I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Sheffield formula, and thinking about the implications of it (and I’m aware of coming late to the party so if people know of good discussions of this elsewhere, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments). For those in a blissful state of non-initiation into the arcane mysteries, the Sheffield formula is a way of calculating how clergy should be deployed. It was developed by the eponymous Bishop in a report published in the mid-1970s and takes four factors into account: local population, area, church buildings and church membership. To quote Gordon Kuhrt, “The greatest emphasis was given to population and reflected the priority given to the idea of the Church ministering to the whole nation, not just to its members.”
I’m coming to see that decision as possibly the prime disaster of the post-war church, principally in terms of mission. A few bullet points on the dimensions of that disaster:
– Where population is given that strong weight, there is no direct link between staffing and growth (or diminishment) of the congregation.
– There isn’t even a direct link between population and workload, for the missing link between them is culture – a smaller population of more traditional culture will likely generate a larger workload for clergy than a larger population that is completely secular.
– It can cosset comfortable churches and set ceilings to growth, making it very difficult to reinforce success.
– It entrenches centralised management of resources rather than enabling local initiative.
– It confuses the mission of the church with maintenance of the status quo (that is, it equates the former with the latter) – and the status quo that was assumed in the mid-1970s is very far from being a healthy assumption to make about the church in the 2010s.
In my view the central diocese should step back from making such determinations, and hand over the responsibility for funding clergy to the parishes themselves, supplemented by a mission fund to support churches in more vulnerable areas. Failing that, we could at least shift to a system that excluded population from consideration, and tied the deployment of clergy directly to the size of congregations.
However, there is one aspect of population that I think would make a useful measure. There is, presumably, an average figure for how many from a local population are likely to become part of an Anglican church – let’s say that it’s 2.5% for ease – so for every 1,000 population we might expect a congregation of 25 people. We might then set up a system whereby any church which has a congregation of between 2% and 3% of the local population is considered ‘average’; those with a congregation of less than 2% are less than average, those with more than 3% are more than average. This would give a rough and ready guide to how churches are doing (and obviously, other factors would need to be taken into account, along the same lines of the ‘culture’ mentioned earlier. Mission posts would not be expected to be ‘average’!)
At the moment, a town of 20,000 people with a single church might have one that seemed to be thriving, with a church membership of 300 and all sorts of activities and services, whereas a small village with a population of less than 500 might seem to be failing, with a church membership of 16 – yet the latter would be ‘above average’ and the former quite significantly below. A formula for deploying clergy that places emphasis upon population will never challenge the former to grow, and will continue to reduce the resources available to the latter despite their progress in advancing the cause of the Kingdom.
One of the many deeply moving elements in the Lord of the Rings is the story of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir, and his quest to gain his father’s approval – leading, in the end, to his sacrificial attempt to retake Osgiliath.
I was reminded of this when reading Giles Fraser’s latest column in the Guardian (which seem better than his Church Times articles – perhaps it is his new context). Fraser writes: “my former therapist made much of the pathologies of the English boarding school system and that those of us who are its victims often have an unhealthy relationship with establishment, looking towards it as some sort of substitute parent. But that, of course, is looking for love and acceptance in quite the wrong place. Larkin may have been overly cynical about “your Mum and Dad” but it was a cynicism that would not have been misplaced about the establishment – places like the army and the church. “Get out of this thing whilst you can”, can feel like pretty sound advice.”
My earlier post about the stupid and ungodly culture of the church seemed to strike a chord – normally, a well-read post here gets up to 400 reads – that one has had over 2,500 and is still rising. I think Fraser is putting his finger on one particular aspect of the ungodly culture of the Church, one particular way in which the church devours its own children, and it is to do with how the hierarchy expresses or withholds approval.
I think Denethor is a good proxy to use to describe this. Denethor is a steward – in other words, someone entrusted with looking after something glorious, with passing it on safely to his successors (in order that it is in good order at the time of the Return of the King). Because of his use of the Palantir, Denethor has given in to the despiser’s promptings and succumbed to despair. He sees no way in which he will be able to achieve what he has been commanded to achieve. This fear, this lack of faith, is what lies behind his corrupt actions and his lack of regard for Faramir – a son that truly loves him, and is an exemplary leader. Out of fear, Denethor seeks for any remedy that might stave off the darkness, is willing to sacrifice his son in folly, and would be even willing to use the Ring in order to see Gondor preserved. In other words, the leadership is gripped with fear and the actions are conditioned by a desire to ‘hold fast’ to what has been inherited. It is this holding fast which is, in the end, the problem, and which leads to such a sad end for Denethor.
