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Church Health Check: readers respond to the first two instalments

14 February 2014


From the Revd Dr Ian Paul
Sir, - Thank you for the fascinating and insightful articles on the state of the Church (Church Health Check, 31 January). But two issues hover just under the surface.

The first is that the real need is not for greater understanding, but for greater willingness to act. Many of the key observations - that teams inhibit growth; that Common Worship puts up barriers; that we need younger leaders - have been known for a long time, but have led to little or no change. Ten years ago, the Revd Bob Jackson highlighted the "self-inflicted wound" of delaying selection to ordination; yet this year, a mere 22 per cent of those entering training were in their twenties.

It has long been known that men coming to church bring their families, but this key to church growth has been almost totally ignored.

What will it take for the Church to act on what it knows rather than simply accumulate more knowledge?

The second issue is theological tradition. Just 27 per cent of laypeople invite friends to church - but this varies enormously with theological tradition. As Dr Robert Warner points out in his article, Pentecostals and Anglicans do attract students, but "these new Anglicans mostly attend Evangelical and Charismatic churches." Amid the sociology, we also need to engage with theology.

Why should your contributor Vicky Beeching get out of bed on a Sunday morning? For all sorts of interesting sociological reasons, perhaps, but, for churches that are growing, the main reason is theological: an encounter with the living God.

102 Cator Lane Chilwell
Nottingham NG9 4BB

From Mr Alan Bartley
Sir, - C. S. Lewis pointed to two supreme influences on our failureto transmit the Christian faith to future generations: the character and faith of those doing the teaching, and what our parents and society in general believe. Although he said this in his preface to B. G. Sandhurst's How Heathen is Britain? (William Collins, 1946), nothing of this is touched upon in your article "Some leaders are born, not made" (Church Health Check, 7 February), nor in the church-growth research it relied upon.

Further, there were two implied but unwarranted assumptions inthe article. First, that correlation is causation: might there not be an unnoticed cause of growth that attracts a certain type of clergy-person to a church that then experiences growth?

Second, is all growth equal in the long run? Our Lord refers to those who build houses on the sand of shifting opinions, to be contrasted to those who build on the firm ground of his teaching. St Paul also contrasts those who build with wood, hay, and stubble with those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Given the unbelief in specific articles of the Creed uncovered by the Cost of Conscience clergy survey of some years ago, even if such doubts are kept from congregations - and today they are not - might not such doubts be transmitted? Where there is such influence, even if people continue to attend, will they not swell the ranks of the sceptics and misbelievers?

It is a serious flaw in the research that it does not recognise that such teachers and their disciples are undermining our Church's orthodoxy, distorting its wider message, deflecting it from its historic, mission, and placing stumbling-blocks in the way of those seekingto believe.

17 Francis Road
Greenford UB6 7AD

From the Revd Richard Tetlow
Sir, - Archbishop Welby's recent comment about "good vicars" and success, and the subsequent article and letters, all link with your current Church Health Check. Inner-city ministry, especially for those who have experienced it, epitomises the prevalent challenge about church decline.

My 40 years' experience of inner-city or city work in south London and Birmingham certainly points to a potential gap between the aim and the practice of "parish work" and pew-filling or church income.

Community development, church restoration, front-door ministry to callers, and, overall, encouraging people supposedly of no faith, as much as those of faith, to follow the example of Christ to transform themselves and society does not necessarily fill pews; nor does essential involvement in inter-faith life.

The answer for the Church's best health seems to me, in Christian principle, to be one of mutual trust, arising from trust in God and in our neighbour, and even in ourselves as Christians. It is, in my experience, the Christian practice that is more likely to "succeed" deeply. Trust goes both ways, out from thechurch and back into it, interdependently. Without trust from the local people of the church's motives and style - yes, its love for God and the people for their own sake - then I doubt that the practice will be successful in the long run. In principle, perhaps it should not be, anyway.

In other words, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness," and these things may well come to us as well.

26 Sovereign Way
Birmingham B13 8AT

From Mr Norman Ivison
Sir, - Another excellent cartoon by Dave Walker, and this time on the front page (31 January). I was relieved to see that, in the hospital waiting room, as staff struggled to tendthe ailing Church of England, fresh expressions of church were neither out of reach on the topshelf nor hidden in piles of unwanted remedies in the bargain basement.

But perhaps fresh expressions shouldn't have been on a shelf at all. Unlike some initiatives - lasting a week, a year, or even a decade - no new forms of church offer quick solutions or instant results. They demand patience, deep listening, significant resourcing, and thorough commitment.

