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A remedy for an ailing Church

28 February 2014

The best way for the Church of England to keep body and soul together together is to break itself up into a series of 'franchises', says Linda Woodhead

THE three parts of the Church Health Check series that precede this one make grim reading. The Church is sick. It is no good saying that God will save it, unless you are more convinced than I am that divine plans factor-in the continued existence of the Church of England. It is safer to listen to St Paul: God gives the growth, but a Paul has to plant, and an Apollos has to water. So what's to do?

We should begin by setting out the Church's problems in the context of wider changes that have taken place in the global religious landscape since the 1980s - above all, the emergence of a new kind of diversity within religious traditions which has an increasingly global and non-clerical basis.

In the C of E, for example, divisions between Low and High church parties - with clerical leaderships - have diminished as divisions between Charismatic Evangelicals, conservative Evangelicals, and various forms of liberalism have increased.

These identities are now global, as well as national and denominational. For example, Anglican Charismatic Christians often have closer links with born-again Christians in similar Churches around the globe than they do with fellow Anglicans.

Related to this is a struggle for the soul of all the main religions -especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The battle is between "fundamentalists" and "liberals", who differ profoundly about the nature of truth, each believing that they are right and the other is wrong. In Islam, for example, the liberal Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl speaks of what he describes as a fundamentalist or neo-puritan "great theft" of Islam's soul.

It is within this context that we must view what has been happening to the C of E since the late '80s. A neo-puritan takeover is in process, despite the fact that not as many as one in ten Anglicans is aligned with this identity.

THIS explains why many Anglicans have come to feel unchurched by their own Church; why the Church is increasingly at odds with its society; and why energy has been diverted from everything else, including urgent structural reform.

One of the reasons why the C of E has offered little resistance to this narrowing of its profile is its leaders' devotion to unity at almost any cost. Bearing in mind the Church's historic commitment to "uniformity", this is understandable, even laudable. But it has had the opposite effect it intended: it has bought unity at the price of historic breadth and variety.

Let us not kid ourselves: the C of E is not one big happy family at the moment - it is an extremely dysfunctional one. Plenty of its members abjure one another. The situation has been made infinitely worse by the fact that they have been forced to live in closest communion, and play a zero-sum game, in which only one party can win.

The most realistic way of saving this family is by pursuing an amicable separation. Not divorce, not schism, but "facilitated separation", to coin a phrase. The fact that no other Christian Church has found a way of being genuinely pluralistic only makes it more important for the C of E to be-come a beacon in a world that is struggling to find constructive ways of coping with religious diversity.

IF THE Church is to go from zero to hero like this, a good way to do it is to rethink itself as a sort of religious franchise. Its various branches would retain loyalty to the C of E "brand" (after all, we already have a logo), and central services.

But the branches would have considerable independence, and be free to express English Anglicanism in ways that allow their distinctive forms of theological and ecclesias tical integrity to flourish.

IF WE time-travel to 2035, we can take a glimpse at this renewed Church, and its six distinct branches. Here is what they look like:

"Celebrating the beauty of holiness since 597"
This is the chosen home for many historic abbeys, chapels, retreats, and churches - all of which unite around shared commitment to history, beauty, and ritual. This branch is flourishing: areas such as bespoke weddings, funerals, festivals, arts events, and national rituals are all in demand. It also makes money as an international consultant for large ritual events.

"The heart of the local  community"
Many rural congregations opted to join this branch, along with some urban ones. They have turned churches and halls into welcoming spaces for everyone, and host all sort of activities, from Messy Church to creative-writing groups. Many are now lay-led.

"Freely exploring  discipleship"
This is the umbrella for congregations of a Charismatic Evangelical hue. Its genius for organisation, professional management, and innovative teaching products, combined with its offer of personal growth through discipleship, has allowed it to consolidate and expand effectively, and it has established a significant international presence.

"Strengthening the faith"
This part of the franchise is held together by its commitment to biblical authority, family values, and counter-cultural Christian witness. It retains a sense of being a gathered community at odds with the drift of mainstream Western Church and society. It remains small in England, but has strong links to Anglican and other Churches elsewhere, especially in parts of Africa.

"Tackling poverty together"
It cares more about social than personal improvement. Most of its member churches are happy to be labelled "Christian anti-capitalist". Many of them focus on community organising, and there has been co-operation with the Roman Catholic Church since it returned to social teaching under Pope Francis.

"Go deeper"
Spisitual seekers and doubters have kept Open Church buoyant. It sits light to the "baggage" of religion, but tries to engage with the whole breadth of the Christian tradition - and other religions. Its emphasis on authenticity, and its refusal to prescribe lifestyles has proved popular with young people.

ALL OF these branches have established global links with other forms of Anglicanism, Christianity, and even other religions with which they have some alliance. They are responsible for their own finances and functioning.

Anyone can propose a new branch, and, over time, some will naturally wither while others will emerge. Individuals can belong to more than one. They may have to pay more to do so, but some have special introductory offers.

One great benefit of establishing a Church along these lines is that the energy currently invested in arguing about things such as gay marriage can be turned to constructive ends.

As the statistics I have presented in earlier issues show, the Church is at the end of a line - it has one last chance to win back disaffected "nominals" before they die out.By offering genuine variety, and labelling its congregations clearly, all existing affiliates - and their children and grandchildren - should at last be able to find a home, whether for occasional or more regular engagement.

Such a shift will force urgent structural reforms. Money and property are key. All the Church's properties - churches as well as clergy housing - need to be sold, or put into an independent not-for-profit trust. This releases effort and capital. Branches of the franchise can rent back what they need, on favourable terms. The whole C of E pension fund and liability can also be passed to an independent provider.

As for organisational structures, the already-dissolving parochial system will die a natural death.Each branch can devise its own governance structure, and make decisions for itself. This provides opportunities for lay Anglicans to work in genuine partnership with clergy.

EPISCOPACY will remain the guarantor of unity. A substantially reduced number of dioceses will each have a college of bishops, whose members are drawn from across the groups.

Two archbishoprics remain. Relieved of their impossible burdens, their occupants are free to play a symbolic part as a focus for religion and society - particularly in ritual roles, as modelled by the current monarch.

They stand for the whole Church - perhaps for all faiths in England - irrespective of their personal opinions. Statements and reports made on behalf of the entire C of E are not encouraged. "Prophetic" interventions are still possible, but not required.

The monarch continues to be the Supreme Governor of this essentially lay-led Church. It establishes greater accountability in its members, and the nation, by laying down its failed experiment in synodical government, and returning oversight of some areasto Parliament. In these ways, the Church plays a more dynamic, but more modest, part in a country in which it is one among many other forms of Christian and non-Christian faith.

In terms of unity and discipline, there are a few features of the Anglican brand which all its branches must accept, but they are binding. These are thrashed out between them at the start of the process of restructuring. They represent the minimum requirements to be part of the established Church of England.

A fantasy? Yes. But a fantasy that hints at the scale of the imagination and change that are needed to save a dying Church.

The important thing to emphasise is that a cure is still possible. The hopeful sign is that, despite its terrible injuries and neglect, the Church of England is still alive. It still offers a broad, varied, and interesting Christian approach to life, and a spirit of inclusive enquiry.

It allows God to speak through the whole breadth of Christian scripture and tradition, not just a small part of it. And it guards a unique blend of Christian, and English, cultures, which - for all its obvious flaws and failings - is still precious to those whose lives it inspires.

Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.

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