IN ALL’s Well That Ends Well, the well-meaning Mariana tells the naïve Diana, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” Perhaps Mariana overstates her case, but recent months have surely taught us that it’s time for the Church to be honest with itself. Remarkable things have been achieved: our response to the pandemic (digital church and discipleship as well as a determined return to physical worship) has been shot through with grace and grit.
It is also OK to acknowledge another truth, however: the situation that we find ourselves in is pretty grim. With the best will in the world, surely none of us wants to worship in PPE, and our “physical offer” is nowhere near what we had even six months ago. There are days when the layers of medical equipment make me feel as if the Church of England is on the emergency ward.
There are people who are never coming back, and — even as a fervent evangelist — I cannot see how the already broken links between the C of E and the wider community can be reforged. In parishes that depend on regular hires, money is already tight, and, if predictions about recession are correct, will only get tighter. The changes to parish and diocesan structures that were five years off will have to be brought forward. I see a situation in which parish priests will — rightly, in my view — effectively be given a choice: take on other, messier ministerial jobs, or be told to sling their hook.
In tough times, it is right and proper to lament and grieve, but honesty will also supply a rich legacy. We have been living for too long off the fat of our 1950s and ’60s visions of the C of E. Covid-19 has utterly exposed us.
You can’t keep a good God down, however. There will be resurrection. The challenge is to trust this truth. My fear is that we shall meet crisis with panic. You might have heard the phrase, “When the tribe is dying, the dance gets faster.” We may feel that we have to get busier and more frenetic to save the ship.
Rather, I think, we should take heart from the very concept of “Church” as ekklesia. One of its root meanings is “called out”. In short, to be Church is to be “called out” of ourselves, renewed in Jesus Christ. I believe that renewal will be grounded in the eucharist; for priests are God’s repertory artists, rehearsing God’s story that all may be fed.
But our future as Church lies in being called out into a wider theatre, too: a world in doubt and on fire, a planet in danger of collapse. A Church that is unable to speak honestly into that does not deserve a legacy.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Angela Tilby is away.