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Letters to the Editor

06 October 2023


Evaluation of Transforming Wigan

From Sir Tony Baldry

Sir, — It behoves us all, I think, to go and spend some time in Wigan, because the challenges there and the work that has been carried out over the past seven years reflect what is happening more widely throughout the country. There are perhaps a couple of lessons for us all to learn from the Wigan project.

First, one cannot simply buy increased church attendance. Decline is going to be inevitable if younger worshippers and families are not starting to attend church regularly at a rate equal to older worshippers, i.e. worshippers leaving the church because they die, or are too frail to attend regularly.

Second, as your article “SDF money well spent in Wigan?” (News, 29 September) observes, “the Wigan experience also illustrates the difficulty of tackling one of the thorniest issues facing the Church, what to do about its buildings.”

Over the years, various policy initiatives have been taken to tackle the question of the Church of England’s having more church buildings than it needs. The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT)was set up on the understanding that each year the Government and the Church Commissioners would put in matched funding to sustain the CCT. It is fair to say, I think, that over the years both sides let this obligation slip.

There was a proposal, supported unanimously by both the Archbishops’ Council and the General Synod, of the creation of a Church Buildings Commission that would bring together the Church Buildings Council and the closed-church responsibilities of the Church Commissioners, to ensure a more proactive approach to church buildings; but this never happened, largely because the Commissioners did not want to give up any of their powers.

We then had the Taylor review, initiated at the behest of the Treasury, which had been aggrieved that Lord Chartres, when lead bishop for the churches and cathedrals, and I, when Second Church Estates Commissioner, together had managed to extract £100 million out of the Chancellor for cathedrals and church buildings. The Taylor review came forward with some sensible suggestions, some funded pilot projects, but this work, frustratingly, lost momentum during the Covid crisis.

Who now is responsible for devising strategy in respect of our church buildings, and what is that strategy?

Second Church Estates Commissioner 2010-15; Chair of the Church Buildings Council 2015-2019
Dovecote House
Oxfordshire OX15 4ET

From the Revd Jim Canning

Sir, — Thank you for your comprehensive report on the Wigan experiment. As a former vicar in an urban priority area, what jumps out at me is that there is no mention of the Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches, nor of the Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. It is clear that throwing money at problems is not the answer.

During my time at St Paul’s, Foleshill,, the only help that we received from the; diocese was £5000 towards a minibus, “on condition that we bought a new one”. Yet we overcame our extreme financial difficulties by living among the people, and by working with everybody.

For 11 years, we ran a Day Centre for Asian Elders. We also ran a Youth Education Centre, three choirs, and a band.

What is most clear from your report is that the Strategic Development system does not work. The huge sums spent by the Church Commissioners on unassessed

and unsuccessful mission projects could be better spent.

13 Broadlands Close
Coventry CV5 7AJ

The merits of ‘full-fat’ v. ‘semi-skimmed’ religion

From Dr Andrew Purkis

Sir, — Although Canon Angela Tilby’s column “Emptied-out belief leads to empty pews” (Comment, 29 September) is slightly more nuanced than its title suggests, its main thrust is that, if only we could embrace an unashamedly supernatural and metaphysical faith, replete with angel messengers of God instructing us in the crucial battle of unseen forces of good and evil, the churches and numbers of faithful would be more likely to start growing again. This is roughly what she means by a “full-fat” Christianity eschewing the “secular habits of thought” which watered down our theology in (you guessed it) the 1960s.

As a semi-skimmed Christian myself, I dissent. Yes, there will always be plenty who prefer a simple, clear, and powerful faith (religious or otherwise) that they fully embrace without question, regardless of objections based on reason or supposedly objective observation. That may include Canon Tilby’s “interventionist God” and “a Jesus who works miracles today”.

But the big picture of declining Christian faith in the UK is of younger age groups increasingly opting to call themselves “non-religious”, while the numbers of older people who defined themselves as “Christian” decline as they die. Hands up, all those who think that this trend among younger people is likely to be arrested by promoting the hierarchy of angels and miracles wrought today by Jesus?

And, if God is the traditionally conceived interventionist miracle-worker, why, any rational person will ask, are 100,000 Christians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh despite so many fervent prayers? Why were the innocents massacred in their millions in the death camps and Gulags? Why are so many prayers for the lives of terminally ill young people unrewarded by miracles? Shall we just stick our fingers in our ears and say “La-la-la, God is all powerful and interventionist, never mind the so-called facts”?

And the perils of certain faith, impervious to rational questioning, go well beyond the manifest harms of fundamentalist religion of different faiths, from Islamic terrorism to Creationism or Israeli settlers’ triumphalism. If I believe what I want, regardless of observable fact and reason, then Trump won the election! Covid vaccines are a plot of Bill Gates! A Jewish conspiracy controls the world! The fuss about Russell Brand is all about unseen evil forces manipulating us!

No, thank you. That is not a way forward for people made in the image of God, nor for our world, nor for a Church rightly priding itself on a combining scripture, tradition, . . . and reason.

44 Bellamy Street
London SW12 8BU

From Canon Andrew Lightbown

Sir, — I read Canon Angela Tilby’s article “Emptied-out belief leads to empty pews” with considerable interest and some sympathy, but I cannot help wondering whether she herself is prey to some secular habits of thought, and whether the churches equated with what Dan Hitchens describes as “full-fat” Christianity are in reality offering a semi-skimmed variant?

