Hackneyed images become so because they contain a truth, and so I beg your indulgence as I deploy the Titanic metaphor to think about the ministry of the Church of England.
The Church of England in the form that it has taken, certainly from the late nineteenth-century, and largely since the Reformation, is sinking. It is spiritually moribund. The decline is of very long-standing; it has been lamented for at least two generations; and I find the challenge of trying to reverse that decline dispiriting in the extreme. (Follow the categories for more of my thinking on this).
We need to distinguish between several things. There is the universal church, against which Hades shall not succeed. I have great optimism that some time this century Christianity shall become the majority world faith. There is the local church, of which there are many varieties, and much rude health. There is the faith as the Church of England has received it, via media Christianity, to which I remain a committed and convinced believer. Then, as of one untimely born, there is the particular institutional arrangement that goes by the name ‘The Church of England’, which is really an archipelago of thousands of different legal entities. It is this latter which I believe to be sinking.
So, in this situation, what is the priest to do? And by priest, I really mean a stipendiary cleric. The Dioceses gather millions of pounds each year and spend most of it on paying for clergy. I want to ask the question: given the death of the institution, what is the best use of those funds? In other words, I want to ask – what is it that the clergy do that can be classed as shuffling deckchairs, and what can be classed as preparing eternal life-boats?
There is, after all, an immense paraphernalia of institutional wheel-turning that takes up the time of a stipendiary priest. Everything to do with buildings and churchyards qualifies; all that comes under the rubric of ‘establishment’, including the majority of occasional offices; much that is concerned with finance and so on. Most spectacularly at the moment, the question of whether the captain of the Titanic requires testicles is most certainly a deckchair question. I am not persuaded that any of this is a productive use of the resources that stipendiary clergy represent. It is not what they are trained for or called to. Almost all of it could be taken forward by a suitably qualified Christian lay person – and would be better done thereby.
So if that is the deckchair removal business, what is the proper work of the priest? As I have discussed several times previously, it is the cure of souls. This is what clergy are trained for; this is why they are formed through Word and Sacrament; this is what makes them tick. The care and – ultimately – the salvation of souls. This is the proper priestly work, the pastoral care of the sheep.
Now, as I understand it, the model of ministry in other countries – but still within the Anglican Communion – has much more lifeboat building done by clergy, and much less deckchair removal. I believe that the Church of England only has a future in so far as it begins to change to resemble its own children. There will be many different lifeboats, of many different stripes – the more the merrier in my view. Yet I believe that each will need its own priest. That is what we need to spend our time on. I shall, over time, seek to reduce my time spent on deckchairs to an absolute minimum, and pray that the Lord will prosper the work of my hands as I seek to build lifeboats.