“IT’S not a great headline, is it: ‘Archbishop says Church must follow Christ,’” the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, acknowledged on Tuesday.
He was speaking in an online interview after calling on the Church of England to be simpler, humbler, bolder, and more diverse. The key performance indicator of the emerging Vision and Strategy initiative would be “the number of feet we wash, not the numbers attending our services, though we hope by faith both will grow”, he told the General Synod.
A simple diagram outlined in Vision and Strategy characterised an approach in which there was “no working party, no committee — rather, a large, consultative, and iterative process of thousands of people, and engaging younger and more diverse voices”. Bishops and diocesan secretaries had shared the vision that they believed God had laid on them, based on the text, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5.17).
It was about moving from a task-centred to a Christ-centred approach, at a time when the world was faced with the great challenge of Covid-19. The priorities — being missional disciples, being a place where a mixed ecology would grow, and being a younger and more diverse Church — were not intended to be “the latest set of witty managerial targets”, but a call to be witnesses and ambassadors.
And, while the new communities of faith established online should not be forgotten, the most vibrant and creative new expressions arose out of “healthy, flourishing parish ministries”, he said. “We will see God raise up new forms of church and community life.”
Archbishop Cottrell acknowledged the “prevalent whiteness” of the Church of England, and described diversity as “a biblical imperative: the means by which we will best be able to evangelise our nation. . . By making it a priority, we believe we can become a more diverse Church to serve this nation.”
All three priorities needed to be held together in unity in all expressions of church life, and any vision and strategy was only as good as what it did in shaping the mission and priority of the local church, he said. “This is the Church of England in all its glorious, every-inch-of-the-map-covered diversity.”
The need to be humbler meant that the Church was having to face its failures. “The IICSA report has held up a shameful mirror to the Church of England. We need to change our culture.” Nor was the Church of England “the only Christian show in town”.
He continued: “I want the Church of England to be a Church for all people in all places. I don’t know how God will bless these ideas, or how you are going to respond to them, but they are simplicity, humility, and boldness. I offer them to you. This is the simple message I think God might be calling us to be. Things change and happen when we are rooted in Christ.”
There was deliberately, at this stage, no concrete plan: the Synod would debate this formally in February. “It’s not that we don’t have to face up to difficult decisions about resource and deployment and balancing the books: these are huge challenges facing us,” he said. “This morning was about asking much deeper questions about what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ; what it means to be the Church of England: who are we, and what are the big strategic questions that we face?”
The Archbishop said that he was not fearful for the survival of the Church. “It is the body of Christ and the people of God. But the way of being Church is going to have to change. The great danger is that we see ourselves as custodians of an institution: if we do, we are bound to fail.
“If we can recall ourselves to the central vocation of being the followers of Jesus Christ, that is the highest doctrine of the Church: to be the men and women who have been so impacted by Christ that we formed these communities of faith. The C of E is a large, complicated community of faith, but we just need to keep remembering that’s what we are.”
He reflected: “We are too easily drawn to the institutional-survival resource questions, which, of course, the Church cares about. But I think we’re more likely to find the right answers if we keep remembering our primary call.”
He hoped that Vision and Strategy would begin to change the culture by “developing a different sort of narrative: a non-anxious, hopeful, Christ-centred narrative. Of course, we will have to make some difficult decisions about resourcing; we will have to balance the books. But I believe bishops are primarily called to be pastors and evangelists, teachers of the Christian faith. And that’s what I intend to be.”
He had heard “energy and hopefulness” from the 150 young people who had taken part in informal consultations. He acknowledged diversity to be “something the Church struggles with, and, though it’s not a new thing, I heard it with prophetic clarity from the voices of a younger and more diverse generation”.