in reserves. The first chart shows the income and expenditure over the last eight years. Hopefully you will recognise why the graph is going up or down – it’s a question your treasurer should have a good handle on. If income and expenditure follow quite closely, it probably indicates a church living within its means.
Another helpful chart looks at where your income comes from, with a similar chart for expenditure. Are the rise and falls in giving related to some vision of the church? If so, might that happen with a new vision for today?
Income and expenditure on a year-by-year basis have to be considered along side the church’s reserves, and this is shown in the final chart.
One of the more exciting innovations in recent years is to make use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems). GIS is way to put data on a map and compare related and unrelated facts, usually with the ability to zoom in and out as required.
The map the Church of England has provided is of the UK, using Census data so you know how many people there are in a given area, and also some social information about them, and ‘deprivation’ data, using the Church’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, which ranks parishes by the social needs of their population.
You will see the map on the Parish Returns Charts and Dashboards page. By going to your parish and clicking the mouse, you can see useful things like your parish boundaries (and where neighbouring parishes join), your parish population broken down into age group and ethnicity. You may find it interesting to explore neighbouring parishes too.
There’s a link just above the map which will take you to the arcGIS website. From here, you have access to some additional facilities to explore the maps. Initially, you’ll see a legend showing what the map colours mean – the bluer the area, the more deprived it is; the yellower, the less deprived.
Schools are marked as white dots; churches are marked with red/amber/green/grey dots to reflect their listed building status.
Click on your parish and up pops data, including population with age and ethnicity breakdown (this is data from the National Census). You can look at this alongside what you know about your parish and your church's mission. If you select the Content tab, you can add (and remove) layers to the map. For example, you can outline benefice boundaries in lilac.
You can apply filters to the map too - for example, showing only those parishes with a population greater than 10,000 (and with a bit of trial and error, you can find out that the largest parish in the diocese by population is Watling Valley in Milton Keynes, and the largest by area is Bampton with Clanfield).
The information in this map is useful to help you know about your own parish, but also to help you think about your parish in relation to those near you.
We encourage you to take a few minutes to explore the data available. Sometimes the most useful thing about looking at data is that it gives you an opportunity to think in a different way about your parish and ministry, and thinking 'different' can lead to new insights as well as new initiatives.