The aroma of unreality: a summary of my views on the CofE

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

4 thoughts on “The aroma of unreality: a summary of my views on the CofE

  1. Interested in your reaction to the Church in Wales’ “radical” new proposals:

    The report doesn’t exactly make it easy to understand the rationale or identify the essence of what is proposed, but the BBC has a go here:

    It’s already had the effect of snuffing out one local initiative:

    (Possibly merely a doomed attempt to hang onto the past and thus really a candidate for “surgery”, but then again possibly not ….)

  2. Thanks for directing me to this! I hadn’t read your blog post. I was reacting to the discussion on David Keen’s blog and some articles I saw in the press over the General Synod. I agree with much of what you say here. I think that parts of the C of E are dying and indeed many protestant denominations across Europe, too. The dead wood does need pruning but it’s hard to know how and where to do this (- I’d start with some of the legal and HR processes that constrain us!) However I am optimistic in what I hope is not a Polyanna-ish sort of way! I see churches re-focusing on gospel values both inside and outside the C of E and denominations that are getting smaller nevertheless engaging in good projects (eg. food banks, CODEC, peace communities, new cell churches). I am less concerned with the C of E surviving in a reassuringly recognisable form than with Christians learning together how to be church in the twenty first century, being excited by Christ and allowing the Spirit to bring new life. Despite the knots General Synod seems to be tying itself in, there is still life to celebrate in the grass roots of the C of E – part of the problem is that we persist in counting things that are shrinking (Sunday worship, confirmations, ordinations) and overlook things that are growing (midweek worship, capacity for financial giving, lay leadership, network churches). I’m not sure I understand your point about ‘unreal’ death, though; I think death is pretty real for those involved wherever it occurs.

    I haven’t read the C in W report yet – grew up in Aberystwyth so it will be interesting.

  3. Personally, I think Christianity will begin to die out in the next century or so in delevoped nations. Most religions have a sell by date that is built in by their insistance on their doctrines being eternal and from God. As a large swath of the values of Christianity are now in direct opposition to secular values and seem more and more archaic by the day, it will attract less and less new adherents. I suspect it will enjoy more popularity and growth in less developed countries for some time but evnetually it will die there too. It won’t go fast, Christianity has shown a remarkable malliability over the centuries, changing many of it’s hard line positions to mirror changing secular values or in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. There is good marketing employed too. Jesus is promoted where Yahweh is almost entirely ignored at this point, completely understandable given modern ethics. There are limits though on how much Christian doctrine can be changed. I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to turn off the life support machine. In my experience the vast majority of Christians know almost nothing about their own religion. If you were to discount these people and consider only those who have actually investigated their faith and have what might be described as a real “faith”, not just some vague notions about a meek saviour and disneyland in the sky after death; I think you would find that there are not all that many Christians. I think this is less true in delevoping countries where religion plays a more central role in peoples lives. Unfortunately, the death of Christianity will most likely just herald the rise of some new faith. This new faith will probably be radical and progressive as Christianity once was. People have a need to belive in something that promises them an out from their own death and the death of loved ones and a framework that obscures or gives meaning to the lives they live. When you get up everyday and go to an office or a factory that you don’t want to go to, do something you don’t want to do for eight hours just so you can live in a tiny house and afford an i-phone and you will do this for most of your life; you really need something to distract yourself 🙂
    This is the true lure of religion, everything else is window dressing. As long as it is not in direct opposition to how people feel with regard to ethics and justice and “good” and so on, it will be saleable.

  4. Pingback: Three steps to change the culture of the Church of England | Elizaphanian

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