The gift to be simple

by
24 April 2020

Pete Broadbent commends his simplification task group’s work

istock

WHAT will church look like, once we get out of the shadow of Covid-19? Will we be able to go back to “business as usual”, or might this time “on pause” provoke a revolution in how we operate?

It was salutary to “Zoom” a committee of bishops recently on which we engaged with each other, made the decisions, got the work done, and saved hours of travelling time. And we should not miss the fact that parishes run­ning online worship are reporting higher “att­­­endance” at services than numbers on a usual Sunday. We cannot replace the value and the­ological imperative of face-to-face relating, but there are clues here about a new future in a simpler framework.

Covid-19 means that we are all being asked to do things differently. PCCs are meeting online, and the decisions are being minuted — job done, and legal. That could not have hap­pened without some of the recent simplifica­tion reforms. It is attractive to think that shivering on rickety chairs in the vestry may become a thing of the past. Licensings of clergy are taking place on the internet, causing con­sternation in the world of regist­rars. It feels as if everything is up in the air, and do­­ing things more simply may be coming along because the present crisis has forced us to be inventive.

At the end of 2013, as the Renewal and Ref­orm programme was coming to birth, I wrote a thought piece for the Archbishops’ Council, suggesting that we needed to do something about disentangling the complex C of E leg­islative framework, and that the group could work alongside the other strands of Renewal and Reform. The idea gained traction, and the “Simplification Task Group” was born.

Simplification is what goes on under the bonnet. You don’t see much of it, but it is beginning to make a difference. For example:

  • Rules that govern PCCs and deaneries have been completely revised, with a new set of Church Representation Rules (which came into effect in January) which allow choice about the shape of your PCC. They are online at churchofengland.org or can be ordered from Church House Bookshop.
  • Planting new churches has been made easier with a slimmed-down approach to Bishops’ Mission Orders. Since most of the research shows that churches grow and are renewed more by multiplication than by addition, this is a valuable tool for renewal.
  • Much of the fine print of the Pastoral Meas­ure has been fil­leted, and we have intro­duced Bishops’ Pastoral Orders as a less complex route for pastoral reorganisation.
  • We have made provision for interim min­istry in parishes where a turnaround is required.
  • The Statements of Particulars under which clergy operate under Common Tenure have been rewritten, and new regula­tions have been put in place to allow different models of fixed-term ministry.
  • The way we carry out our ecumenical rela­tion­ships has been brought up to date, to re­­flect current practice and reality on the ground.

Not all these initiatives came directly through the task group, but the initial impetus for change was often sparked by conversations there. It has been great to be part of a group of Synod members, folk from dioceses, and Church House staff who have been prepared to think outside the box, and to look at the min­utiae of legislation to see whether it still serves its purpose.

 

WHAT have we learned from the experience so far? First, that the place of the Church of England as “an Ordered Church” whose legal framework has served us well over years is not to be cast away lightly. In these informal times, our canons, Measures, and regulations are fundamentally a benefit.

But we have also learned that our forebears tended to over-legislate. There was a period when we could not resist putting everything on the face of a Measure. Happily, new legis­lation has dropped that approach.

There is also a habit of trying to cover every eventuality: the “what-ifs” of law-making. Some­­­­­times, this is inevitable: as we discovered in passing the new Church Representation Rules, we had to devise a code for election appeals, although the ensuing complexity of language makes some of our regulations vir­tually incomprehensible.

Most telling is that much of our law-making is still redolent of a previous time, when the
C of E was still operating on a solely pastoral model. For the future re-evangelisation of Eng­land, for which we need to be both pastoral and missional, there is still more to re­­form. The work of simplifica­tion must go on — and the Archbishops’ Coun­­cil has given the green light for that to happen.

The old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is celebration of spiritual simplicity. I would want to argue that the goal of simplicity is both a prayerful and a practical ambition.

 

The Rt Revd Pete Broadbent is Bishop of Willes­den, in London diocese.

 

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