In the same way it seems that our hierarchy is gripped by fear at losing what has been inherited, and spends time and energy on holding fast. This is not so much a question of holding on to particular churches despite losing so many clergy (something I actually agree with) so much as holding on to a particular attitude and understanding of what the Church of England actually is. That is, I believe it is a particular vision of the Church – a particular vision of the role of the church within our English society – which is being held on to. It is the sort of thing that comes to the forefront at times like last year’s Royal Wedding and it is, of course, exactly what was at stake in Giles Fraser’s conflict at St Paul’s. There the conflict came out into the open – the great unwashed had parked themselves outside the symbol of old establishment glory, and this really wouldn’t do. What greater symbolism could there be than the closing of the cathedral doors for fear of contamination by these ‘witless halflings’?
Fraser touches on how the hierarchy has rallied to preserve respectability in the sight of the world: “I’ve had my fill of polite rejections since resigning from St Paul’s – too many unconvincing smiles in the street by former friends and colleagues who suddenly wouldn’t break step to say hello… The more you seriously piss off the church authorities, the nicer they are to you in public. Ostracism is achieved with a well-rehearsed Christian smile and the rhetoric of pastoral care. Good social skills camouflage a deep irritation that you have betrayed the club.” This is how Denethor manipulates Faramir into self-sacrifice – the exercise of control through the withholding of approval. (The thought that occurs to me – to change the image for a moment – is that it is strange to disapprove of those who rock the boat when the boat itself is sinking, and holding fast to the status quo merely guarantees that the vessel sinks.)
The dark theology here has many aspects, but one in particular I would like to pick out. Those gripped by fear seek to hold fast to what has been inherited – and their clinging to old patterns develops into a strangling of the new. Yet there is another sense of ‘fast’ – the sense of something being quick, or immediate, something lacking in mediation. This is a hallmark of Protestant culture. It might be suggested to Fraser that he shouldn’t be seeking such reassurance and approval from the hierarchy – that a sense of doing God’s will should be enough for anyone with a living faith. Yet this is to deny that God has no hands but ours, no eyes but ours. It is a rejection of sacramentality and incarnation – in other words, it is primarily through the love and respect shown by other human beings that we experience the love and respect on offer to us from God. When that love and respect is withheld – when we are disciplined by disapproval – then this is experienced as a rejection by God. I don’t believe that this is simply down to having had a boarding school background (having one myself) – it is more that this aspect of boarding school culture is itself an expression of a particular form of English culture, and it is precisely this form of English culture which seems to control the Church, and it is this form of English culture that seems incapable of recognising holiness, as with Rowan.
How might those who still love the church – as with Fraser – and who wish to see it prosper take forward the necessary remedial work? Two thoughts. The first is that – in a church which has become too fast in every sense, and which is distracted by passing, glittering fancies as it seeks the next Red Bull to assuage the neurotic void and spiritual lack at its heart – we have to prioritise the opposite of the fast, which is the slow. A remark attributed to Jung is that ‘haste is not of the devil, it IS the devil’, which I believe contains much truth. We have lost our sense of rootedness in prayer, our sense that God is in charge and that, whatever goes wrong, He has the capacity to redeem it and the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. We need to get back to putting the first commandment first – that is the only thing that will remove our fear.
The second is that we have to reform the structures of the church. Structures – principalities and powers – embody and maintain a particular culture, and even good people can become distorted out of God’s plan by living within fallen structures. I am more and more convinced that we need to disestablish the church, for it is precisely establishment which is the bulwark propping up this particular culture. (Disestablishment would also bring us into line with the global Anglican Communion, which I thought was a particular desire of the hierarchy… Hmmm.)
I believe in the gospel more firmly than I ever have, and I believe in the local church – that it is where Christ can be met and incarnated, and which has a vibrant future to look forward to – but the wider structures of our Church, the wider culture or soul of this institution – there I have ever-increasing doubts. I believe that it can only be saved if it is significantly reformed. Has it gone too far to be redeemed? Has the glory of the Lord actually departed from it? Is the future of the Church of England simply to be the Anglican denomination in this land? Probably, but, as with Fraser, I still hold on to a hope in the God of surprises.
Whilst I’m happy with the three-fold understanding of leadership mentioned in my last post in this sequence – good character, sound doctrine, ability to teach – I think that more needs to be said. Most especially, I think that there is something essential to the priestly role which comes about through ordination. Here my Anglo-Catholic nature asserts itself!
