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Read the signs of the times

by
28 February 2014

The Church needs to map its future on the basis of what we can see happening already, says Maggi Dawn

IT IS a common exercise in planning the future to envisage where you will be in ten or 20 years' time. Predicting the future is a precarious business, but imagining it has an honourable history.

The prophets of the Old Testament did it, but they did not map the future out of nothing. They read the signs of the times, and looked back at where they had come from, in order to imagine a better future. Like the prophets of old, we might read the present and the past in order to see the way ahead.

I live in the United States, from where it is easy to see the public impression of the Church, filtering out the experience of daily reality. If I believed the press, I would think that the Church of England is hopelessly riven by rows over women, LGBT concerns, and inter-national disagreements. Yet the truth is that the Church has experienced great areas of growth, and vitality over the past 20 years.

In 1994, theological colleges were adopting a management model for priestly formation which reduced the understanding of priesthood as a sacramental role, and failed to promote lay ministry. Twenty years later, we would do well to abandon that model.

But there were signs of new life in 1994, too: the first women were ordained to the priesthood, and outside, or on the periphery of, the Church of England, "alternative worship" groups were springing up all over the country. Since then, the Church has embraced these, and introduced new models of ministry training to sustain them. In the mean time, cathedrals have experienced a new influx of visitors - tourists who become pilgrims - and here, too, are signs of hope.


LOOKING forward, rather than try get people to conform to tradition, I think we should observe where spiritual life is growing, and encourage it by finding ways to make the riches of the faith accessible to those who are searching for truth, community, and spiritual connection.

We need to allow priests to be sacramental ministers rather than managers; acknowledge and empower the huge, but under-utilised range of lay ministries in our communities; cut out un-necessary bureaucracy; and nurture signs of new life wherever they appear.

In this way we can continue the great tradition of Anglicanism, which, for four centuries, has held together varieties of expression and interpretation around a common core. The world needs the mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship, the inspiration of cathedral grandeur, the participatory experience of community in rural and urban congregations, the innovative mission of alternative, pioneer communities, and the social action of our mission organisations.

It is the tendency of dying institutions to close ranks, fiercely protecting an ever-narrowing tradition. If the Church of England can summon up the courage to be generous rather than legalistic, imaginative rather than bureaucratic, theologically astute rather than doctrinaire, then I believe that spiritual life will continue to flourish.

The press tells us the bad news, but we know the good news. We can afford to be generous and hopeful - in fact, we can't afford not to.

The Revd Dr Maggi Dawn is Associate Professor of Theology and Literature, and Dean of Marquand Chapel, at the University of Yale.

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