Friday, 27 January 2012

Understanding those Mass attendance figures: some invidious comparisons*

A reader asked me a few days back to explain the percentage of Catholics/percentage attending Mass figures I've been citing in my diocesan profiles. 

I imagine it has others puzzled too, so here is a bit more on what (I think!) it means, and apologies for the delay in responding!

The figures - step one: overall mass attendance rates

In 2006, a census was done of those who attended Mass across four Sundays in May.

It found that 708, 618 people attended mass or a Sunday Assembly in the Absence of a Priest on average on those Sundays.  Thanks to the official census, we know that in total there were 5, 126, 884 people claiming to be Catholics in 2006.  Divide the first figure by the second and you will get 13.8%. 

So on average, around 14% of Catholics turn up at Mass each week.

Step 2: By diocese

But of course the Mass attendance rates vary by diocese.

The Pastoral Projects Office of the ACBC hasn't, for some strange reason, at least as far as I can find, released the percentages by diocese.

But it has provided a table, in the recently released See I am doing a new thing. A report on the 2009 survey of Catholic Religious Institutes in Australia (the relevant table, which uses 2006 data, is on page 17), which, in conjunction with the National Sunday Mass Attendance Report, enables you to calculate these.

What the table I've been using (from the Report on Religious Life) actually provides is a comparison between the proportion of Catholics in Australia and the proportion of Mass goers in Australia.

Take a diocese like Broken Bay.  It has 4.2% of Australia's Catholics located in it.  So 4.2% of 15.1m adds up to 215,329 people. 

It also has 4.2% of mass attendees.  So that is 4.2% of those 708, 618 attenders across Australia, or around 29,761 people turning up to Mass each week in Broken Bay.

Divide 29,761 by 215, 329 and you get 13.8% - in other words, if you have the same proportion of Catholics as you have of Mass attendees then Mass attendance rates for the diocese are exactly on the national average.

What this means is that if the proportion of Catholics in the diocese is, like Sale 2% of all Australians, and the proportion of Mass attendees is only 1.7%, the proportion of Catholics going to Mass in the diocese is a lot lower than 13.8% (in fact around 11.7%).  To see just what the proportion of Catholics who turn up at Mass each week at mass then, you have to do the arithmetic above.  And I admit I've been a bit lazy (or short of time!) and haven't bothered to do the calculations for each diocese up until now.

But the results are quite interesting (if depressing), so here are a few.

Comparing the proportion of Catholics with the proportion of Mass attenders

Keep in mind though, that they are just different ways of presenting the same data.  And that they are little old now.  Do let me know if you think I've made an error though. Note also that I'm using the rounded percentages from public reports, so the figures are not exact).


Perth: 14.4% of Catholics attended Mass (diocese has 7.4% of all Catholics; 7.7% of Mass attenders)
Broome: 6.9% attend Mass (0.2% of Catholics; 0.1% of attenders)
Bunbury: 9.6% (1% of Catholics; 0.7% attenders)
Geraldton: 10.4% (0.4% of Catholics; 0.3% of attenders)


Sydney: 18.3%
Wagga Wagga: 16.1%
Broken Bay: 13.8%
Wollongong: 12.6%
Armidale: 12.5%
Bathurst: 11.7%
Maitland-Newcastle: 10.1%
Wilcannia-Forbes: 9.9%
Canberra-Goulburn: 13.3%


Melbourne: 15.3%
Ballarat: 14.5%
Sandhurst: 12.3%
Sale: 11.7%
Hobart: 8.1%


Toowoomba: 13.8%
Brisbane: 11.1%
Rockhampton: 10.9%
Townsville: 8.9%
Cairns: 8.8%

South Australia/NT

Adelaide: 12.5%
Port Pirie: 13.8%
Darwin: 9.6%

I'll let you ponder further what these numbers really mean, although I have to say the Sydney (18.3%) vs Broome (6.9% comparison) is pretty stark.   Of course, the clearest message is that five decades of the spirit of Vatican II have created a nation whose Catholics are mostly of the lapsed variety...

**I've added the most rest of the figures in and provided a more direct link to the report whose figures I'm using since some readers don't seem to have been able to locate it.

PS aCatholicas, I am not a 'conservative blogger' either politically or theologically as you would discover if you read this blog a little more closely.    If you must label me, traditionalist committed to genuine renewal within the Church would be closer to the mark.


Joshua said...

What about SA and the NT?

Sadly, it appears that Tasmania has the second-lowest rate of Mass attendance in the Commonwealth, above only Broome (where the remoteness of many tiny settlements no doubt substantially impedes the ability of many to get to Mass). Pray we get a new bishop soon who will fan the smouldering embers here - rather than pouring cold water on them...

Kate said...

Sorry Joshua, haven't fiished crunching all the numbers - I'll add to the list as I do the next set of diocesan profiles (Adelaide is 12.5% though).

