Is it time to abandon ship?

Some good conversation around the topic of ministry happening here and here. This is by way of a brief aside, following on from a good chat with a clergy friend last week.

My question is: is it too late to save the good ship CofE? I ask this because it seems that if it was going to be possible to reform the system to make it viable, it would have happened by now. The analysis of the problems that we are facing are not new (indeed, I recently discovered that the root problem was diagnosed over EIGHTY YEARS AGO!). For someone who considers themselves profoundly Anglican – as I do – the naturally desirable course of action is to stay and try and change things for the better. Yet I cannot escape Leonard Cohen’s mordant commentary, “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom… for trying to change the system from within”. It occurs to me that if it was possible to change the system from within – through incremental shifts – then it would have been done already. The generation of priests ordained in the sixties and seventies were, I suspect, not given any more or less grace than the present generation – and there were many more of them – so why the tacit assumption that ‘one more heave’ might make any difference? In other words, I think that the rot has gone much deeper than any possible structural reform can address. We no longer have the capacity to make the right decisions, because our spiritual strength has been exhausted – and it is that spiritual strength which is my principal concern.

Which leads to the second, supplementary question – is it possible to be a priest in the CofE any more? The generating and nurturing of spiritual strength is, after all, the core role of the priest. At least I think it is – the idea that the main task of the priest is the cure of souls; that this is a distinct and important (most important!) task; that this is what priests are called to and paid for and enabled to carry out; that this is, in fact, something into which someone can be formed – all this seems to be structurally forgotten, and only referenced in rhetoric at ordinations. In actual practice, what a priest is for is to keep the wheels of the institution turning – and the worst sin is not a failure of spiritual cure but to bring the institution into disrepute. As I have said elsewhere, incumbency drives out priesthood – and the future that we are staring it is the exaltation of incumbency.

It seems to me that if there is to be any future for the Church of England it will involve ‘giving up’ – giving up an illusion of centralised control, that if only we get in the right leaders doing the right programs then all shall be well (and in saying that, I’m conscious of taking the precisely opposite conclusion to David Keen). It will involve setting parishes free, and it will involve setting priests free – free to actually be priests, and not establishment functionaries. What I’m pondering is a way of handing over all ‘incumbency’ rights and responsibilities to local laity – to revive lay incumbencies no less (which is not the same as lay presidency!) – and to only have ‘mission priests’ – people whose responsibility it was to feed the faithful by word and sacrament and nothing else. The institutions keep loading on other options onto the creaking shoulders of the clergy and they are almost all distractions from the core task. It is because we no longer know what a priest is for that we have devised an institution that makes it impossible to actually be a priest within it.

Which is what I mean by abandoning ship. I want to deploy my favourite quotation from MacIntyre in this context too: ““A crucial turning point in history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness… This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”

Is it time for priests of good will to turn aside from shoring up the CofE and start constructing new forms of Anglican community?

10 thoughts on “Is it time to abandon ship?

  1. Do you mean the creation of another, continuing Anglican, Church? There are plenty of those in existence already and they are far from free of the tendency towards hidebound institutionalisation and factionalism. Indeed, it could be argued that factionalism and schism are part of the DNA of protestantism.

    Alternatively do you envisage a church which is simply much less centralised, less bureaucratic and allows priests to exercise a priestly ministry without all the other ‘stuff’ which seems to get stuck onto the role? Although that has its own set of challenges (not least maintaining catholicity and eccleisiology) that is certainly attractive; perhaps rather than starting yet another new church that is a vision which could be achieved through a quasi-monastic fellowship of priests who are called to the cure of souls and not the administration of parishes…

  2. Thanks Paul – definitely the latter, especially your final clause! I thought that SCP might be a vehicle for it, but that hasn’t quite worked out for me yet.

  3. I was / am attracted to the SCP (and to becoming an oblate at a Benedictine abbey) but, of course, simply being a member of a society will not quite do it if one is still also within the existing parish structure – in fact it can end up as being simply another meeting which has to be attended.

    Of course to some extent the CofE is starting to address the issue, unintentionally, through the rise in house for duty and SSM posts. Many of these are, in effect, ‘mass priests’ with little parish or civic responsibility. Perhaps we are rapidly approaching the point that if one accepts a stipend then with that comes all the other ‘oversight’ stuff.

  4. I suppose it could be said that I abandoned ship 27 years ago, after attending several successive meetings of a Provincial Department of Theological Education that spent all its time discussing “What is a priest?” and eventually I concludrd that they didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, because then they would have nothing more to discuss.

  5. Sam, I’m with you on the problem, but sceptical about the solution since, one way or another, it comes back to a tiny ‘priesthood’ being ‘the answer’ – whether by having more of them, or by having the few there are doing something different.

    Nevertheless, I’d like to encourage you encouraging us to think more about these things. Perhaps it is time for a symposium in your neck of the woods?

  6. Our deanery is proposing (detail not yet approved by Winchester diocese) to move to a system of mega-benefices with, typically, one team rector, one SSM and one house-for-duty priest. ALL the administration is to be carried out by laity (who will largely train each other). The laity will also take a substantial proportion of services (say Matins and Morning Prayer once a month each), involvement with Church of England schools as well as much of the pastoral work. The role of the Team Rector will be ‘strategic’ oversight and leadership (but not ‘tactical’ administration, as well as ‘feed[ing] the faithful by word and sacrament’.

    Our deanery has been building up to this anyway, with the increasing use of lay worship leaders and pastoral workers, it will not mean a 180 degree change of direction, which it of course would in some dioceses.

    I have some papers if you would like to see them? – email me at laurasykes {at} layanglicana {dot} com

  7. Ahh, the Methodist circuit system and local preachers…..look how well that is working out…Not!

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