Synod: The dying of a church is not a management problem

This is the first of three emails unpacking some elements in my election address.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made by our national church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening. I am wholly in favour of church planting – I have successfully planted a new congregation myself – but with the recent discussions of planting 10,000 churches (‘No! We mean a different new 10,000 churches!’) I cannot but conclude that our national leadership has finally jumped the shark.

Back in 2012, when I was struggling with the realities of a large, multi-parish benefice, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was itself building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It made depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 20 years time, describing the present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the Church of England ‘renewing and reforming’ with only 2,500 clergy.

If managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. That they haven’t suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. We keep doing the same thing whilst expecting different results. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. Which means that we need to employ spiritual analysis and deploy spiritual solutions.

For me, the framework that makes most sense is Walter Brueggemann’s depiction of ‘Royal Consciousness’: those who make decisions on behalf of the national church are locked within a pattern of thought that is convenient for the established powers but which neutralises the gospel. As an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture which means we no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live.

Most damagingly of all, the framework within which we make sense of the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency – fewer and fewer priests responsible for more and more churches. I believe that enabling clergy to become the ministers that they were called to and trained for is the most essential step that we can take towards renewing our church. Instead we employ business consultants to advise us on how best to manage our decline, and usher us into our simpler, humbler, bolder senescence.

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. After all, the spiritual root of our present predicament was accurately diagnosed by Evelyn Underhill more than ninety years ago. In a letter to Archbishop Lang in around 1931 she wrote to complain about the way in which the complications and demands of running the institution had compromised the capacity of priests to maintain their prayer life: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice […] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

More recently, 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, the spiritual rot has gone so 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, for building up the spiritual strength of any Christian community is precisely the priestly task, the cure of souls.

Which leads to a more troubling and possibly terminal question – is it actually possible to be a priest in the Church of England any more? If the generating and nurturing of spiritual strength is indeed the core role of the priest; if this is a distinct and important (most important!) task; if this is what priests continue to be called to by the living God – is it at all realistic to consider the role of an incumbent within the Church of England as a context that enables such a vocation to be expressed? Or is it the case that the hours of an incumbent are filled with the need to satisfy the demands of a second rate managerialism, keeping the wheels of the institution turning, and where the worst sin is not a failure of spiritual cure but bringing the institution into disrepute? Incumbency drives out priesthood, and the future that we are staring it is the exaltation of incumbency. The deep understanding of what a priest is for – that which inspires so many people still to present themselves for the task – seems to be structurally forgotten, and only referenced in rhetoric at ordinations.

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. It will involve setting parishes free, and it will involve setting priests free – free to actually be priests, and not establishment functionaries. What we really need 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 is to feed the faithful by word and sacrament – and nothing else. The institution keeps loading on other options onto the creaking shoulders of the clergy and they are almost all distractions from that core task; they make clergy miserable and simply generate stress and burn-out. 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.

I want to resist this – and I want to resist this in the right way, with love and with laughter. With love for our leadership, and an absolute resolve not to scapegoat or cast blame upwards, for we all share responsibility for this predicament. We also need to resist with laughter. The emperor has no clothes, but all the courtiers have been stitched up into a false narrative, and the clothing may not be on the emperor but it is covering their eyes. Sometimes we need to laugh – it might just be that laughter brings people back to themselves, and the truth can then be realised, and the masks can be taken off and then, together, seeking the truth in love, we can work out where to go.

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  1. Pingback: Opinion – 25 September 2021 | Thinking Anglicans

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