As I understand it, one of the essential elements of ordination is that a person is being entrusted with authority by the wider church, and therefore carries that authority into their work within the local church. It is this authority – derived from the authority and nature of the Bishop’s work – which makes the difference between a congregational church and an episcopal church. Note – it is this and nothing about how people are paid (eg parish share or not) that makes the difference.
Furthermore, this authority carries over into sacramental worship; that is, sacramental worship – most especially our communion – is only rightly ordered when it is not simply a communion of a gathered congregation but the communion of that congregation with the wider church. This is why lay presidency is anathema and would destroy Anglicanism as an episcopal church. I see this ‘bearing of authority’ as an essential element of the work of the stipendiary priest, and it carries over into the nature of the work that they do.
This is why we need to be careful in considering ‘good character’ a prerequisite of ministry. There is an undoubted sense in which a church leader needs to embody the doctrine which they teach, and ‘notorious and unrepentant sinners’ are by that measure disqualified from acting in leadership. Yet sometimes the priest needs to stand over-against a particular congregation – or group within a congregation – for perfectly holy reasons, and it is through resting in that episcopally-derived authority that this becomes possible. This is an element of the Anglican patrimony that I think is quite precious. (I think there is also an aspect of priestly ministry as it relates to communion bound up with a healthy understanding of the New Temple and sacrifice – but this isn’t the post for that, I’m just putting down a marker!)
Having said the above about ordination, I would want to emphasise that priests are not the only ‘orders’ in the church. Most especially I would argue that a recovered understanding of the diaconal ministry is essential for meeting the needs that we now face, and, moreover, such a diaconal ministry needs to be based on Acts 6: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Doug said some good things on this here, and it is a subject dear to my own heart. I believe that one of the things that we are presently being called to do is to simultaneously a) call many, many more people to ministry for the church and b) become much clearer about the specific vocations to each order, and the differences between them. Then, perhaps, all the different parts of the body might be enabled to work together, for the greater glory of God.
I want to engage with Kathryn’s comment on my ‘doomed’ post. Kathryn writes: “I’m just wondering what, under the “membership” model of church, happens to those who don’t see themselves as members anywhere, but who clearly value and engage with the ministry of their vicar. Far more of my time, & by far the most fruitful spiritual encounters here are with those outside the church, who see me as “their vicar” because they have a strong sense of local community. I totally understand that we have passed the point of no return with the current situation – but I cling to the idea that I am here above all to serve those who are not members of the church.”
This provokes several thoughts from me. Firstly I very much agree with Tim that “in New Testament Christianity the entity which is supposed to serve the whole community is the church, not the vicar” – in other words, it is the common vocation of all Christians to carry out such service, not the separate vocation of the ordained.
I don’t believe that it is possible to understand the role of the priest separately from that of the mission of the church as a whole, and specifically the function of the laity within the world. To understand the priestly role distinct from that of the laity is like trying to understand the purpose of a shoe without considering the sole, that which actually makes contact with the ground. I think this is a problem with many of the discussions about ‘models of ministry’ (including some of my own thoughts).
What then is the priority of the priest? Inside or out? By which I mean, should the work of the priest be centred upon those who gather for worship and teaching, or on those who have yet to hear the message? Not so long ago, within a culture which still assumed and shared much of the teaching of Christianity it was possible to do both – and this is reflected in the ordinal. Yet in the present context it is radically destructive to pretend that the ordained can carry out the same tasks in the same way as before. We need to choose, and to choose wisely.
According to Scripture (mediated here) the Biblical model for leadership involves three things, and three things only: being of good character, maintaining sound doctrine, and having the ability to teach. I believe that the church is suffering from a lack of focus on these elements, and that the poverty of sound teaching is one of the principal reasons for the withering away of faith.
Perhaps the point is to discriminate between those who are called to work within a church to ensure that the members are formed for discipleship, and those who are called to work outside the church as missionaries and evangelists. Both sorts might be priests, but let us call the first ‘pastors’ and the second ‘missionaries’. This ministry might overlap on occasion, but there are different gifts needed for each, and continuing to expect the one person to excel in all areas is likely to continue to contribute to our decline.
There is another element to be pondered here, which is the cost of such work. For how long should a particular congregation be expected to pay for work to be done outside of the church at the expense of work inside the church, if this means that the church itself is shrinking? (I take shrinkage to be the natural consequence of either insufficient or inappropriate pastoring.) Of course, the church must engage in missionary work – and such work is especially essential in England at this time – but missionary work is a sign and product of a spiritually healthy community, and the decline of the Church is eloquent testimony that such a description does not apply.
