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 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/21/anglicanism-religion ). 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.