Joshua said...

Thanks for inputting the SA and NT figures - as I thought, my above comment stands.

That said, are there any comparable figures for, say, the number of Anglicans at their church services, or Muslims at mosques on their respective days of worship?

I would hazard a guess that in absolute terms the 700,000 Catholics that come to Mass outnumber the practicing adherents of any other religious body. Certainly Anglicans have a much lower rate of regular attendees; and small groups tend to be fervent, but small by definition!

Kate said...

I have seen some figures for other denominations, but can't remember where.

My recollection is that actually catholics are somehwere in the middle - fundamentalists/pentecostalists/evangelicals outdo us easily; but Anglicans are as you suggest, the worst attenders!

Joshua said...

Yes but that wasn't my point - which was that in terms of sheer numbers there are more catholics at church on Sunday than members of any other religious body. They may even be an absolute majority of all worshippers.

Anonymous said...

I think the National Church Life Survey has data which can be compared across denominations.

I suspect Joshua is correct in thinking that Catholics constitute an absolute majority of all those attending religious services each week. We should bear in mind, though, that different religious traditions put different emphasis on the signficance of regular worship attendance.


Anonymous said...

Interesting figures.

The obvious and striking observation is that there is no diocese in Australia which succeeds in getting even one Catholic in five in the door. But I think we knew that already.

The next observation is that the big-city dioceses are doing a lot of heaving lifting in bringing up the national average. Melbourne, the three greater Sydney dioceses and Perth all feature in the top 10 and all (apart from Broken Bay) are well above the national average. And, unsurprisingly, very rural dioceses like Broome, Cairns, Darwin and Wilcannia-Forbes come in pretty low.

This leads to the thought that one of the strongest, if not the strongest, factors which influences mass attendance is convenience. In an urban/suburban diocese, mass is never far away. Indeed, a choice of masses - mass times, liturgical styles, etc - is readily available to most people.

It’s a slightly depressing thought that the biggest driver of mass attendance is convenience, but perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us. With the “normalization” of Sunday - Sunday shopping, much more Sunday working, etc - Sundays become busier, and that must put pressure on people’s desire, or ability, to attend mass. And the more we can make mass attendance fit into the pattern of the largely secular Australian Sunday, the more people will come.

The other thought that occurs to me is that the outliers in this data may tell us something interesting. Hobart, for example, while not exactly a big-city diocese, is not exactly the Central Desert either. Yet they have the second-worst mass attendance in Australia. Do they face particular challenges, or are they just doing something shockingly wrong?

But outliers in the other direction are equally interesting. Toowoomba is pretty rural, and yet for all its woes it has the best mass attendance rate in Queensland, and indeed better than any country diocese in NSW other than Wagga Wagga. Why is this?


Joshua said...

Some very good questions, P.

As a denizen of the Hobart Archdiocese myself, I must say that Mass here is usually said in what passes for a normal manner these days (i.e. liturgically minimalist, not overtly devoutly), with none of the really bizarre shenanigans that one encounters and/or hears about from time to time worldwide. In my experience, too, the music used is not egregiously offensive, just - mediocre. Sermons, ditto.

In other words, liturgy and preaching here are, well, verging on boring. There is no catechesis to speak of. And I know from an old priest, now dead, that even when he was young there was a perception that Catholicism in Tasmania was at a pretty low ebb.

Anonymous said...

“liturgically minimalist . . . not overtly devout . . . not egregiously offensive . . . mediocre . . . boring”

I don’t want to stir up controversy, but I’m just about old enough to remember when the EF was all there was. And in most places you could have made all the above statements, and they would have been broadly true.

My point, really, is that middle-of-the-road, ordinary, routine is, pretty much by definition, what you get in most places most of the time. If you’re somebody who is uplifted and inspired by really good liturgy, then you’re going to be disappointed most of the time, because “really good” is largely a relative term and, naturally, most of what you get cannot be considered “really good”. To be “really good” it has to somehow lift itself above the norm. And this doesn’t really depend on whether your liturgical tastes are traditional, “progressive”, musical or whatever.

Yes, of course you can raise liturgical standards generally, and it is important that you should try. And if you succeed you might then establish a new baseline for what you consider “not overtly devout”, “not egregiously offensive”, etc. But you’re still left with the fact that most liturgy is “ordinary”, because we define “ordinary” by reference to our common experience of liturgy.

I appreciate good liturgy, and I value efforts to raise liturgical standards. But I harbour a doubt that it really has much impact on mass attendance rates, except perhaps at the very margins.

It would be interesting, as you suggest, to compare participation rates across denominations. If nothing else, that might enable us to hazard a guess as to whether the low attendance rates in Hobart point to a specifically Catholic problem, or whether it’s down to something godless in the Tasmanian air.


Kate said...