I would want to argue that the most effective missionary work is done on a small scale, from a Christian to a non-Christian, person by person. Such work can be fostered and encouraged by the right sort of leadership, but it cannot be carried out by them. It is when each individual Christian is given all joy and hope in believing the gospel that the gospel is inevitably shared and allowed to grow. I would see that as the expected consequence of a healthy ‘pastor’ type ministry, and that is why I would want to argue that the principal focus of the stipendiary priest of the Church of England needs to be internal work with the “membership” rather than external work into the community.
Taking forward the logic of this, however, causes much pain.
I wanted to grab together a handful of statistics that give substance to the notion that the Church of England is declining, if not ‘doomed’. I accept the criticism that the the figures I linked to in my last post on this are flawed, but I believe the main point still stands. I’m not going to talk about what needs to be done in this context – that is what I’m exploring in my other posts.
This data from the Church Society (source) also seems useful:
And this one confirms it:
We can add to this the expected rapid decline in clergy numbers over the next ten years (as the baby boomers retire and aren’t replaced) and the way that this links in with the increasing age profile of attenders (and what this means in terms of a sudden drop for actuarial reasons). See also David Keen’s post on Diocesan growth here.
“One of our problems may be that decline is so slow and imperceptible that we don’t really see it coming clearly enough. I have seen large companies perfectly and impeccably manage themselves into failure. Every step along the road has been well done. Every account is neatly signed off… I sometimes feel the Church is a bit like that. I wish that all of us would have a sense of real crisis about this.”
As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the ‘Limits to Growth’ argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970’s and that therefore our industrial growth culture is over – I have become very familiar with the language of ‘doom’ and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England?
After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members (source http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/21/anglicanism-religion). It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.
Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world’s population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.
The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.
Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I’m sure that evangelisation is one of God’s priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn’t want the Church of England to continue? I’m sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.
How might the Church of England respond in a timely fashion to the circumstances within which it finds itself? Well, here is one proposal, made with a modicum of hope that God does not want Anglican witness to be extinguished within the country that gave it birth. At the heart of what I am arguing for is a sense that the local church must be set free. Put differently, what I believe is that the Bishops in a properly episcopal church are called to exercise oversight rather than control, and that this can only be properly rooted when they exercise faith rather than fear. What might this mean?
First and foremost, I believe that the parish system should be abolished. The idea that everyone living in the country had their own parson, to whom they might turn when in need, was a noble one – and yet it is an increasingly untrue piety. I believe that this needs to be recognised – and what this means is that the Church needs to genuinely recognise the reality of the Christian ministry undertaken by other churches. Of course there are theological differences – some of them I would view as rather important! – but in the context of what is shared, especially in contrast to the surrounding culture, they are mostly trivial. The consequence of this is that the Church of England accepts that it is a ‘sect’ – that is, it is a Church which has a particular inheritance of faith. It is the distinctive theology which supplies the identity of the Church, not the establishment ecclesiology. In many ways all I am arguing for here is that an existing reality is affirmed rather than denied and that the inheritance of establishment, which assumes an equivalence between ‘resident of the parish’ and ‘member of the church’, is done away with. Canon law must be changed, most especially with regard to the occasional offices.
What this would mean is that each existing church is allowed to pursue its own sense of mission and vocation. Much of the substance of this would end up being financial. The existing system of parish share has very few defenders. Bob Jackson puts it well:
“In conclusion, the whole chaos of quota, parish share, or common fund systems is simply not serving the church well.
1 It is inconceivable that every diocese, with its own unique system changing every few years, has currently found the best possible one, or even a good one;
2 Systems risk provoking conflict and dishonesty. They can lead to more serious division;
3 They do not provide a secure and stable framework in which churches can do long-term planning;
4. They fail to provide the fairness their architects desire;
5. They absorb the best energy, time and expertise of diocesan leaders and officials. They divert people at every level from concentrating on the real ministry and mission of Christian churches;
6. They asset-strip the large churches and tax away the growth of growing churches. They encourage the declining and sleepy in their ways;
7. They encourage false judgements to be made of clergy and endanger the future provision of dynamic senior leadership;
8. They cannot cater for fresh expressions of church;
9. They fail even to maintain the current levels of parochial staffing, let alone to produce the resources for growing the new sorts of expression without which the Church may wither away.”
Jackson recommends a solution incorporating the following elements:
1. Churches pay the costs of their own ministers
2. Fee income stays with the local church
3. Diocesan costs are shared by local churches
4. The total bill (1&3) is presented to each church each year, and published in the church accounts.
Essentially what Jackson proposes is a way of a) localising the process; b) making the system completely transparent (and therefore much more defensible); and c) restoring the relationship between those who give and those who receive. I think this is the way forward, and I would add that responsibility for clergy housing should also be passed down to the parishes.
