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Right sort of growth

23 January 2015

IT IS inevitable that plans to reform an established and diverse institution such as the Church of England will attract criticism, as bees to a dead lion. Those who have worked for growth throughout their ministry might well look with scepticism at new proposals that offer to achieve what they failed to do. The parable of the sower contains no judgements about the sower's distribution of the seed: it is the nature of the soil only that governs whether anything comes to harvest. The C of E's commitment to blanket coverage is, therefore, a commitment to the many places where growth of any kind will be hard to find. When considering historical context, it is worth recalling, too, that the intricacy and comprehensiveness of the Church's legal framework stem from the system on which it is modelled. When the Church negotiated a greater autonomy from the state, it had to demonstrate that it could replicate the same degree of stewardship of its personnel and property. What is now deemed cumbersome was once a political necessity, and it is not clear how much this has changed in the eyes of parliamentarians.

This said, there is an attractive buoyancy about the new proposals. They need to be winnowed in the General Synod, but refinements must not cause the energy to dissipate. If the laity are given their proper place in future plans, we might see the reforms becoming more radical, not less. The commitment to maintaining the present level of clergy is commendable; but the extra expenditure being called for makes it even more imperative to know what the clergy are for. We suggest that the task of theological education continue to be a priority, passing on the fruit of academic study and learned experience to a laity that is best placed to produce the numerical growth being called for and, with training, can provide a perfect seedbed for the next generation of clergy. It is possible that, in future, new, direct, and effective methods will be developed to raise theological awareness across the board. Until then, the proposed changes to selection and training must not be allowed to diminish the clergy's theological capabilities. Management, of buildings and projects, can be left to others.

The debate about these reforms must not stall over two different models of ministry and discipleship, one seeking to broaden the Church, the other looking for greater depth. These are not in opposition to each other. It is as important to welcome people into Christian fellowship as it is to attend to what they are being offered, which is Christ himself, and the best and most honest representation of him that churches can manage. When the details of all these reports are being discussed, we trust that all will hold in mind the dual definition of growth behind these models. The Church needs to grow spiritually as well as numerically. Many will argue that the latter cannot happen without the former.

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