I disagree on the effect of the liturgy Peregrinus.

It is probably true that much catholic liturgy has always been boring in this country, and in Hobart in particular - the Irish inheritance, lacking the choral tradition, and deeply suspicious of it, as chronicled for the US in Why Catholics Can't Sing!

Certainly my mother has fed me horror stories of Sunday low masses zapped through in half an hour including sermon (unless anyone came in late, in which case the priest started again from the beginning!)from her childhood in Hobart.

But that doesn't mean that all things being equal, churches with good music, reverent liturgy and engaging sermons won't attact more people! Quite the contrary, all the evidence suggests these things do matter, a lot.

This is where we really need that Anglican patrimony...

Joshua said...

I quite take your point, P.! Yes, Australia inherited from the Irish the hurried Low Mass.

However, in days past, even if Mass was attended simply for what it was, there was much more conscious adhesion to the Faith - catechesis, both formal and informal (i.e. the passing on of the Faith in families, the most important form of transmission after all) was strong.

If I had a dollar for every older couple who have told me that their children don't practice - in other words, that the transmission of the Faith, for whatever reason, internal or external, has failed - then I'd be rich indeed.

Joshua said...

I once found in the Hobart Lending Library a Pastoral Letter on the Sacred Liturgy issued by Abp Guilford Young around the time of Vatican II - possibly even just before the Council - which was an excellent document. Hence, it is a pity that his insights, much like all the nice things said about liturgy in Sacrosanctum concilium itself, have not exactly been instantiated in Masses around Tasmania...

Anonymous said...

Kate, Joshua

Yes, Australia’s liturgical heritage is very Irish. Which means, very sparse, unaestghetic, pedestrian, etc.

But, for a long time, that was associated in Ireland with extraordinarily high mass attendances. And with reasonably high mass attendances in Australia. Proof, if proof be needed, that you don’t need good liturgy to get people to come to church.

What you are suggesting is that, whether the other factors which sustain high mass attendance are absent, good liturgy will draw people in instead. To which I say - possibly, but I suspect not to a very large extent.

Kate, yes, churches with good liturgy tend to get better attendances than churches without. My own church is one such - it gets consistently better attendance rates than the neighbouring parishes.

But this is largely displaced church attendance. These are people who go to Church A instead of Church B because they prefer the liturgy in Church A. We don’t have much evidence that they are people who to Church A rather than no church at all. We know that a significant proportion of our Sunday congregations come from outside our parish. We don’t know, but we suspect, that the mass attendance rate of those who live in our territorial parish is no better than what is typical in our diocese.

Remember also that I suggest relatively few churches can ever offer conspicuously good liturgy (by comparison with the norm). Those who will be drawn in by good liturgy may look like a significant crowd when they are all found in, maybe, three or four churches with the name of having good liturgies. But if every church in the diocese offered liturgies of a similar high quality, and those drawn in by them were spread across all the churches, they might barely register as a blip.

Joshua, in terms of interdenominational comparisons, I recall looking at NCLS data a while ago and thinking that high church attendance seemed to be associated with denominations that had a strong community/cultural identification, e.g. the Orthodox. And, of courses, in the past Catholicism in Australia had a strong community/cultural identification, more so than today. That may be a factor in the decline in attendance rates.

In terms of liturgy, the story was mixed. Some traditions with a very high attendance rate had a very spare, uninspired liturgical tradition - e.g. the Churches of Christ. Others had an extremely, um, florid liturgical life - the Pentecostalists. Neither of them, I think, exemplify the approach to liturgy that you (or I) would favour.

All it all, it’s a mixed picture. I think the evidence that high liturgical standards engages many people who would otherwise be disengaged is very weak, and - no offence - I suspect that the perception that it does is born to some extent of wishful thinking.

The truth is that liturgy is important, and good liturgy is valuable, not because of the frankly utilitarian justification that it brings people in, but because it’s something we offer to God. It has its place to play in terms of building a healthy Eucharistic community, but I think that’s quite a small place. If we equate healthy Eucharistic communities with high mass attendance (admittedly a crude equation, but let that pass) we’ll find that where the church has been demonstrably successful in building and sustaining healthy communities, that hasn’t often been associated with the finest standards in liturgy.

Joshua said...

Again, P., I am inclined to agree with you!

It would be foolish to try and argue for the primacy of worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness as if it ipso facto "drew the crowds" - that would be reversing ends and means, in a certain sense.


HolyCatholicApostoli said...

The failure of the Catholic School system and the poor level of Catechesis has a major part to play in having low mass attendance around the nation.

Rowland Ward said...

Roman Catholic attendance at about 14%
compares with a current national average for all Christian bodies of about 8% per Sunday or around 1.6 million people.
The participation rates of the Anglican and established denominations like Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians is low often no more than 5%. Baptists, Pentecostals do much much better