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Unveiling of plans to reform the Church of England: first responses

by
23 January 2015

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From Canon Anthony Harvey

Sir, - Living, as I do, in a region where there are many rural parishes with ageing and steadily diminishing congregations, I am well placed to be aware of the critical trends in church attendance and mission which have prompted the rash of reports described in "Plans unveiled day after day for the C of E's new reformation" (News, 16 January).

Reading the summaries of these reports, I have looked in vain for anything genuinely "new". John Spence, in his review of progress so far, insists that "the great thing" that has come out of it all is "unanimity that the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church is vital and that its decline must be arrested". But did any of us doubt that? Was all this work really necessary to come up with a conclusion so obvious and so banal?

When I look at the remedies proposed I have a depressing sense of déjà vu. We are told that there is to be a study, Resourcing Ministerial Education. Fifty years ago, I was involved in a report for the Advisory Council for the Church's Ministry, Doing Theology Today. It was quickly superseded by a spate of others that have since appeared with daunting frequency, all recommending more resources for clergy and lay training and forcing principals of colleges (of whom I was one) to struggle to sustain a solid theological foundation for our courses in the face of relentless pressures to make them more "relevant".

Next, for Developing Discipleship, there is to be a new catechism. In the 1970s, I was invited to work on a diocesan project for one. This soon sank without trace. Then, Resourcing the Future through redistribution. Thirty years ago, Faith in the City made the same recommendation: that "the historic resources of the Church should be redistributed between dioceses," giving priority to the neediest and supporting signs of growth.

None of this is new. More disturbingly, we are told that there is a "lack of a coherent and concisely stated common understanding of discipleship". In a Church in which discipleship has for centuries been lived out in a great variety of ways, ranging from the contemplative religious life through sacrificial service to Evangelical seaside missions, is a "common understanding" even possible? Would we all want it anyway, given that a rich variety of styles of Christian living and worship is part of the enduring character of the Church of England?

A glance at our history is enough to show that renewal has come, almost invariably, not from the centre but from the fringe, not from existing church authorities, but from individual or small-scale initiatives that grow into a revitalising influence on the whole Church. The Church Times (16 January) offers two examples; first, Richard Meux Benson, founder of the first male religious community in the C of E, which for more than a century brought renewal through parish missions. Second, Who Cares?, a campaign launched by a community church that is giving new life and purpose to congregations and parishes in East Anglia.

Instead of a stack of centrally organised reports that go over ground that has been ploughed many times in recent years, we should do well to attend to small and often ecumenical ventures (a dimension deplorably absent from the reports) that have the potential to foster real growth.

Our limited church resources would be better applied to their support and encouragement than to the production of ever more reports filled with old recipes for "reformation" which have too often proved ineffective in the past.

ANTHONY HARVEY
Mendelssohn Cottage
Broadway Road
Willersey
Broadway WR12 7PH

 

From the Revd Dr Stephen Brian

Sir, - All institutions and organisations have a tendency towards centralisation. It makes life so much easier for those who wish to exercise power and control. The Church of England is no exception.

To wield control, legislative powers are needed, and, even more importantly, control over the distribution of resources. So money is allocated to those dioceses that co-operate, and withheld from those that do not - a process that John Spence (News, 16 January), the finance chair of the Archbishops' Council, describes as "differentiality". It is an effective means of coercion, silencing dissent, and ensuring that all will be on-message, or they will be starved of funds.

He identifies clergy over the age of 50 as a particular problem, and thinks we should have fewer of them. Apparently, according to your summary of the Bishop of Willesden's task group's report Simplification, help is at hand. For those who are deemed not to be efficient in their ministry (presumably failing to hit their growth targets), the period allowed for their "improvement" "need not be lengthy". Worryingly for them, we are not told what their fate will be. Perhaps their benefice will be "reorganised" (para. 15), so that under the amended provisions they can have their livelihood taken away and be evicted from their home in as little as six months.

I wonder what will be the effect on church growth when parishioners see their 50-year-old vicar forcibly removed from his vicarage and left without home or income. Perhaps the Archbishops' Council is hoping that he and his family will quietly make their way to the foodbank and the night shelter without too much fuss. Or perhaps the (rash) assumption is that all clergy must have independent means.

