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The challenges that the new C of E reports duck

23 January 2015

Linda Woodhead finds the proposed remedies for the numerical decline of the Church too clerical and too congregational

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 decade.

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 us.

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 these feeders.

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


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