Goals for growth expose a vision’s limitations

by
14 August 2015

The General Synod’s aims for church growth have led to a misreading of what mission is about, argues Stephen Spencer

THE General Synod came to the end of its five-year term last month, but what will become of its quinquennial goals? These were formulated in 2010, and have provided a strategic framework for the leadership of the Church.

At a recent meeting of theological course and college staff, the Archbishop of Canterbury described how the goals represented the C of E’s "collective discernment of what God is calling the Church to be", and how they had provided him with a strategic framework for his ministry. It is, therefore, important to revisit the goals, and to ask whether they are fit for purpose, and whether the new General Synod should affirm or amend them.

They arose in 2010 from a statement (reported in GS 995) by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Williams, when he described how, for the future, three main themes "have emerged with absolute clarity. We are called: i) To take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England, including the growth of its capacity to serve the whole community of this country; ii) To re-shape or reimagine the Church’s ministry for the century coming, so as to make sure that there is a growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community; and iii) To focus our resources where there is both greatest need and greatest opportunity."

Inspired by this, the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops submitted some goals to the General Synod for approval in January 2011 (Challenges for the New Quinquennium, GS 1815). They followed Dr Williams’s threefold structure, but the wording was different. The first goal was split into two, with church growth becoming one goal, and serving the whole community becoming another.

The goals were now "— contributing as the national Church to the common good; — facilitating the growth of the Church; — re-imagining the Church’s ministry".

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This represented a subtle but significant change. In Dr Williams’s description, church growth could have truly taken place only when the Church had grown in its capacity to serve the whole community. But in the new formulation congregational growth for its own sake had become a legitimate goal.

 

THIS may seem a small point, but it carries significant ecclesiological implications. It opens the door to a congregational view of the Church, in which congregational life is seen as a self-sufficient expression of Christianity.

This is in contrast to a societal view, where the Church is seen as part and parcel of the wider community, and dependent on that for its own sufficiency. In this traditional Anglican view, congregational life is only one aspect of what a Church is: the other is its multiple interconnections with its parish.

While the Synod document described the three goals as "interconnected and mutually reinforcing", with "no hierarchy between them", being interconnected is not the same as two of the goals’ being unified. It was implying a different type of growth. An important ecclesiological shift had taken place.

Moreover, in the new formulation, the deeply demanding biblical concept of "serving" the common good (recalling "diakonos" in the Greek of the New Testament) was replaced by the more circumspect notion of "contributing" to the common good.

You can "contribute" to something in small ways as well as big ways: it does not require a complete reorientation in the way that "service" does; for to serve the other is to place one’s whole being before the other. This amendment implies a separation of the congregation from the surrounding community, and, again, a more congregational ecclesiology.

 

SUCH a shift is again seen in the Progress Report of June 2012 (GS Misc 1025), where the whole report is organised under three distinct headings of "Going for Growth", "Reimagining Ministry", and "Contributing to the Common Good". It is important to see how the order of the aims has now been reversed: the church-growth aim is elevated to pole position, and the common-good aim is relegated to third place. Church growth is being emphasised.

A further Progress Report of June 2013 (GS 1895) made another seemingly small and yet significant change. Now the totemic concept of "mission" was attached to the first aim, formulated as "Mission and the growth of the Church", raising yet further its significance. This carried the troubling implication that "Contributing to the common good" was now not part of mission, something that Dr Williams’s initial statement had guarded against.

One further development in the official documents has taken place since then: the rephrasing of the first aim to "promoting numerical and spiritual growth" (for example in Reform and Renewal, published earlier this year: GS 1976).

While this recalls the wording of Dr Williams’s first aim, nevertheless "numerical" has been put in front of "spiritual", so reinforcing yet further the idea that increasing the number of people who attend services is a sufficient and legitimate goal.

 

ALL this may not matter if seeking numerical growth is a necessary response to a context in which churches need to build up their congregational life if they are to survive (let alone contribute to the common good). But the promotion of the first goal has not reversed the numerical decline of congregations in this quinquennium.

Reform and Renewal (2015) puts it as clearly as any:

 

The urgency of the challenge facing us is not in doubt. Attendance at Church of England services has declined at an average of 1% per annum over recent decades and, in addition, the age profile of our membership has become significantly older than that of the population.

 

It then summarises a range of reports that seek to respond to this persistent decline. It shows that, despite pockets of growth in London and in cathedral-type churches, decline has not been reversed: the C of E has not even begun to meet its first goal.

There are, however, signs of wonderful growth in other ways. Reform and Renewal puts it this way: “We are continually encouraged in our visits to parishes and dioceses by the many signs of life and growth in the numbers of people coming to faith and growing in faith.”

But where, we might ask, is this growth to be found if it is not in numerical growth? A later paragraph gives a revealing answer:

 

Meanwhile the Church of England continues to have a significant impact in all kinds of positive ways in the life of the nation. There is a remarkable breadth and quality of service and commitment offered through community ventures, food banks, credit unions and many other initiatives through cathedrals, parish churches, and fresh expressions of church. There are sure grounds for hope both in the grace of God and in the dedication of God’s people.

 

This is as upbeat as the other statement is downbeat. It is deeply encouraging, and it leads naturally to the thought that perhaps the Spirit is saying something to the Churches in all this.

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It seems that splitting “numerical and spiritual growth” from “serving the whole community” has led the C of E into a misreading of what the mission of God is really about in our generation. It needs, perhaps, to recover Dr Williams’s holistic vision as it sets new goals for the next quinquennium.

 

IRONICALLY, the 2013 Progress Report provides an eloquent justification of why serving the common good is at the heart of mission:

 

There is also a missiological element in the pursuit of the common good. The Christian vision of love for neighbour and stranger is a hugely attractive one. Even in a competitive and self-centred culture, the virtues of sacrifice and serving others attract admiration, credit and affection. The church is not validated by its service to the community, but when its service to others stems demonstrably from its trust in God and its vision of his Kingdom, God is glorified and new disciples are attracted to the Christian way.

 

The new General Synod should not become preoccupied with the numbers of those attending services, but look to where there is energy and life and growth, to where the C of E is showing diaconal love for neighbour and stranger as an expression of seeking the Kingdom and of discipleship (Church Growth features, 3 July).

In its formulation of its primary quinquennial goal, it should bring back the biblical term “serve” in place of “contribute”, and clearly attach the label of mission to this aim.

Here is a suggestion for a revised primary quinquennial goal: “For the Church of England to grow in its capacity, both spiritually and numerically, to serve God’s mission and especially to serve the common good of this country.”

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Vice-Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Mirfield, and the author of Christ in All Things: William Temple and his writings (Canterbury Press, 2015).

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