What might this mean for the central authorities of the Church? Well, rather than Bishops being concerned with ensuring that a parish pays its quota, they might be set free to ensure that those clergy who are licensed by them are exercising their ministry in an appropriate way – most especially that they are orthodox (I touched on this in my Spanish Train post). In other words, the core function of the Bishop becomes less administrative and financial than about preserving the truths of the faith and exercising pastoral care and leadership of the clergy. I have a sense that this is what Bishops are supposed to do…
This is likely to provoke great fear and concern – what about the poor parishes? What about our need for mission? Well, what about them? Aren’t they precisely the natural concerns of Christians – so why wouldn’t the Church seek to pursue such priorities, even if there wasn’t a central system to enforce it? Put differently, if we do not do the right thing because we are afraid that our people will not act as Christians then we are already doomed. Which does perhaps raise what is the most central issue facing the Church of England: not that the model of ministry for the priest has to change – although it must – but that the distinctive Anglican patrimony has to cash out in a distinctive ministry of the laity. I’ll have to write more about that another time, as this post is long enough.
The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death’s door. All I’m arguing for here is that I’d rather that we went out fighting for the gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.
A question I started to ponder when I came across this video (via Facebook): This is a very attractive vision – people being accepted for who they are, and being celebrated for the same – which surely has something to do with what Jesus was wanting to show. Yes, I know, we need to talk about the reality of sin, and yes, we need to have a mind to only offering up to God the very best of which we are capable, and yes, we need to make sure that what we do is genuinely worshipful and centred on God and not just about celebrating the fluff found in our navels… but even so. I suspect that this is what (some) ‘happy clappy’ worship captures, and to that extent it is holy, and of God. A place of acceptance and peace which is in stark contradistinction to the surrounding culture; a sign of the Kingdom. I wonder whether the intellectual and sacramental has started to obscure the simply joyful, rather than being a servant of it. Which is a way of saying – our cynicism is a sin. Mea culpa.
There’s a Spanish train that runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville, And at dead of night the whistle blows, and people hear she’s running still… And then they hush their children back to sleep, lock the doors, upstairs they creep, For it is said that the souls of the dead fill that train – ten thousand deep!!
Well a railwayman lay dying with his people by his side, His family were crying, knelt in prayer before he died, But above his bed, just a-waiting for the dead, was the Devil with a twinkle in his eye, “Well God’s not around and look what I’ve found – this one’s mine!!”
Just then the Lord himself appeared in a blinding flash of light, And shouted at the Devil, “Get thee hence to endless night!” But the Devil just grinned and said “I may have sinned but there’s no need to push me around, I got him first so you can do your worst – he’s going underground!”
Having been a strong Chris de Burgh fan in my innocent youth (don’t snigger) and then given up on him around the time that ‘Lady in Red’ became so popular, I recently rediscovered his early songs, which are actually rather fun – and this is one. I played the album on the way to Greenbelt and concluded that the title song was enjoyable but very bad theology. Yet there is more to it than that – the bad theology reflects a certain understanding of the nature of Christ – and therefore it says something significant about the Christian church which exists to tell people about Christ. I had those thoughts bubbling away in the back of my mind when a number of themes that I have been wrestling with for some time crystallised together, triggered by looking at David Keen’s very interesting figures:
The Church of England is dying, although it is not yet dead. Essentially fewer people are giving more, and whilst the latter side of that equation is a sign of spiritual vitality, the process cannot continue for ever. There is, of course, no reason to believe that the CofE will keep going in perpetuity. Establishment acts as a bulwark against any precipitate collapse, but that simply means that the butter gets spread ever more thinly. It is not impossible that the centralised (and centralising) forces associated with Church House collapse, and that the thousands of different parish churches are simply left to go their own way. Some will thrive on their independence, some will simply close, others will get handed over to the local Friends organisations and be turned to other useful purpose. The overall structure will revert to that existing before twentieth-century statism, and possibly even to that existing before the implementation of the parish structure, so we would have Minster churches, who send out clergy to serve local congregations. The several different denominations will work together (good thing) and eventually merge on cost grounds, whilst various ‘plums’ get picked off by the predatory. This isn’t to say that Christianity hasn’t a future in England, just that it may need to die a proper death before revival and resurrection.
