Like many churches throughout the UK and beyond, the congregation of this church is predominantly female. Approximately two thirds of its members are women, who outnumber men in every age category except those under the age of 20. The age distribution itself is fairly varied, with twenty-somethings being by far the least represented (although currently increasing), followed by people in their thirties. The largest age bracket is 40-49 (20 people), while a total of 31 participants in the listening project – nearly one third of adult members – are over the age of 70.
Unlike many churches in the UK, this church is growing. Of the 102 adult participants, 27 had joined the church within the past four years (that is, since the current Rector arrived). By contrast, the next largest category of members (20 people) comprises those who had been part of the church for 40-50 years, dating back to a period in the 1960s and 70s when the church had started to experience rapid growth before declining somewhat during the 1980s and 90s. The new arrivals are quite evenly split between men and women and are predominantly in their late thirties and forties, thus lowering the average age by several years.
Such a rapidly changing demographic begs the question: who belongs? On the one hand there is a large and fairly stable population that has constituted the core of the church for many years. On the other hand, there has been a recent influx of new, younger people, several of whom have taken leadership roles (including the Rector, Curate and Youth Minister (all replacing predecessors) and an additional non-stipendiary Associate Minister). While some of the new members describe the church as a place of welcome, acceptance and even ‘home’, some (not all) of those who have been part of the church for 20 years or longer speak of recent experiences of loneliness, isolation and marginalisation.
The reasons for this are multiple, involving several interrelated dimensions of change: changing people, changing centres of authority, changing values, approaches and activities, a changing church image, changing phases of life and of membership; all in the context of wider social shifts in areas such as gender, lifestyle, family, technology and religion itself.
No doubt I will return to these issues but, for now, the first thing to be said about what it means to belong to a church is simply that it does not necessarily depend on how long one has been a member.