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Plans to proclaim the faith afresh

01 May 2015

There is no cause to be fatalistic about church decline, argues William Fittall


CHURCH TIMES readers attempting to follow the discussions about the emerging Reform and Renewal programme in the Church of England may, by now, be somewhat baffled. There have been suggestions that the proposals are theologically lightweight, based on questionable research, too managerial - and even that one of the undergirding concepts, discipleship, is not to be found in the New Testament.

As the Archbishops said in their paper to the General Synod, the challenge of reform and renewal is spiritual. We shall ultimately be building on sand unless what we do is underpinned by prayer and an unshakable confidence in God, who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive.

The starting point for the programme is a recognition that the Church of England's capacity to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation will be decisively eroded unless the trend towards older and smaller worshipping communities is reversed. Some seem reluctant to face up to the consequences of this, while others doubt that anything will make much difference.

Such fatalism was absent when the proposals were discussed by the Archbishops' Council, the House of Bishops, and the General Synod. Indeed, the various consultation events now happening around the country reveal keen interest in the proposals, and a sense that this is a rare opportunity for delivering real change. One reason for this is that many of the proposals emerged from earlier discussions with dioceses.

THE two reports about people - how our senior leaders are discerned and nurtured, and how ministerial education is resourced - have provoked the liveliest debates. The first recommended substantially improved training and support for those appointed as bishops and deans, and a development programme for those with potential for posts of wider responsibility. Implementation is under way.

Both initiatives would probably have taken place years ago but for the inhibition that always existed in the Church on these matters, as a result of the more active part played by the State in church appointments before 2007.

The second report, on resourcing ministerial education, seeks to change the narrative from the orderly management of decline by setting a target to achieve 50 per cent more candidates for ordination from 2020. Achieving this will still mean some decrease in the number of serving clergy, given that 40 per cent of the present stipendiary clergy will be retiring over the next decade. The target reflects what bishops and dioceses have said they want to achieve, alongside a significant development in authorised lay ministry and lay leadership more generally.

The current consultations will help test whether the specific proposals for achieving the 50-per-cent increase measure up to the challenge. What is not in doubt, however, is that this is an agenda designed for growth, not retrenchment.

IN RELATION to money, there has been widespread agreement that the current formulae for distributing funds released by the Church Commissioners need replacing with investment designed to help dioceses deliver their strategic plans for growth, and with a strong bias towards those in deprived areas.

The more contentious set of issues around money concern the proposal that the Commissioners should, over a period, release more funds than they otherwise would have done, in order to support the reform and renewal programme. Concerns about selling the family silver were addressed head-on in the paper that Andreas Whittam Smith put to the Synod in February. The risks, as well as the opportunities, were made clear.

Having heard all the arguments, the Synod welcomed the Commissioners' willingness to consider making additional distributions. Everything will now turn on the robustness of the business case that the Archbishops' Council will need to develop, in consultation with the House of Bishops, for any special release of funds.

THE third area, led by the Bishop of Willesden, concerns the necessary task of trying to lighten the Church's rule book. The simplification proposals were overwhelmingly welcomed by the Synod in February. A more detailed consultation with dioceses is now under way, and responses are invited by the end of June.

Separately, the Archbishops' Council has issued a consultation document on the possibility of a new enabling measure to make it easier to change the law to reduce regulatory burdens. The consultation for that closes at the end of July.

There are many decisions to be taken in the course of this year. Through all the necessary debate it will be important to remember, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, that growth is a gift of God, not something that we can conjure up.

But that does not absolve us of our responsibility to pursue the institutional, as well as the spiritual, reform and renewal of the Church of England, so that we can be effective, in each generation, in proclaiming the risen Christ to the people of this land.

William Fittall is Secretary General of the General Synod.

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