What is it that has killed – is killing – the Church of England, and Christianity in England more generally? Well, here I want to talk about the Rev Adam Smallbone. I think Rev is an incredibly good programme, but it shares in some of the theological mistakes that Chris de Burgh articulates in his song, and I think it cuts right to the heart of where our problem lies. That is, there is no real sense of God in the programme, and no sense of the gospel – and in this, it is a faithful reflection of the wider culture. It gives, I believe, a very important insight as to what the church has lost, and why the church is dying.
Consider this clip:
I believe that our wider culture sees two types of Christian. The first is an aggressive evangelical, full of overwhelming bonhomie about “good news”, who comes across to the wider culture as part of the Borg – resistance is futile and you will become a part of us – equal parts insane and malevolent. This is often the target of New Atheist criticism. Whilst there are often apparent stories of ‘success’ from such projects I cannot help but believe that there is a limit to how far such activity can really reach into our wider society. The other type of Christian, however, is the woolly liberal do-gooder, who means well, and understands and moves within the wider society rather easily – and therefore isn’t bonkers – but has no passion or strength – they are just, in Hauerwas’ words, “asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent”. This is not a new problem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”
Watching the most recent episode of Rev (2.3) the moment that encapsulated the problem for me – amongst several possible examples – was when Smallbone swigs from the bottle containing ‘Holy Water’. This Rev is completely irreverent, and, as a result, is completely irrelevant. Compare and contrast Smallbone – and the evangelical opposition – to the church as described in Acts, which was very highly regarded even though people were very afraid. Why afraid? Because the Pentecostal fire had made these men holy – and holiness is an aweful thing. There is very little holiness in Rev, and this is because the wider culture sees no holiness in the Church of England. This is our problem.
“But I think I’ll give you one more chance” said the Devil with a smile, “So throw away that stupid lance it’s really not your style, “Joker is the name, Poker is the game, we’ll play right here on this bed, And then we’ll bet for the biggest stakes yet: the souls of the dead!!”
And I said “Look out, Lord, He’s going to win, The sun is down and the night is riding in, That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, Oh Lord, He’s going to win!..”
Well the railwayman he cut the cards and he dealt them each a hand of five, And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he’d have to drive. Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight, He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight…
I’ve recently read John Richardson’s ‘A Strategy that Changes the Denomination’ which I thought was rather good. John quotes from a 1945 Church Report called ‘Towards the Conversion of England’ and it makes fascinating reading: “We cannot expect to get far with evangelism until three facts are faced. First, the vast majority of English people need to be converted to Christianity. Secondly, a large number of Church people also require to be converted, in the sense of their possessing that personal knowledge of Christ which can be ours only by the dedication of the whole self, whatever the cost. Thirdly, such personal knowledge of Christ is the only satisfactory basis for testimony to others. It will thus be realised that the really daunting feature of modern evangelism is not the masses of the population to be converted, but that most of the worshipping community are only half-converted. The aim of evangelism must be to appeal to all, within as well as without the Church, for that decision for Christ which shall make the state of salvation we call conversion the usual experience of the normal Christian.”
I think this is right (although I would enter a caveat about the use of the non-Scriptural term ‘personal knowledge’ which is an importation of Enlightenment-era categories of thought, and a frequent tool for the enemy). I most especially like the passage which John quotes after this: “Above all, the Church has become confused and uncertain in the proclamation of its message, and its life has ceased to reflect clearly the truth of the Gospel. It is for the Church, in this day of God, by a rededication of itself to its Lord, to receive from Him that baptism of Holy Ghost and of fire which will empower it to sound the call and give the awaited lead.” I find it remarkable that this was written sixty-five years ago. Is it something that will remain eternally true, or is it possible to actually live up to our faith? I wonder what difference it would make if we took John’s argument and at each point changed the word ‘evangelical’ to the word ‘Christian’ – because it seems to me that what is needed is for all the believers to take the faith seriously, and live up to it. From John’s conclusion: “…we must shift our primary goal from either seeking to preserve the institution from others or seeking to make it more comfortable for ourselves. Instead, we must look to the Church’s true task: to seek people’s conversion through the proclamation of the gospel. And in the light of this we must seek the transformation of the Church for gospel proclamation.”
This requires, of course, that we believe the faith ourselves, that we have indeed been cut to the quick, and repented, and experienced the breaking of our hearts of stone and their new creation as hearts of flesh. It is this and this alone that can fuel mission. It is the absence of this that has killed the Church of England in particular, and Christianity in England more generally. Why? Well, there is a long story about atheism here – I’ll be able to tell it properly one day – but a very large part of it is that we have lost confidence in the faith. The atheistic criticisms have been internalised and we have lost our confidence, and this has undermined everything else. Now we are simply regarded as a good works club – alright if that’s your thing but please don’t take it out on me. Our holy fire has been extinguished.
