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In defence of ordinary, faithful churchgoers  

by
13 August 2021

Talk of ‘missionary disciples’ means little to lay people in the parishes — and risks alienating them, argues David Ford

A KEY strategic objective of the new vision for the Church of England in the 2020s is to be a Church of “missionary disciples”. This is loaded language that hides preconceptions about the nature of Christian identity, belonging, and purpose which not all will share, regardless of church tradition. Thankfully, the new vision for the C of E has yet to filter down to many parishes; for the language that we are using is in grave danger of alienating the very foundations of our parochial life: the core of churchgoers who sustain our common life, week in, week out.

Picture in your mind a small Cotswold village, with a population of about 100 souls: a hamlet, really, except for its charming parish church. This cornerstone of the village’s spiritual heritage and communal life is lovingly cared for by a devoted PCC of half a dozen; they sweep away bats’ droppings, clean the brasses, replenish the free water for walkers, check the electrics, faithfully sort out the quinquennial, and ensure that the church is unlocked —often, to the dismay of insurers — 24 hours a day.

Worship is now monthly, but attendance is regularly in the high teens: double the number attending 50 years ago. The services are traditional; the atmosphere is devotional; the responses are well known, the hymns more so.

Here are gathered the churchgoing Anglican faithful, and there is not a missionary disciple in sight. For us — although I’m ordained, I identify closely with this group — the language of Jesus Christ-centred and -shaped, and “mixed ecology”, holds limited meaning. The thought of becoming a missionary disciple is not so much a welcome invitation as a threatening put-down. If the language doesn’t work for the average churchgoer, have they failed in their life of faithfulness? Are they even wanted?

 

THE language of missionary disciples runs the risk of building even more hierarchy into our Christian life; for implicit in the phrase is the suggestion that there are two kinds of Christian — the proper disciple and the churchgoer — and that they represent different levels of vocational achievement.

Sixty years ago, Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton, in their watershed book on the laity, God’s Frozen People (Fontana, 1964), drew attention to such a division. They divided God’s people into two types: the majority, type “A”, work out their calling in the world; the minority, type “B”, have a calling in the Church (ordained or otherwise). Crucially for Gibbs and Morton, however, type “As” and type “Bs” were not in competition with one another, nor did they represent different qualities of faithfulness: they were simply different responses to God’s call.

One senses that the position today is reversed: today’s type “As” are in the minority among churchgoers (if present at all), and today’s type “Bs” represent the majority.

The question then arises: how have we reached the point where the Church is dominated by “Bs” and not “As” — by churchgoers and not outward-facing, interacting, disciples?

 

TWO developments in the life of Anglicanism coincided between the 1960s and the turn of the century. First, liturgical revision and renewal that led to the democratisation of liturgy, culminating in Common Worship. This evolution created new opportunities for lay participation in worship, but also significantly increased the resources required to deliver worship well. Technology has multiplied that demand for resources several-fold.

Second, the recognition that the deployment of ministry was increasingly problematic, as typified by the famous and largely ignored Paul and Tiller reports. At the very time that pressures were increasing on ordained ministry through heavier workloads, larger parishes, and new liturgical expectations, so it became more and more essential to involve lay people in the running of our churches, buildings, and worship. The result, today, is overburdened clergy, surrounded by diminishing numbers of overburdened laity — and almost no one active in the mission field of ordinary life.

The suggestion that missionary disciples are ontologically different from churchgoers plays into the narrative that churchgoers who do not engage in the evangelistic recruitment campaign for church growth (let’s settle for survival) are less committed.

This is patently untrue, as a visit to innumerable parish churches will testify. Helping to keep a church open helps to keep the rumour of God alive for a fresh generation, just as effectively as organising an evangelistic summer sports day in the park.
If we continue to create polarities in our internal church conversations through the insensitive use of language, we will become the generators of our own demise.

Equipping churchgoers to be more effective churchgoers would be far better than either pressurising them into becoming disciples, or, worse, despising them as relics as outdated as the churches they love.

We need a language of respect which unifies all our best intentions, as we try to discern what God is doing in our midst.


The Revd David Ford is Team Rector in the Bromsgrove Team Ministry, and Rector of Dodford, in Worcester diocese.

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