Theologian scrutinises renewal plans

08 July 2016

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Big idea: the replica of Michelangelo's David, at the sculpture's original location, the Piazza della Signoria, Florence. The original was moved to the city's Galleria dell'Accademia in the 19th century

Big idea: the replica of Michelangelo's David, at the sculpture's original location, the Piazza della Signoria, Florence. The original was moved...

AMID a panic about declining numbers, the Church of England must stop trying to be like Goliath and operate like David, a theologian argued last week.

In the first of a series of theological responses to Renewal and Reform — the programme designed to address the C of E’s numerical decline — the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Dr Sam Wells, warns of the Church’s “historic temptation to use power for pernicious purposes”, and speaks of people’s experience of Christianity’s influence “as a curse, rather than as a blessing”.

Launched last year, Renewal and Reform, is the Archbishops’ response to challenges such as diminishing congregations and ageing clergy (News, 9 January 2015). The proposed reforms, hotly debated (News, 17 April 2015), are already being implemented, including the allocation of money to support growth initiatives.

In his essay, “A future that’s bigger than the past”, published on the Renewal and Reform social-media sites, Dr Wells reflects on why the Church is feeling “panic” in the face of numerical decline, and questions the emphasis on size.

“The Church has assumed for as long as anyone can remember that it’s supposed to be Goliath,” he writes. “It’s supposed to be huge, it’s supposed to be important, it’s supposed to be a player on the national stage, it’s supposed to be the acknowledged voice of the people.” David, the victor in the story set out in Samuel 17, was none of these things, he says. “The task for the Church of England in the 21st century is not to become Goliath again.”

He suggests that those who reject Christianity do so less as a result of a “philosophical conviction” than “through direct experience of its influence as a curse, rather than as a blessing”. He goes on to expound on “significant, if not pervasive, profound failures in conduct”, most notably the “incalculable harm” wreaked by perpetrators of abuse, and failures of safeguarding. This is, he suggests, a manifestation of a “historic temptation to use power for pernicious purposes and a constant inclination to uphold the powerful rather than heed the powerless”.

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He lists, too, a “perceived misidentification of key issues”, warning that the Church is seen as “judgemental and arrogant, particularly by a younger generation, for whom a live-and-let-live tolerance, particularly in regard to sexual expression, has become a basic tenet of citizenship. So many people give up on the Church (although not always on God) because it seems so narrow-minded in relation to pressing issues in their own lives, or the lives of those close to them.”

He also speaks of “exclusionary attitudes”, such as those directed at immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s and ’60s (News, 25 October 2013).

The Church must “recognise where we need to change”, he writes, including making amends for where it has been “not so much out of touch or irrelevant as an obstacle to the kingdom, to justice, or to respectful coexistence”.

In his prescription, Dr Wells calls on the Church to “build on assets”. He is critical of the search for a “solution to a problem”, including the importance of one from other sectors, arguing that this “rests of envy and anxiety”.

One of the most contentious strands of the Renewal and Reform programme was the creation of a “talent pool” to nurture potential leaders (News, 12 December 2014). Among the objects of criticism was the “uncritical use of executive management-speak” (News, 24 December 2012). In his paper, Dr Wells writes that leaders should be “saints” not “heroes”. Leadership is “less about doing things well oneself, and more about bringing a team to the point of deciding what they’re going to do”. The Church should be “seeking out the rejected precisely because they are the energy and life-force that will transform us all. If we’re looking for where the future church is coming from, we need to look at what the Church and society has so blithely rejected.”

While he is frank about the failings of the Church, Dr Wells suggests that there is “little inherently unpropitious”, in its ministry and mission, but, “as ever, sin, ignorance, and the mysteries of God’s providence”. In addition to humility, it should have “confidence in the completeness and ultimate fulfilment of Christ’s ministry and in the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming individuals, neighbourhoods and nations”.

He ends on a hopeful note, observing that “Renewal invariably comes out of adversity. . . As necessity is the mother of invention, as hitting the bottom is the precursor to a route out of addiction, so the blessed are those who know their need of God — who find a stone that the builders rejected and use it to overcome the daunting Goliath.”

Dr Wells’s essay can be found here.

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