I wonder what John Robinson would say about it now? In some ways he became a poster child for the disbelieving Bishop, inaccurate though that might have been, but I do think that this element of intellectual confidence is what has been lost, and the fish rots from the head down. The other messes can be traced back to this. We no longer inhabit the world distinctively because our beliefs are no longer distinct, and we cannot have the one without the other. We will not be gospel people unless we have a gospel to proclaim, rather than just a gospel to mumble about hesitantly, half-hoping that nobody notices.
Well the railwayman he cut the cards And he dealt them each a hand of five, And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he’d have to drive. Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight, He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight…
And then the Lord he called for one more card but he drew the diamond eight, And the Devil said to the Son of God, “I believe you’ve got it straight, So deal me one for the time has come to see who’ll be the king of this place, But as he spoke, from beneath his cloak, he slipped another ace…
Ten thousand souls was the opening bid, it soon went up to fifty-nine, But the Lord didn’t see what the Devil did and he said “that suits me fine”, “I’ll raise you high to a hundred and five and forever put an end to your sins”, But the Devil let out a mighty shout, “My hand wins!!”
It is, historically, surely quite an odd place to be inhabiting, to be an English Christian in these early years of the twenty-first century. There often seems to be a background sense of ‘we tried that and found it false’. We’re no longer even strong enough to be worth fighting against. We’re like an old family dog who is gently declining, and needs to use the back garden rather than long vigorous walks, but for whom the owner still holds some tenderness, and so their last years will be made as comfortable as possible, until the pain is too much. How has the gospel been reduced to this?
The entertaining heresy in Spanish Train is the posed equivalence between Christ and Satan – that Satan might actually be able to trick and manipulate the Lord and thereby win the souls of the dead. Whilst this does have some cultural resonance it is in truth a complete nonsense. There is no comparison between creature and Creator – were Jesus actually to command ‘Get thee hence to endless night!’ then the effect would be accomplished by the speech, it wouldn’t even require Satan’s consent to go along with it. So what is missing in the presentation of the Lord here, and why it is heretical, is any sense of the immense power and overwhelming strength of the Lord. It is yet another presentation of Jesus as milksop, recipient of abuse. It is an echo of Nietzche’s characterisation of Christianity as slave morality. I like the word thumos, which is the Greek word for ‘spiritedness’, the precursor for courage and manliness. Put bluntly, the trouble with this presentation of Jesus is that he is no longer a mensch, he is no longer a centre of life, he is no longer a progenitor – he has no thumos but is instead simply a patsy for other character’s actions and desires. He does not stand for anything beyond a weak-willed wish to do good. It is surely no accident that the lead character in Rev is called Smallbone, and perhaps part of the problem is that our wider culture has dictated to the Church that only women are allowed to have balls.
I wonder whether a part of the root issue at stake in all of our arguments about women priests and women bishops is in fact an inchoate sense that the Church has become emasculated. Perhaps it is rooted in a reaction to the first half of the twentieth century, which scarred men so deeply that they wished to withdraw. Yet even that may be because the church had already failed to be the church. In the Medieval era returning warriors had a particular form and ritual for re-engaging with society, which recognised that the taking of life was sinful – and therefore rendered the warrior unfit for sharing in Holy Communion – and so the church made provision for the warrior to become reintegrated with wider society. It did not repudiate their manliness but integrated it into a larger whole. Now the very notion that there is something healthy about manliness, and that it needs to be nurtured and cultivated, is laughable. Yet this is also why our society is so fractured. There is something essential here that has been lost sight of – it is as if we are in a boat without a rudder, the boat is still sea-worthy and we seem to be moving, we’re just at the mercy of larger forces – and for the church in particular, we are being dashed upon the rocks.
There is a particular flavour of holiness which is associated with manliness. This isn’t an argument that only men can be priests – although I think that there are some very non-trivial arguments making that case, alongside a great many very trivial arguments (“justice!”) that argue against it. God will call whomsoever he chooses, and it is the character of the individual that counts, not her biological composition (another Enlightenment-era heresy). Yet for fear of offending women we have ended up denying men – and we need to repent of that sin. In particular, the form of caring that seems to have become determinative in the training of clergy is (forgive me) a more classically female understanding – the showing of compassion and solidarity, the alleviation of immediate hurts. Being a spiritual nurse, for want of a better description. The idea that the sharing of truth is also pastoral, that the proclaiming of the gospel is the foundational spiritual medicine – this is what we have lost sight of. And so we do not care to train the clergy in the right understanding of doctrine, nor do we seek to hold our clergy to account for the doctrines that they proclaim. So long as they are nice to people, keep their heads down and don’t cause a fuss then they can keep doing what they are doing. This is not good enough.
