A new study suggests that, if current trends continue, evangelicals will make up more than half of all Sunday church worshippers in 10 years’ time, up from about a third now.
As they grow quickly, Liberals and Anglo-Catholics continue to decline, says Dr Peter Brierley, a former government statistician who heads Christian Research.
According to the new analysis, they are consolidating their grip on the Church’s income, contributing a significant amount of money to church funds.
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Also, half of all ordinands training to be the next generation of clergy are attending evangelical colleges.
The combined effect could be to provide the evangelical wing of the Church with an unprecedented power base as long as their numbers are reflected in the membership of the General Synod and the Church’s leadership in future years.
Dr Brierley’s projections are expected to alarm liberals, who have portrayed them as fringe fundamentalists whose influence is out of proportion to their numbers. His analysis indicates that, based on several national surveys by Christian Research, about 35 per cent of churchgoers in 1998 were evangelicals and that proportion could rise to half by 2010.
Of this, he estimates, just eight per cent will be “broad” or “liberal” evangelicals, who are relaxed over issues such as homosexuality. The remainder will be mainstream or charismatic hard-liners.
Another survey, detailed in this year’s Religious Trends handbook, indicates that the total giving of evangelical churches is already about 40 per cent of the Church’s national income.
The latest Church statistics show that for 2001 the total income of parishes was £650 million. Evangelical worshippers put an estimated £250 million of that into the collection plate.
Their financial muscle was demonstrated during the crisis over Canon Jeffrey John, the openly homosexual cleric who was forced by evangelical pressure in June to withdraw as the Bishop of Reading.
Many evangelical parishes, which include most of the largest and wealthiest in the country, were planning to withhold a significant proportion of the quotas they pay to central funds if Canon John had been consecrated.
“These figures show that mainstream evangelicals are a larger group than most others already, and they are still growing,” said Dr Brierley. “If these trends continue, they could become the largest group in the Church within a decade.”
His findings belie comments by liberals like the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, who said in July that Canon John had been forced to stand down by a minority who made “a noise out of all proportion to their size”.
The Rev Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, admitted that liberals could have underestimated the influence of “fundamentalist” evangelicals, and it was worrying for the future of the Church.
“The truth is that they have learned the techniques of marketing, how to sell something,” he said. “It’s a very simple message. But it’s like selling soap powder. I think that way of simplifying and marketing is verging on idolatory – putting God into a box.”
Gordon Lynch, a theologian from Birmingham University, said that Dr Brierley’s analysis was too simplistic and did not allow for shades of opinion and people’s changing views. He conceded, however, that socially conservative evangelicals were becoming a “considerable influence”.
“They represent one of the few groups in society where people who are drawn to that kind of social conservatism can actually find a home,” said Dr Lynch.
“Perhaps the Conservative Party used to provide a kind of structure for those people, but it seems to do that less and less now. So there is a danger that the Church does drift towards an increasingly conservative position.”
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