If we really are to become a mission-shaped Church, we need not models off the shelf, but a radical change in our very DNA. Rebirth rather than resuscitation should be our priority. That might just help us to focus more on the growing Kingdom of God, and less on a somewhat poorly Church.

Director of Communication and
Resources, Fresh Expressions
18 Spa Garth Clitheroe
Lancashire BB7 1JD

From Mr A. Turner QC
Sir, - Your very comprehensive section on the future of the Church of England seems throughout to take no account of the fact that people aged 20 to 60 often feel too distracted to go to church regularly, but turn up Sunday after Sunday once they retire.

For instance, a small village in Suffolk which had three in the congregation in the 1950s and only slowly recovered, has for the past ten years had 60-70 each Sunday, people who have come into the village to retire.

7 Bickenhall Mansions
Bickenhall Street
London W1U 6BS

From Mr Ron Jeffries
Sir, - I am not surprised that "Weekly attendance at cathedrals grew by 35 per cent between 2002 and 2012, while weekday attend-ance more than doubled" ("Ten things", Church Health Check, 31 January).

I have recently attended Sunday choral matins at St Paul's Cathedral, where I have been greeted warmly. There was an air of peace and prayerfulness as we were seated.The services started with a hymnin procession, without chatter.

Canticles were sung in full and not truncated, and the singing was glorious. Readings and prayers were spoken at a pace allowing clear enunciation of the words. The east was faced for the Creed. The sermons were sharp and to the point - short enough so that the mind did not wander, but long enough to have substance.

We departed as we came in, quietly, reverently, and with a handshake and a smile.

There was reverence and quietness. I will go back.

37 Spearpoint Gardens
Aldborough Road North
Aldborough Hatch
Ilford, Essex IG2 7SX

From Mr Hugh James
Sir, - In her article "Not enough boots on the ground" (Church Health Check, 7 February), Professor Linda Woodhead makes much use of the statistics thatshow that a high percentage of the clergy are within 20 years of retirement.

This sounds spectacular. For many years, however, the Church of England has favoured ordinands who have experienced the stresses of secular life and so can identify with their congregations' experience. By the time they are trained, they may well be over 40; even the present Archbishop of Canterbury was 36. From then on, the number of people in each five-year sector is very similar. What is important is whether these 40-year-olds are being replaced. At present, it seems that they are.

It is good to be aware of the current situation and potential problems, but it is also important not to be alarmist.

36 Ridgeway, Oadby
Leicester LE2 5TN

Sir, - In her article (Church Health Check, 7 February), Professor Linda Woodhead pointed out the alarming number of the clergy leaving full-time ministry: "We do not know why so many clergy are leaving stipendiary ministry, or where they are going." As one of those who have been "lost", I can tell you my story.

I left parish ministry after seven years. When I began, I was told about the expectations in terms of time, the six-day weeks and frequent evening meetings, the sense of never being off duty when you're in the vicarage. But, like many young and keen would-be clergy, I thought I would be the exception. God had called me, and God would see me through.

It took time for the slow erosion of my and my family's well-being to come into its own. I started tofeel hunted in the parish. I found that one day off a week was simply not enough to recover from the previous six. I needed to collapse, but my family wanted that single day to be time spent with them. Maybe it was the "virus" that had me off work for a month. Maybe it was my young son saying "no" whenever I walked into the room, because he did not want to spend time with a father who was all too frequently grumpy and in a hurry. Maybe it was my wife telling me she thought our marriage was in trouble. I left.

I still hold a licence, and work part-time and unpaid in sector ministry. Otherwise, I am back in education. We are poorer, but my son enjoys being with me, and my marriage is intact. I don't know whether I will ever go back to full-time parish ministry. I do think that the statistics that Professor Woodhead has brought to our attention are a wake-up call.

If the Church wants to hold on to the people in whose training it invests so heavily, it needs to support them, and change its expectations. Invest in occupational health. Limit evening meetings. Make five-day weeks the norm, and six the seasonal exception, and realise that multi-church benefices are a losing proposition for both parish and priest.

Of course, such moves would mean a fundamental restructuring of the Church of England; but, if Professor Woodhead's statistics tell us anything, it is that some sort of restructuring is coming, whether we like it or not.

Name & Address Supplied

From the Revd Nicholas Varnon
Sir, - Having read the article "Some leaders are born, not made" , I was struck by an uneasy thought: "Gosh! If God had known my Myers-Briggs or Francis Personality Type, he probably would not have called me."

The Rectory
48 Holt Road, North Elmham
Dereham NR20 5JQ

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