It is as if we think that all we need for an engine to work is the generous application of oil to lubricate the parts. The hard work of hammering the metal into shape and then organising the parts into a right form is no longer a consideration. So we are left with an oily and sticky mess and we are not getting anywhere. We are dying, drowning in the oil of our gentle compassion.
If this is to be addressed, it is no good simply looking at our structures and the allocation of resources – important though those things are. We need to recover our sense of the awefull awesomeness of Christ our God. “Jesus is my girlfriend” – no, Jesus is Almighty God and Creator so fall to your feet in awe and worship! I believe that this is what we lack, and it is tied up to our failure to understand and appreciate what it is to be a man. Of course, this can only finally be demonstrated by actions, not by words.
And I said “Lord, oh Lord, you let him win, the sun is down and the night is riding in, That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, oh Lord, don’t let him win…”
Well that Spanish train still runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville, And at dead of night the whistle blows and people fear she’s running still… And far away in some recess the Lord and the Devil are now playing chess, The Devil still cheats and wins more souls and as for the Lord, well, he’s just doing his best…
It is not enough to ‘do our best’. We need to do what is right, and to cleave with our Old Testament Hearts to the truth of the gospel. In the context of the overwhelming decline of the Church of England that may well seem an impossible task – but then, that’s the sort of thing that appeals to men of sufficient thumos, to men of sufficient faith. It’s our mission, should we choose to accept it…
UPDATE: these statistics are interesting: “Its not that men are not interested in spiritual things. There is no gender gap in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or Hinduism, nor is it a feature of the Eastern Orthodox Church.” If it is true that a family follows the faith of the father, then what I’m talking about here is even more important than I thought…
Peldon is a small village of some 600 people situated to the south of Colchester. The regular congregation of the parish church has seen growth of around 50% over the last three or four years – from around 10-12 and declining, to around 18 and increasing (often in the mid-20s now). This has had a greatly positive effect in all sorts of ways, from simply increasing morale and generating momentum to finally paying our full parish share, from a position of only paying around 50% five years ago. I thought that it might be helpful to put some thoughts down about what has enabled this growth to take place. There is no one ‘magic bullet’ that can be applied without care in other parishes, but hopefully there might be some encouragement to be drawn from our story. Having said that, the one essential component in my view has been the dynamic lay leadership within the parish, in the form of a very active church warden, who has given much of the energy and impetus for the work carried out. I am certain that without this the outlook for the church in Peldon would have been very bleak.
I would pick out the following, in no particular order, as contributing to the growth of the church:
consistency of Sunday worship pattern, with all Sunday services rationalised to 11am and a service at that time every week. Normally there are enough ministers available (through access to benefice resources) to ensure that there is a licensed minister leading the worship, but sometimes the services have been lay led;
an overhaul of the fabric of the church, most especially including the removal of the pews. The pews were of no historical or architectural merit and had become a decrepit hazard to worshippers (one collapsed just before a funeral). Their removal has energised the space within the church and enabled a much more flexible approach to worship;
the launch of a Friends organisation, which has had two major positive consequences – financial assistance with the cost of fabric repairs, and a generally positive engagement with the members of the community who do not attend worship but who have good will towards the church;
hosting special events on a regular basis, such as quiz nights, suppers, history lectures and so on. This has helped to raise the profile of the church within the village and made it easier for those unfamiliar with the church to cross the threshold;
running a simple ‘mission’ to the parish, which involved gathering a small team together to knock on every door in the parish, asking a few simple questions and advertising the Alpha course, which ran subsequently;
a particular funeral, of a young man who had grown up in the village, and to which the great majority of the village came. I believe that this put the church back on the ‘mental map’ of the community.
I view growth as the outcome of a healthy church, and believe that if our priorities are right then the inherent attraction of the gospel will draw people in. We haven’t done anything particularly novel, we have simply tried to follow the best practice seen elsewhere (I’ve been particularly helped by BobJackson’s research). The conclusion that I draw is simply this: it works.
Diocesan Synod last Saturday affirmed the paper ‘Transforming Presence’ which includes the following:
“…stipendiary priests will need to be more episcopal in the way they understand and express their ministry… they will become much more obviously those who have oversight of the ministry of the church in a cluster of rural communities, or in a town or suburb. Their role will be to lead and facilitate ministry in that area, not provide all that ministry themselves. They will, of course, be involved; but their main task will be to animate the ministry of the whole church.”