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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