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Angela Tilby: Neoliberalism is worsening C of E decline

16 December 2022

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THE British sociologist of religion Matthew Guest has just produced a new book on the relationship between religion and contemporary neoliberalism: Neoliberal Religion: Faith and power in the twenty-first century (Bloomsbury). It has set me thinking about the way the present trajectory of the C of E might reflect neoliberal logic.

The first thing to say is that, we don’t, thank God, appear to be doing this in the same way as Trump-inclined Christians in the United States. The Church of England is unlikely to adopt “Faith, freedom, and free enterprise” as a slogan, or to endorse the prosperity gospel. Indeed, church leaders almost unanimously endorse a soft- Left stance on social issues.

Yet, it is where an institution is most unconscious of itself that it is perhaps most vulnerable to an uncritical absorption of prevailing values. Under Archbishop Welby’s leadership, the C of E has quietly adopted the values of neoliberalism in its push for growth, its endorsement of marketisation, and its drive towards value and efficiency.

Look at the way in which it has endorsed competition. Applications for Strategic Development Funding are set against each other like competitive tenders for a job. The contemporary C of E prizes efficiency. Pop-up mega-churches allow for a far better use of resources than rural parishes, with their scattered congregations and difficult buildings. Cathedrals are driven to market themselves as secular spaces in ways that are often detrimental to worship.

And why not? We are always being told that “the Church is the people not the building,” a typically neoliberal sentiment, designed to flatter the individual for belonging to the in-group. The C of E likes to use branding as a tool of conformity, encouraging dioceses to use little slogans to promote a sense of belonging, and pushing centrally published “resources”.

Ministerial education is now largely in the hands of Holy Trinity, Brompton, through St Mellitus. The Alpha course has shown that Christian faith and ministry can be done more or less automatically — just follow the manual — so no need for expensive theological education, or even for ordained ministers, still less for pastoral care, which is costly and time-consuming. Recruitment to ministry seems increasingly aimed at those who are naturally pushy (mission-orientated) and confident (highly articulate and on message).

Managerialism, salesmanship, numbers. And yet the hierarchy is unable to see that it is all failing. The numbers of new Christians are tiny; the rationalisation of resources is causing mayhem, driving the decline that it is supposed to be arresting. But neoliberalism is now in the bones and marrow of the Church, as it is in society. It will remain so as long as we have church leaders who unconsciously endorse it, captivated by the true belief that it reflects aspects of contemporary culture, and the false belief that it might support the spread of the gospel.

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