Is the Church of England doomed?

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 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.

13 thoughts on “Is the Church of England doomed?

  1. Interesting stuff, Sam – much of which I’d endorse wholeheartedly…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 MAY eventually lead to them encountering God but I don’t, won’t and can’t use service as a tool of evangelism. I feel called to do the best I can at unconditional love for this WHOLE community…being “their vicar” helps people to recognise that they can expect this of me. Not a well phrased or thought through response – but a beginning at voicing my anxiety about what the future might look like.
    Thankfully, it’s up to God 🙂

  2. Sam, it is by no means “fairly unambiguous where we are headed”. As I wrote at the time, the 2008 statistics which you link to are grossly misleading, and even self-contradictory. It was not just me but also an official Church of England spokesperson saying that. It is simply impossible to predict church attendance 40 years in advance. And while there is worrying decline in some sectors of the Church of England, there is good growth in some others.

    Now I accept that the C of E does need to make significant changes to avoid further decline. After all, another of Bob Jackson’s findings is that “churches that don’t change are shrinking, churches that do change are not shrinking”. And I fully support the changes you are proposing as ones which will help the church to survive. But I would hope and expect that the changes which could really turn the corner for it are not administrative ones like your proposals, but a spiritual transformation. I don’t mean by that the kind of revival which we can only pray for, but a spiritual renewal, throughout the church but best starting from the top.

  3. I agree with the last part of Peter’s comment. All of the administrative changes you propose have been standard practice in the Anglican Church of Cabada for a long time, and we are still shrinking. I think the real problem is a spiritual one – we have inherited a church ethos which is designed to produce church adherents, Sunday worshippers who cherish the right (given them by the Elizabethan Settlement!) to keep their rather vague beliefs a closely guarded secret, rather than communities of followers of Jesus whose greatest joy is to share their faith and lead others to Christ.

  4. Regarding Kathryn’s point, I’d simply point out that in New Testament Christianity the entity which is supposed to serve the whole community is the church, not the vicar. Our western Canadian congregation is heavily involved in serving the community (local and global) even though most of the community (our part of the city – not ‘parish’ in the C of E system because we don’t have one – has about 80,000 people) either doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, or sees me as no different from the pastors of other denominations.

  5. Thanks, all, for the comments. I agree that the root problem is spiritual, but to separate out the administrative is a bit docetic for my tastes! I have explored the spiritual side elsewhere; my concern here was to start describing a system which might liberate the Spirit – Tim, I’m guessing you don’t see the admin side as much of a problem in Canada?

    Tracking back in reverse order, Peter, I don’ t think the point depends on any one batch of stats – those were just the first that came up from Google – and whilst there are good stories of growth – even in this corner of Essex! – they are outnumbered. Did you read my Spanish Train article?

    Useful – isn’t that a bit like someone jumping off a tall building saying ‘alright so far’ as they pass each floor on the way down?

    Kathryn, you touch on the most important issues but I think I’ll engage with them in a further post, talking about the laity.

  6. Great post, Sam. I really appreciate your perceptive analysis of the situation, but also the constructive solutions you’re proposing.

  7. Yes, Sam, I read the Spanish Train – good comment. But I also take Useful’s point that the demise of the C of E has been prophesied for decades but has not happened.

    I would compare Useful’s tale more with the boy who cried “Wolf!” The wolf may come, or it may not, but if it does no one will heed the genuine warning.

    I agree with you that Christianity in England is not dead. But I suspect that the main issue here is whether that Christianity, or a significant part of it, can be contained within the C of E, or whether it will inevitably flow into other denominations and independent groups. Will the old wineskin be flexible enough to contain the new wine, including groups like New Wine? Or will it split open and spill them out?

    But then, does this matter? If our faith is alive, well and growing in this country, will anyone mourn the demise of the institution called the Church of England?

  8. Surely the changes you propose only really apply if the answer to your headline question is “no”. If it’s “yes”, then wouldn’t all the hassle introducing such measures would involve be in vain (unless I’m missing something)?

    I think we need to decide whether we actually believe “statistics” that show the CofE will have effectively died out by 2050; and, if so, whether this is the will of God. If we believe either or both of those, “going out fighting” would seem to be rather beside the point.

  9. Sam, far be it from me to decry your proposals – i completely agree with them, and I think we’ll make an Anabaptist-Anglican out of you yet!

    I think from my observations of C of E clergy, the removal of establishment status would go a long way toward freeing you all for real gospel ministry from a level playing field position. And I’d go even further than your ‘parishes should provide clergy housing’ proposal and say that rectories/vicarages are an iniquitous idea and should be done away with. They effectively make it very difficult for clergy to make provision for their retirement, and they also deny clergy what they most need – a home as a place of refuge that is not tied to their job. I have lived in my own house for twelve years now and can’t believe the difference that it’s made. Of course, this means that parishes would have to provide proper office space for their clergy instead of making them work out of their homes, but that’s no different from any other employer.

    Do I think that admin is less of a problem in Canada? Yes and no. I still get a lot of interference from leaders higher up who don’t trust their clergy and seem to think we should all be working on a ‘diocesan vision’ rather than freeing local churches to be faithful to the mission they believe God is calling them to. But having said that, I enthusiastically embrace our disestablished status which sets me free to be pastor of my congregation and to evangelise in the neighbourhood as a non-status follower of Jesus!

  10. ‘. . .those were just the first that came up from Google. . .’

    Maybe the holes in your argument stem from a lack of real knowledge with regard to the issues. As has been pointed out, the first results that Google throws up may not be very supportive of what you’re trying to propose. Perhaps some real research would give a more well rounded opinion and result in an article offering more depth and clarity.

  11. Oh anonymous. Unless you want to argue that the CofE has actually been growing (in the aggregate) for the last few decades, the broad point stands. I quote more exact figures in my Spanish Train post. For sure, if I ever do turn this into an article I’ll make sure it is properly referenced, but that is not the nature of a blogpost is it?

  12. Peter K – your last question is exactly right (and I would answer yes). Tim, I have lots of sympathy with Anabaptist perspectives! It’s precisely the ‘freeing for real gospel mission’ that I’m wanting to pursue. More on Friday. Melodies – I tend to be a bit John Connor on such questions – the future is not yet written.
    Thanks all.

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