IT TAKES courage and humility to admit that you need to see a
doctor, and men are notoriously bad at it. Surprisingly many seek
help only when the pain or a partner's nagging becomes intolerable.
By then, it may be too late.
The analogy with the Church of England is irresistible. It has
been declining for more than a century, and yet attention to the
problem has been endlessly deferred. Denial and distraction
reigned: dreams of union with Rome; fantasies about the Anglican
Communion; agonising about women and gay people; endless
commissions and reports.
The wasting disease continued. Cassandras get short shrift.
It is heartening, therefore, to read last week's tranche of
reports taking the Church's problems seriously, and recommending
urgent reforms. Produced by small task forces commissioned by the
Archbishops' Council, they reveal a great deal about the direction
in which the Archbishops want the Church to travel in the next
Tacitly, all the reports acknowledge that time is running out.
The intelligent and measured response to the desire to spend more
of the Church Commissioners' assets calls forth a warning from
Andreas Whittam Smith that this could repeat the crisis
precipitated by rising spending on clergy salaries and pensions in
the 1990s; but he admits that failure to invest in reform could
mean "there would be no Church in future on which the
Commissioners' ongoing support could be spent."
The reports are resolutely practical and pragmatic. They want
action, and they want it now. The report Simplification,
for example, makes a plucky start in cutting ecclesiastical red
tape. Along the way, it offers the delightful admission that "the
culture of the Church of England in framing legislation over a
number of years has been predicated on building in safeguards for
all possible eventualities."
Not surprisingly, a mild sense of panic leaks out of all the
reports. I imagined Archbishops standing in the road shouting: "The
car is stuck in a ditch! Quick! Grab the tools nearest to hand and
get it out!" But, the more I read, the more I worried that the hard
questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined: why the
vehicle fell into the ditch; whether it needed a different engine
and new running gear; and whether it was going in the right
direction in the first place.
The failure to get to grips with the terrain is particularly
apparent. It is said of the society of which the Church is part
that it is a "secularised, materialistic culture, often experienced
as a desert for the soul", "built on the . . . presumption that I
get to make my life up". This is a troublingly paranoid and
unevidenced projection, and it urgently needs to be married to the
existing research on cultural values, social change, and the
reasons for church decline which could inform it.
As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its
recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more
and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a
fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a
matter of "discipleship".
"All our hopes on clergy are founded" is the refrain that was
first sounded in the Green report. The latter set out proposals for
"upskilling" existing bishops and deans, and recruiting and
"talent-managing" their successors. These latest reports extend
those recommendations, calling for a rapid boost in clergy numbers,
more tailored and continuous forms of training, and greater
diocesan involvement. That all means more money. Few cuts or
closures are contemplated.
Again, there is worry about challenges' being ducked. If having
more clergy in the past didn't lead to growth, why should it now?
Given an increasingly educated and able laity, wouldn't it be
better to think how they can play a bigger part, and to resource
it? And, if the Church's leadership isn't what it should be, why
not reform it fully? Why be content with half measures? Ditch the
outdated and unfair patronage system, and bring in open
competition, proper accountability, transparency, and 360°
assessment for all, including bishops. It works for the rest of
Looming over all these issues is the bigger question what kind
of Church the reforms are seeking to create. Without even realising
it, their authors have slid the cursor on the ecclesiastical
slide-rule a long way from "societal" towards "congregational". The
difference is that societal Churches go out into society;
congregational ones try to bring society into church. Historically,
the Church "of England" has always been a bit of both, but its
centre of gravity has been societal.
These reports abandon that heritage without even realising it.
Their overriding concern is to boost congregations by giving them
better clergy leaders. But, if the Church is serious about
maintaining "a presence in every community", equal attention surely
needs to be given to its entry-points into society, those places
where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of real life:
in homes, playgroups, schools, and other places where children are
socialised; in the occasional Offices, and the new personal
and civic rituals that are developing; in railway stations,
shopping centres, hospitals, and other sites of chaplaincy; in our
built heritage, and in cherished traditions.
There are also new entry-points to be exploited. The
Church of Finland, to take a recent example that impressed me, has
devoted time, energy and lay expertise to setting up popular and
participatory "church" spaces on the internet. One of its young
female designers showed me the prayer posted on All Saints' Day
last year. It was visited a million times; the Finnish population
is a little over five million. Even if your only concern is
to stock congregations, it is short-sighted not to nurture
The rejoinder, of course, is that it is the congregations that
pay the bills. Today, that's mainly true, but, in a more
imaginative future scenario, it needn't be. The reports just
assume that the only way in which the Church can continue to fill
its coffers is to stock the pews with a new generation of givers,
but there are many additional ways in which a societal church could
raise money. They include better-organised fundraising for
particular causes, an annual membership charge along the lines of
the National Trust, and competitive charging for some aspects of
the Church's work. The reports are wrong to let the current
funding tail wag the ecclesiastical dog.
After consultation with
diocesan leaders, the report Resourcing the Future makes
the sensible proposal that the small proportion of Commissioners'
funding currently allocated to dioceses according to the Darlow
formula should be invested more strategically, but with a
redistributive element to ensure that "the poor" are not
disadvantaged. That's good. It would be even better if there
was some reflection on who counts as "disadvantaged" in our
complex, multi-cultural, post-industrial society; and how they are
to be reached.
Tellingly, the weakest of
the reports is the theological reflection, Developing
Discipleship, which peters out into an admission that more
thinking needs to be done about lay discipleship. It sure does. The
Queen, Parliament, the Church Estates Commissioners, or even some
lay theologians might be able to help with this one.
Presumably, the reason
that the theologically peripheral concept of "discipleship" is made
to do so much work in these reports is that "following Jesus" is
being used as an analogue for leadership (Jesus and clergy), and
followership (laity). Sadly, this helps explain their
diminished ecclesiology, with its narrowly clerical and
congregational emphases. I kept feeling that they were wanting us
to follow the disciples rather than Jesus.
How different it would
have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the
Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but
"partakers in the divine nature", capable of having "the mind
of Christ". The gifts that we are given allow us, together, to make
up the mystical body of Christ. God present not only in churches;
the Spirit is poured out not only on the clergy; and leadership
appears in many places.
These worries apart,
these reports mark the point at which the Church's leaders have had
the courage to admit that something is radically wrong. They are an
overdue and important start.
What is needed now is a
more honest diagnosis of what went wrong; a greater openness to
existing wisdom; the participation of a broader range of
Anglicans; a deeper respect for the Church's past; and a more
imaginative vision of its future. The reports are still a little
too captive to the present, too pinched. They need to be expanded,
not watered down. There is a bigger, better, and more exciting
Church of England out there, waiting to be born.
Dr Linda Woodhead is Professor in the Sociology of Religion
at Lancaster University