Chasing the elusive statistics

Statistics seldom excite. But just get them wrong or let someone discover they’re unreliable, and watch what happens.

This issue raised its head recently when the Anglican Church Directory 2000 — probably the other ‘bible’ for Anglicans needing information on the church or wishing to contact other Anglicans — had to go to print with the same statistical data it had used the year before. So, for two years in a row, the directory has given comparative statistical data for the years 1994 through 1996.

The reason? Several dioceses did not send in their statistical returns on time.

For years, the national office has served as chief source of information about the size and makeup of the Anglican Church of Canada. Statistics Canada does ask about religious affiliation in the census, taken every 10 years, but its definition of church membership differs from that of the church, so StasCan numbers are dramatically different from those collected by 600 Jarvis. The government’s last head count of Anglicans is three times that of the national church.

Statistics were so important in the early years of the church that General Synod formed the committee on statistics in 1893. That committee was disbanded in 1969, when its function was transferred to the Administration and Finance department.That’s not to say, however, that dioceses and parishes always gave up their statistics willingly. A 1946 General Synod resolution referred to the fact that only nine bishops had replied to a request for a report on their areas for 1944. The committee asked to be relieved of its duties “unless fuller co-operation is forthcoming”. Synod denied the request, but asked the dioceses to do better.

The problem continues; parishes and dioceses have become even more lax about reporting statistics — both membership and financial data. Several are at least two years behind. National church staff can guess why:

  • The dioceses rely on parishes for statistical data. Even a smaller diocese like Rupert’s Land, in southern Manitoba, has to wait for some 82 parishes to forward data before compiling a report for the national church;
  • Time constraints in mostly shrinking parishes and dioceses and fewer volunteer or paid staff at both levels mean more work for fewer people;
  • The finance department used to send dioceses one form with two sections, one for financial data and the other for membership statistics. After years of trying to cope with late forms, it decided it couldn’t wait for the financial information. In 1997, it separated the sections into two forms and the form for membership statistics seems to have since been forgotten by many dioceses — 11 out of 30 dioceses have still not returned their data for 1998. And, since the finance department receives few queries about church membership, the treasurer does not see a pressing need to gather the information.

“I don’t know if anyone uses it anymore,” says General Synod treasurer Jim Cullen. “Nobody’s been bugging us for it — no one’s ever asked for it.”

But it is not the finance department which gets the queries. Church librarian Karen Evans, who is disappointed with the state of statistics, says her office receives the most calls about church membership — at least a couple a month — mainly from journalists, clergy, sociologists and other researchers.

“People get annoyed,” says Ms. Evans. “They say ‘the United Church has much better statistics.'”

What does the United Church do differently?

Tom Broadhurst says the UCC sends its forms directly to parishes, or pastoral charges as they are called. That annual mailing, asking for financial and membership data, goes out to churches in December, to be returned by the end of February. The UCC publishes the data in its annual directories in June.

Its return rate is impressive. About 2,100 out of 2,400 pastoral send them in on time and another 80 or 90 reports trickle in the month after deadline, allowing their data to be included in the directories. That translates to about a 90 per cent return rate, with no penalties for reports which come in late or are not returned.

“I’m quite impressed,” says Mr. Broadhurst. “The statistical forms aren’t enjoyed, but they are recognized as important.”

There is an ingrained practice of collecting statistics in the UCC, he adds, since they are the basis of financial assessments. Statistics can also be indicative of trends in the church and society, for example, when the number of outreach ministries like soup kitchens goes up.

The Anglican Church forms sent to the dioceses ask for numbers of bishops, clergy and lay ministers, diocesan staff, parishes, plus specific information about the makeup of those parishes, including members, organizations (like Anglican Church Women and scouting groups) and Sunday schools, plus numbers of baptisms, confirmations and funerals. There is also a section for parish income and expenditure and parish-owned buildings.

The information gathering can be time-consuming, particularly for parishes where volunteers are responsible for most administration.

“It’s one of those things that slips through the cracks,” Mr. Cullen guesses, adding that he does not think parishes are reluctant to share information. “It’s just time, or lack of it.”

The treasurer is quick to add that financial statistics from dioceses are current and “spot on”, since the finance department relies on that data to determine the proportional giving for which each diocese is responsible.

But it is the membership statistics which journalists, sociologists and other church watchers need most often, says librarian Karen Evans. When sociologists write about the decline or growth of churches, it is the statistical data which is the backbone of their research.

Since denominations are so dissimilar and collect data differently, it is important to keep information current when comparing them, notes Derek Lander, assistant editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

“If you’re making comparisons across denominational lines, you want to keep all variables parallel because you’re already comparing apples and oranges to start with,” he says. “So, you want

Clergy also inquire about statistics, says Ms. Evans, often after some urging from their parishes. They want to know if membership and donations to the church are up or down. “They’re looking for good news” to help determine their future, she says.

Traditional Statistics Canada information is also available from the church library, but the numbers differ wildly from church stats. While the census simply asks for “religious affiliation”, the national church slots members in three categories: total membership on parish rolls, confirmed members on parish rolls and identifiable givers. According to the 1996 numbers, there were 237,016 identifiable givers (those who donated to the church) and 739,699 total membership on parish rolls. In 1991, however, StatsCan recorded 2,188,115 Anglicans in the country: almost three times as many as the national church officially knows about.

“Those who self-identify as Anglican are interesting,” says Ms. Evans, explaining that there may be more than a million in addition to those identified as Anglican, who the church could be targetting in its ministries.

While the 1991 census only asked 20 per cent of those polled about religious affiliation (one in five people polled is asked the long form of questions while the balance answer the short form), in previous years, the question was included on the long form. In the past, General Synod has passed resolutions asking the federal government to retain the question on religious affiliation in the census.

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