Archdeacon Janet Henderson recently wrote “I’ve noticed a lot of articles (blogs and media) lately suggesting that the church is dying. The authors of these pieces are hand-wringing over the fact that there aren’t enough resources to keep things going, bemoaning the fact that churches are getting caught up into ‘management-speak’ and chastising these churches for losing sight of gospel values.”
I can’t imagine who she has in mind! I thought I’d use her post as a prompt to set out a few summary points about how I see the Church of England at the moment, as it would seem that my approach is being misunderstood.
Firstly, I do believe that the Church of England – in its present form – is dying. That seems to be a straightforward conclusion to reach from considering the evidence of long-term numerical decline, as David Keen has chronicled. So I do not wish to ‘suggest’ that the church is dying – that doesn’t seem like a very interesting conversation to have any more. I want to proceed on the assumption that the church is in fact dying, and then ask what do faithful Christians – who are loyal to the faith as the Church of England has received it – do now?
The corollary of this is to recognise the difference between the church and the gospel itself. That is, I have great faith in the gospel as something inherently contagious, and which in all likelihood will become a majority world faith some time in the twenty-first century. I trust Jesus’ words that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church. However, that does not mean that any particular local instantiation of the church cannot die – clearly, in history, many have done and do. The question is: is there, in the structures of the Church of England, still an effective vehicle for the transmission of the gospel, or has the glory of the Lord departed from it for good?
Archdeacon Janet writes: “death is perhaps the least surprising concept to apply to the church which, in theological terms, is the body of Christ – Christ who died and who rose again.” Yes – but it needs to be a real death, as Christ’s was. My take on the Church of England is that it is like a man who has had a really bad car accident and is now in a perpetually vegetative state, being kept alive by an apparatus (establishment) that keeps the vital signs ticking over, and therefore the illusion of life continuing, but there is nothing new or generative possible. We need to really believe in the gospel – and really believe in the resurrection – and therefore have the courage to turn off the machine (and thereby give all the genuinely encouraging green shoots room to grow. You’ll only get new trees in the forest when the ancient trunks have toppled over and created space in the canopy).
To adapt that image, what I am interested in, therefore, is surgery, not butchery. I want to examine those elements of the body that are unhealthy, that have died, and excise them, in order that the healthy parts have room to flourish – and thereby that the body itself might be creatively renewed. What troubles me about the Archdeacon’s post is what could be called the ‘aroma of unreality’ – the sort of ‘nothing to see here, move along, everything is under control’ which happens so often in all walks of life when uncomfortable truths get covered up. To discuss the death of the Church of England is not bemoaning and hand-wringing, it is simply to seek an honest description of the situation in which we find ourselves. It may well be – indeed I hope that it is – possible for there to be a future Church of England, in recognisable continuity with the present one, in which the particular English genius of local via media Christianity is able to be carried forward. I just think that if we are to pursue such an aim with integrity, prayer and moral honesty then we need to be willing to speak directly and be prepared to take some very tough decisions.
On which subject, I hope to finish a second book (to be called “Haunted by Herbert”) in the next few weeks, where I shall spell out what I mean by saying that the Church has forgotten the gospel and what the hard decisions that need to be made actually are. In the meantime, these are links to some of my recent writings on the subject, which will give you a flavour of the argument I shall be making.
Of Strategy, Smallbone and the Spanish Train
Is the Church of England doomed?
Going to Eli – the tension between the institutional and the vocational
The stupid and ungodly Church of England
How shall we clothe the naked CofE?
Efficiency and resilience in the CofE
Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church
Population or congregation? Where the ghost of establishment resides
What is to be done?
Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori
Is it time to abandon ship?
The dying of a church is not a management problem