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Case for ‘free’ churches

07 February 2014

AS A rule of thumb, we would like the Archbishop of Canterbury to be right. This is not the case with his turn-of-the year sound-bite correlating church growth with good priests. Several contributors have put an opposing view, but the key problem is highlighted in the second instalment of our church health check. Traditional stipendiary priests - who, after all, have the most time to devote to strategic thinking and action - are becoming thin on the ground. Any growth that relies on them is going to be patchy, at best. Rather like the crisis over church attendance, the shortage of priests is experienced only by some. A Church Times investigation shows that northern dioceses bear the brunt disproportionately. In some dioceses, a choice of more than one candidate for a vacant post is a rare luxury. The downward spiral can be plotted: a dwindling congregation appears to be less likely to attract the ablest priest, and may be less likely, therefore, to foster new vocations to minister to the next generation.

This week's health check nestles up against our quarterly education focus, which provides a fruitful analogy: free schools. When these were first proposed, they provoked a good deal of suspicion within the church-education hierarchy. After an experimental start, however, the free school has been adopted as the model for innovative education, managing, as did the academies, to attract new finance and break local deadlocks over much-needed places. A church-sponsored free school is hardly likely to bring anarchy to the school system, as was originally feared. In any case, a national education system that has for too long ignored independent schools, and been mostly ignored by them, and has been subject to party-political manoeuvring, does not, perhaps, deserve too vigorous a defence against novelty. As we report this week (Features: Education), several dioceses, with local-authority approval, are embracing the freedom and adventurousness of the free-school model, not to mention the availability of funding.

This is, of course, more than an analogy. Innovations in education are real-time examples of church growth, and in a way that provides the deepest penetration into civil society. But there is also a lesson here for more conventional expressions of church. A group of people dedicated to following the example of a revolutionary first-century Jew ought not to be too protective of structures that were created for different circumstances. The threat facing the Church over the next decade or two demands a pragmatic approach to geographical patterns, recruitment procedures, hierarchical arrangements, and legal strictures, many of which were designed expressly to control or even suppress innovation. The problem comes if the Church's decision-making structures are inadequate to cope with the new challenges. The Revd Philip North, a General Synod member, warns of the danger on page 23. If a radical vision is developed to transform the Church in line with its present opportunities and challenges, "someone will vote against it."

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