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Leader comment: ‘Key limiting factors’

09 July 2021

WHEN Canon John McGinley of New Wine addressed a church-planting conference about “key limiting factors” to church growth, he was not intending to spark a controversy (with its 21st-century accompaniment, a hashtag). To him — and, we imagine, most of the participants — it all seemed self-evident: “When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form.” The fact that the objective of creating 10,000 new churches in the next decade is included in the Vision and Strategy report before the Synod this weekend gave Canon McGinley’s remarks the status of official policy.

We will, no doubt, hear various reassurances: the remarks were misquoted (they weren’t), misunderstood, or taken out of context. They might well represent, however, the equivalent moment to when the shareholders of an old established chain of stores realise for the first time that the management is considering a bid from a group of digital entrepreneurs. The analogy is inaccurate in one important respect: the entrepreneurs are already shareholders. Communication between the different wings of the Church has been so poor that a generation has grown up using phrases — “resource church”, “released to live as disciples” — that mean little to many churchgoers. None the less, clergy and congregation members who thought until now that they were normal and average, worshipping God faithfully in approved C of E services, answering all the bureaucratic demands from the hierarchy, serving their community (whether “equipped” or not) with diligence, are left wondering whether they fall into the “limiting factor” category.

All change threatens, of course, particularly in an organisation that has “tradition” stitched into its fabric — and a good memory of past initiatives that have come to nothing. The belated adoption of the phrase “mixed ecology” is not only an attempt to persuade established congregations to look benignly on new initiatives: it is also a corrective to the enthusiasts who have little grasp of the structures, obligations, and opportunities of the parish system.

The new vision raises fundamental questions. If fresh expressions of church are now to be called simply “churches”, what degree of independence and autonomy will they have? If lay leadership becomes the norm, what is the function of ordination? What happens to the Church’s sacramental life and its theological understanding? And what is the point of working on an elaborate disciplinary structure for the clergy if the laity are unaccountable? The work of mission cannot be halted while these questions are considered — thank goodness — but if Anglicans are to be “envisioned, resourced and released” rather than demoralised, they would value answers rather than reassurances.

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