The threat even extends to riding roughshod over the historic freehold, rendering the words of induction meaningless. Once these older clergy have gone, they can, of course, be replaced by younger, more malleable clergy, who may not even notice when their stipend is removed (sorry, I mean be redesignated as a "locally supported minister", para. 2b).

The justification given for this power-grab is, as usual, fear of the future. We must have growth, or the Church of England will disappear; and the way to achieve this is to take away clergy security. Does anyone really believe that Joe Public, engaged in some leisure activity on a Sunday morning, thinks that if only the Church of England were run more efficiently then he would become a regular worshipper?

The fact is that churchgoing has been in decline over many generations, owing to huge and complex cultural shifts, wars, industrialisation, technological changes, increased mobility, changes in patterns of work and leisure, and a whole host of factors over which the Church has no control.

Instead of yearning for some golden age of churchgoing, and believing that greater centralisation of power and control is the answer, perhaps the Church of England should stop burying its head in the sand and look at what God is actually doing in the world, instead of what we think he ought to be doing. Changes in the Church should be evolutionary and work with what is going on, not try to reverse it.

People look to the Church for an experience of the transcendent, which then puts their lives in context. What this report seems intent on doing is the opposite: allowing people's working lives to dictate the context of the Church, which then tries to copy what it sees. This approach baffles people, and is clearly not what they want from the Church, as those of us who work at the coalface know.

The best piece of advice I was ever given, many years ago, was that people basically want two things from their local church: a vicar who is kind to them, and a decent act of worship on a Sunday, and that, if we can deliver those two things, we will meet their needs, and they will love us for it. I have always found that to be true.

STEPHEN BRIAN
The Rectory, Church Lane
Earl Soham
Woodbridge
Suffolk IP13 7SD

 

From the Revd Paul Dawson

Sir, - Being a bear of little brain, I am struggling to understand the thinking behind the tranche of reports aimed at turning the Church of England around. Reading last week's Church Times, I began with a sense of encouragement when I read John Spence's explanation, which emphasised: "We must not in any way become a head office." Hurrah!

Turning the page, I was then baffled to see developing discipleship focused so firmly in terms of diocesan strategy and initiatives. This seems like yet more "black-hole" thinking: the kind of thinking that sees the way forward as more and more about central initiatives and directives.

The problem with drawing everything towards the centre is that eventually it implodes, and no light escapes. Please, fewer black holes; more flinging of stars into space.

Paul Dawson
10 Lower Park Road
Chester CH4 7BB

 

From the Revd Toddy Hoare

Sir, - What a good letter from Fr Peter Allan CR ( 16 January), and what a lot of common sense! Could the Ministry Division build on his comments and put in-service training/ministerial development in the hands of the theological colleges, or of theology faculties of universities, where further study is sought by the individual? After all, priests do need to know and be able to explain their theology, and theological colleges need to maximise their budgets to be as effective as possible.

I experienced very poor post-ordination training until I did a theology MA on a university course. A previous saving grace had been a retired professor of theology at deanery chapter who insisted on, and would lead or help, Bible study before each meeting. This proved very relevant to our business as well.

Sadly, the chapter was the poorer for it when a subsequent rural dean announced that we did not have time for it. I think that is another pointer towards where Fr Allan does not want us to go.

Toddy Hoare
Pond Farm House, Holton,
Oxford OX33 1PY

 

Sir, - I have read with interest the recent correspondence on both the appointment of the first female bishop and the Green report's recommendations for the selection of the brightest and best. I do think, however, that it is time to consider the number of senior staff appointments across the Church of England.

In our diocese, we normally have four bishops and four archdeacons, each with private offices, secretaries and attendant advisers, all on top of a very bloated central staff. At the moment, there is a vacancy for the diocesan's post, and one of the suffragans has just gone on a long sabbatical. At a recent deanery-chapter meeting, it was observed that if we managed to survive with only two bishops during this period - and we all seemed devastatingly confident that we would - perhaps the Commissioners ought to make the arrangement permanent.

Of course, it won't happen, but with more senior staff than ever, fewer priests, and dwindling congregations, one does wonder what is going on. There is, after all, only one pot of money, however bizarrely it is divided up; so why not halve the number of bishops and archdeacons and use the savings to support clergy in frontline parish ministry? After all, who is more likely to grow the Church of England? Enough said.

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