It may well be that some churches at Angela’s end of the C of E are offering an unappetising skimmed off variant of the faith, but surely a “full-fat” Christianity would combine a belief in a God who remains “alive and active”, interventionist even, and who is also simultaneously concerned with the plight of the poor and the discriminated against? A “full-fat” biblical Christianity would surely reject such a false binary. The prophet Amos seems to have done so, insisting that God hated the very worship that so many seem to have enjoyed, on the basis of their unwllingness to address the social issues of the time.

Has Canon Tilby, in advocating for a Church that is less concerned with what she perceives to be issues of lesser importance, fallen victim to contemporary secular habits of thought? And what of the notion that because A. N. Wilson seems to have enjoyed a positive aesthetic response that this is somehow the arbiter of an authentic Christian experience? While aesthetics are, of course, important, they cannot be the sole criterion of authenticity. To think so, would again, be a secular habit of thought; for, as the liturgy reminds us, worship is frequently to be experienced as “duty”. All joy and no duty is surely the very antithesis of “full-fat” Christianit. Finally, have Messrs Wilson and Hitchens and Canon Tilby made a significant and contemporary category error in equating size with virtue?

I am all in favour of a full-fat Christianity, but what is described in Canon Tilby’s article is, I suspect, more akin to a semi-skimmed variant.

The Canon’s House, Stow Hill
Newport NP20 4EA

From the Revd Stephen Mitchell

Sir, — Next year will bring the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the broadcasting of The Sea of Faith, to which Justin Brierley coyly alludes (Comment, 28 September), and the 90th birthday of its presenter.

The Revd Don Cupitt and his many pupils, those inspired by his numerous books, and members of the Sea of Faith Network have unlike those publicity-seeking New Atheists, been working quietly inside and outside church communities, drawing out the human and creative roots of faith.

Like the new secularists, they, too, value their religious heritage and have long been exploring common ground between believers and non-believers. If, however, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is to be followed by a return of the tide of faith, this must be free of the tyrannical supernatural God both set up to be rejected by the Richard Dawkins camp and held as a central tenet by the “curious Millennials”.

Trustee, SOF Network
93 Bantocks Road
Great Waldingfield
Suffolk CO10 0XT

survey is of smaller, but broader, C of E: should this affect strategy?

From Mr N. J. Inkley

Sir, — The Times survey of Church of England clergy has caused considerable comment (Letters, 1 and 8 September). No one, however, seems to dwell on the fact that, as the Church of England has become smaller, it has also become broader.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, there were differences of observance, but generally everyone seemed to be getting on with the same sort of thing. There was not the ”apartness” of the traditional Anglo-Catholic churches which we now see, and the ultra-Evangelical and Pentecostal-style churches that we see today would then have definitely been considered outside the purview of the Church of England. Nor is there now uniformity in between these two poles, with variations in liturgical/non-liturgical styles, biblical conformity, social gospel, headship issues, different cultural backgrounds, and so much more.

As groups of fellow Christians, all these variants (let’s not say factions), one hopes, can get along together. But is it realistic to believe that they can all thrive within a single structure, organisation, and governance system that presumes a uniformity that is not there? Are geographical breakdowns and a national Synod the right agent of fertilisation for growth? Or do we need to start thinking along the lines of recognising groupings of similarities to form the structural agent of growth?

6 Knot Lane
Preston PR5 4BQ

Church should resist planned sex-offender ‘ban’

Sir, — The Home Secretary’s plan to ban sex offenders’ changing their name and gender is a clear example of tarring all with the same brush. As correspondents to this paper have observed, the term “sex offence” covers an incredibly wide range of offences. Not everyone on the sex-offenders register is a serial rapist who is a danger to others.

The plan may well be to protect society from the dangerous who have no desire or ability to acknowledge their sin and change their way, but what about all the others? There are many former sex offenders who have gone through, or are going through, the prison system and rehabilitation process and who have taken the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and others.

For some, changing their name, be it part or all, has enabled them to have the confidence and opportunity to make a new start and contribute positively to society. Others may wish to marry and change their name to show outwardly their union with their spouse. Why should they not be entitled to do this?

The words “ban to stop sex offenders from changing gender”, as seen in one newspaper headline, is an insult to all those people who have spent or are spending years navigating this difficult process and system. It suggests that this can be done on a whim: as if a simple tick-box form could be filled in overnight, as a way of hiding their true identity. Gender assignment could be at the crux of an offender’s behaviour. Again, why should they be denied the opportunity to become who they really are and live their lives positively, within the restrictions given by the Probation Service or the police?

I would look to the Church to set an example. But experiences related on your letters pages (Letters, 31 March) show that many who call themselves Christian can be quick to judge and make blanket decisions. It is also rare to find in church statements made in response to a safeguarding matter the statement: “We pray for the offender.”

At a baptism, we all proclaim: “We are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.” Is this how former sex offenders feel? Has Ms Braverman considered individuals, or met any? Let us put those words into action for all.


When the clergy lay down their glorious apparel

From the Revd Hilary Wakeman

Sir, — It would be interesting to know whether some dioceses keep a collection of second-hand clerical robes. My 42-year-old surplice was accidentally disposed of by a colleague. I have PTO, but cannot afford to buy a new surplice. Hopes of finding a diocesan store of second-hand robes were not realised; so I am applying for a grant.

But it makes me wonder: when clergy are no longer active, where do their cassocks and albs and surplices go? To landfill? What do I tell my children to do with my robes when I am gone? I think especially of my four beautiful stoles, uniquely embroidered by a parishioner.

15 Sherwyn House
61 St George’s Street
Norwich NR3 1BL

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