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
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
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
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
1. THE CATHEDRAL GROUP
"Celebrating the beauty of holiness since
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.
2. THE HEART OF ENGLAND GROUP
"The heart of the local
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
3. THE ALPHA GROUP
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.
4. FAITH FIRST
"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
5. JUSTICE AND PEACE
"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.
6. OPEN CHURCH
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
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