– and can anything be done?
At last night’s lively talk at St Brides’ Liverpool, and the equally lively discussion afterwards, Linda Woodhead presented an alternative vision of the Church of England.
Linda described the findings of her and Andrew Brown’s research into the declining fortunes of the Church of England since the 1980s. Linda focused on four things that have been going wrong, and suggested alternatives for a brighter future.
1) The national church
All the national churches that were founded as part of a nation-building process have seen similar decline in attendance at regular services. Otherwise however there are differences. In the Nordic churches, supported by church taxes, a much higher proportion of the population still call themselves Christians, identify with their national church and use it for baptisms, weddings and funerals.
England differs in that Englishness was associated with the empire, which no longer exists. The Church of England cannot now claim to represent English identity. After the Second World War it retained significance by throwing itself into the creation of the Welfare State. Once established, though, the Welfare State found that it did not need the Church.
Nevertheless Linda argued that there is still a positive side to being a national church. By paying more attention to the values British people have today, it could be a public voice affirming the positive aspects of our culture.
2) The clergy
The Church of England is now more clericalised than ever before. Until the 1970s it was controlled by Parliament. Since then the clergy have voted more and more finance for themselves – and on equal terms, so there is no financial incentive to perform well. With excessive financial obligations, everything gets driven by the need for money.
Linda’s suggested alternative is to make better use of self-supporting ministers and develop better patterns of partnership between clergy and laity.
3) Division and hypocrisy
A national church is necessarily a broad church. Now, however, the Church is riven by conflicting claims, especially over same-sex partnerships. Determination to present a united front, despite the well-known disagreements, has resulted in a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Society now demands openness but the Church’s leadership is still resisting it. This has led to a culture of dishonesty within the Church, leaving a strong impression that the Church’s moral standards are lower than those of British society.
Instead, diversity should be valued. The Church’s leadership should accept that there are different moral standards and different styles of worship. It should allow different ‘franchises’, so that each local church can concentrate on what it does well.
4) The interface
For most people Sunday services, baptisms, weddings and funerals are the main point of contact with the local church. They could all be done better. In the case of weddings and funerals secular providers are becoming more popular simply because they provide a more attractive service. Linda proposed that the Church needs to offer more diversity of provision and offer it to a higher professional standard.
Another problem with Sunday services is that this is where the Church gets its money. As fewer people attend, there is increasing financial pressure. However many people are willing to offer financial support even though they do not attend, and it should be possible for a system of subscriptions to be established.
The Church has many old and expensive buildings. So, Linda pointed out, does the National Trust; but the National Trust has managed to turn them into an asset. Linda suggested that many people love beauty and history, and the Church could make better use of its older buildings as tourist attractions. It should not, she added, need the involvement of the clergy!
The overall picture is that a less clericalised but more professional and diverse church could be more effective. It could still be a national church expressing the best of the nation’s values. Putting these proposals together is to propose massive changes. Within the Church of England’s leadership there is already awareness of the need for changes, but not such big ones.
Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown’s book is due to be published at the end of this year, and we shall learn more then. Meanwhile my experience of being a priest in the Church of England leaves me feeling that these proposals are the best I have heard.
Can we become more professional at the same time as reducing the number of stipendiary clergy and depending more on unpaid volunteers? Yes. Clergy often ignore the professional skills of lay people willing to help, or even feel threatened by them.
As for the stipendiary clergy, I know what it is like to be one. As a parish priest, all too often I felt I was expected to be a jack of all trades. If I had a profession it was that of club manager – the building, the money, the meetings, the services, the relationships with whoever chooses to get involved. I would have preferred to spend my time talking about God and the Bible and why they matter, but there was precious little call for that. We could reduce the number of stipendiary clergy while giving them more specialist roles with appropriate training.