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The Future Shapes of Anglicanism by Martyn Percy

17 March 2017

Paul Avis considers a dean’s criticisms of today’s episcopate

The Future Shapes of Anglicanism: Currents, contours, charts
Martyn Percy
Routledge £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


MARTYN PERCY is one of the most trenchant and outspoken interpreters of Anglicanism writing today. His work is marked by prophetic passion and an interdisciplinary sweep, and is always lively, elegant, and engaging. In what he calls a “binocular” approach, he connects insights from sociology and anthropology, and from cultural, leadership, and management studies with Christian theology, and brings the resulting heady synthesis to bear on the problems and challenges of contemporary Anglicanism.

Percy is a fearless critic of the prevailing regime in the Church of England, which is, in his view, in thrall to discredited managerial mantras and shallow rhetoric about “vision” and “leadership”. He believes that many bishops, together with the senior executives who support them, lack a deep understanding of the nature, history, and character of the Church of England, and that they are driven more by “consecrated pragmatism” than by coherent theological principles. They tend to treat the Church as though it were an organisation to be managed, moulded, and sometimes bullied, rather than as a historic institution whose traditions and values constitute it as an organic moral community that needs to be respected, understood, and inhabited before it can be guided in new paths.

Centralisation and standardisation will not work in this gloriously diverse and radically dispersed entity, and they are destructive of its vitality. Its centre of gravity is in the parishes and while niche “fresh expressions” are constantly talked up, the ordinary parochial way of being a Christian — which is what touches millions of people — is implicitly downgraded.

Percy points to the current dearth of scholars and theologians among the Bishops, and the serious consequences for the Church’s voice in the public square. Theologians and theological educators are being marginalised. The Church’s public intellectuals are now few and are rarely serving bishops. Reasoned and persuasive speech about God and the gospel in the public realm is at a premium. The prevailing approach to promoting the gospel tends to reduce it to mechanical programmes and sheer activism, geared mainly to numerical growth. To work for numerical growth is, of course, not wrong, but there is a deeper growth in grace and spiritual maturity which is more important.

Percy is critical of aspects of the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s style and priorities, seeing them as examples of a “heroic” rather than collaborative model of leadership, which does not enable the whole body to flourish and works only in a culture of compliance. He doubts whether those promoting the Renewal and Reform agenda understand the subtleties of their Church as a living organism, and he deplores the absence of ecclesiological foundations to the programme.

“There is currently no example of a theology-led reform”. Instead, there is uncritical deference to outdated business models, evanescent charisma, and a secular notion of “talent”. Leadership cannot be claimed or contrived, but emerges from an extended process of discernment. When respect and trust are established, leadership can then be recognised and owned.

The form of evangelisation which is most effective and enduring is the pastoral mission that is practised day by day by parish and cathedral clergy, chaplains, and lay ministers. The assumption by the dominant Evangelicals of a sharp divide between members and non-members of the Church, combined with a judgemental attitude towards those whose lifestyle does not conform to traditional middle-class mores, is off-putting and counter-productive. “Our crusading conservatism has left the church looking self-righteous, sour, mean-spirited and isolated.” “A non-inclusive church is an evangelistic dead duck.”

Percy is right to say that the Church of England does not have “members”, except members of the body of Christ through baptism, in the Pauline sense. The church electoral roll is simply a list of those entitled to participate in church governance, and is only the tip of the iceberg of the Church’s pastoral constituency. The Anglican method is to elicit initial participation through various avenues and then to help those who have dipped a toe in the water, and like the temperature, to proceed through Christian initiation at their own pace. There are many ways and levels of belonging.

The pastoral constituency of the Church of England is not simply the one million or so who come to church, but the many millions who believe, or want to believe, without being active worshippers, and who are averse to pressurised evangelism and overt challenges. A host of people have not quite committed themselves, or are disaffected from the Church, including (these are my own examples) the flower-arrangers and bell-ringers who make themselves scarce at service time; all who find themselves spiritually nurtured by church music on Radio 3 or Classic FM; the army of visitors to churches and cathedrals who testify to having found peace, beauty, and holiness there; the vast numbers who attend church solely for baptisms, marriages, funerals, and sacred concerts. These are all “latent” forms of participation, a potential harvest field. Do our “leaders” understand this? Most parish clergy do.

There is so much of urgent importance here that readers should not quibble about the recycling of old material or the repetition of themes, though a more streamlined work would have landed its punches more effectively. Readers must judge for themselves whether certain points are a bit overstated.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is a Chaplain to the Queen, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology. His latest book is The Vocation of Anglicanism (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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