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Press: Archbishops attempt to keep the Right on side

19 February 2021

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THE Archbishops wrote a joint article for The Spectator, responding to last week’s assault (Online Comment, 11 February; Press, 12 February). I don’t think anything quite like that has happened before. If nothing else, it shows how seriously they take the need to keep the Christian faction of the Conservative Party onside.

The article made three main, intended points: that there was no national plan, since the dioceses are the decision-making units; that there are no plans to dismantle the parish system; and that masses of new priests were, or are, being ordained. It also made one rather large, presumably unintended, point about the scope of their ambitions: “The aim is to make each parish and each Christian community sustainable. If that doesn’t happen, there really will be no Church of England. And to do it requires generosity and sacrifice.”

A quick look at the report Parish Finance Statistics 2019 (News, 12 February) discovers that about half the parishes in the Church at the moment fail this test, and only about a quarter could be called comfortably solvent. “For 52% of 8,350 parishes surveyed, average annual income was sufficient to meet average annual expenditure and, for 26% of parishes, could additionally have funded 5 or more weeks’ worth of average spend.”

I notice a small error in my piece last week about finances: I hadn’t then noticed that the 2019 accounts were out, and I quoted the 2018 figure of £600 million, instead of the up-to-date one of £610 million, for total parish income. How accurate either is when nearly one in five parishes has not submitted any accounts for the year in question to the diocese is left as an exercise for the reader — the didactic equivalent of “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Neither really affects the underlying problem, which is that there has never been a time in the Church’s history when either the organisation or the buildings were funded on a democratic basis by the people in the pews. It has, in the past, been funded by the rich and powerful; by tithes exacted on those less rich and powerful; by the proceeds of these two methods; and, to some extent, by the zeal of its middle-class congregations. But only to some extent, and we can see from the latest figures how far this falls short of what is needed. For purely voluntary, deliberate giving by ordinary parishioners to fund a national, parochial Church will require a change that is, I think, unprecedented. It will certainly change the character of the institution profoundly.

 

THIS line of thought leads to the rather unoriginal question what a Church is for. I mean that sociologically. Is there any particular reason for all the functions that the Church of England performed 50 or 100 years ago to be bundled into one institution? There was a fascinating article about this in The Washington Post, from an unexpected angle.

Peloton is a firm that makes very swish exercise bikes, complete with an enormous screen that makes the experience a social one, so that you are accompanied as you sweat over the pedals by “celebrity spin teachers who mix tough coaching, self-help, hipness and rabbinic wisdom, all fed through the mantra of ‘One Peloton’ — One community, bettering each other, working for something bigger than themselves.

“The teachers vary in their style, music choice and the way in which they encourage the riders. In general, taking a Peloton class is like simultaneously having a hyper-fit, in-your-face gym trainer pushing you to the max, while also listening to a mega-pastor or Ted Talk life coach urging you to stare your life’s purpose in the face. Demands quickly flip from how high to crank your hill to how honest you’re willing to be with yourself to how thankful you are. There are frequent, if general, references to forces bigger than one’s self.

“For many, the combination is spiritually intoxicating.”

Any attempts to inject confessional Christianity into this mix are repulsed with scorn; so much so that “Peloton Riders for Christ” have formed a small group of their own.

The paper quoted “Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard Divinity School fellow who writes books about modern spirituality”. He told them: “People are now browsing in a variety of places for the things they once got all at a congregation: worship, scripture, life transitions and social justice among them.”

This is conceptually challenging, as Dr ter Kuile says: “When religion is infusing these secular spaces, it troubles the concept of religion, but also troubles the strict secularity we’ve come to expect.” But it is also hugely organisationally challenging for the bodies — the Churches — that once bundled the delivery of those various goods together. Obviously, this is an entirely different problem in the United States, which has a constitutional ban against national, Established Churches. But the same pressures are at work everywhere.

Perhaps the Archbishops should be telling those of their clergy worried about the future to get on their exercise bikes.

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