Informing policy and investment in the Church of England

MiSoC’s Professor David Voas was commissioned by the Church of England in 2012 to undertake a study to identify factors associated with church growth and decline, building on his expertise on analysing religious decline. This new evidence has directly influenced change and investment of over £100 million within the Church.

In early 2014, the Church of England published ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ to highlight key findings. In early 2015, it followed up with a further publication designed to push people ‘From Evidence to Action’. The introduction to ‘From Evidence to Action’ states that the project was “the first time that such a wide ranging and systematic study of factors relating to church growth has been undertaken within the Church of England. … The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Welby, has welcomed the research findings and all that they have highlighted. … It is for this reason – because the findings prompt churches to act – that following on from the research, a toolkit, From Evidence to Action has been developed.”

Professor Voas was invited by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to a residential meeting of their Council in June 2014, where they discussed the policy implications with the senior leadership. Justin Welby described the report as the most important study conducted by the Church for many years, and one that will have a real impact. Andreas Whittam Smith, the First Church Estates Commissioner, is proposing a major investment programme to change the fortunes of the Church. These investments are expected to amount to £100 million over the next ten years. MiSoC’s research is explicitly cited as the justification for this major commitment.

Changing culture and allocation of investment

The research has helped to change culture within the Church of England, including a greater openness to using evidence and research to help inform decision making, increased awareness of the challenges faced by the Church and acceptance of the need for a sharper focus on the objective of numerical growth.

‘Renewal and Reform’ a major change programme, to help reverse decades of numerical decline, has drawn on the findings from the growth research to inform their work (in terms of defining key issues to be tackled, making the case for change, helping to inform changes to funding etc.).

This quantitative social science research around church growth was relatively new in the context of the Church of England. MiSoC’s research has stimulated further quantitative research to continue to develop the evidence base. The challenges faced in carrying out the research have also helped drive increased efforts to improve data collection and collation processes in the Church, moving towards having more accurate and timely data to inform decision making.

The research is informing resource allocation decisions. Changing to funding systems as part of ‘Renewal and Reform’ now requires dioceses to submit applications for funding, drawing on evidence.

The research has had considerable impact locally as well as nationally. The findings have informed mission planning at a diocesan and parish – 5,000 hard copies of the summary report were distributed (plus web downloads) and over 5,000 copies of ‘From Evidence to Action’ tool were distributed (which helps parishes to apply the findings as part of parish development processes). Dioceses have drawn on findings when developing their strategy and there is also considerable evidence of parishes using the findings as part of their mission planning processes.