by Ian Duffield
from Signs of the Times No. 57 - Apr 2015

For many years Modern Church has campaigned for women bishops, espoused the cause of homosexuals, and resisted an Anglican Communion Covenant. A consequence of expending this effort - largely successful - is that attention has been distracted from other pressing issues. After all, you can't tackle everything at once.

Whilst distracted, we've seen:

  1. the increasing prioritisation of the 'Fresh Expressions' agenda over parochial ministry with the threat of Bishop's Mission Orders;
  2. the end of freehold with bishops requiring clergy to set annual targets for mission;
  3. a concentration and consolidation of power in the Archbishops' Council and the College of Bishops.

And now there's an episcopal push to re-brand the Church of England—as struggling businesses do.

The Archbishop's Presidential Address at February's Synod tried to neutralise concern by describing the proposals as only a 'means to an end', but we know that inappropriate means are counter-productive; after all, to use a hammer when you need a screwdriver is to make matters worse.

Modern Church and members of congregations should be concerned about these proposals. Concerns relate to four aspects:

  • Presumptions;
  • Process;
  • Plans;
  • Purpose.

Presumptions:

The recent flurry of reports is based on anxiety, i.e. if congregations continue to decline there is no future for the Church of England. In the General Synod debate, the First Church Estates Commissioner described it as 'an existential crisis', because 'a doomsday machine' is at work (Church Times 20 February 2015); I recently heard the Bishop of Exeter declare: if we don't make new disciples, we will go 'the way of Woolworths'. This presumption rests upon the mistaken notions that continued decline in attendance = demise and trends can be mathematically projected towards zero. Clearly, the Church is in a difficult situation, but not unique. Pubs are closing more quickly than churches, and political parties and other organisations have seen greater reductions in members.

The presumption underlining the reforms emphasizes numerical growth, as if it's possible to counteract decades-long, mega social trends. Of course, things can be done to help arrest decline; but abandoning inherited ways and embracing short-term remedies is not wise. It is unsound to develop policy upon the basis of anxiety and upon a misreading of the situation and of what is possible. Wrong diagnosis leads to incorrect treatment. If there is a too pessimistic view of the Church of England's future at work at the moment; there is, also, a too optimistic view of what the Church can do about it. These presumptions lead us astray. 

Process:

The reports to reform the Church of England have been dominated in their commissioning and composition and implementation by the Archbishops' Council and the Bishops. Their publication at the same time is either bad management or a deliberate attempt to overwhelm the Church with a proposal tsunami. Even General Synod's involvement has been restricted (e.g. over the Green Report). In terms of process, this is regrettable.

Of course, these 'connected' proposals are presented as the solution to the Church's so-called 'crisis'. The apocalyptic message is clear: something must be done and it must be done now. This is not an Anglican way (compare the processes to revise the liturgy or consider the place of women in ordained ministry).

More worrying is that implementation of some proposals is taking place before discussion (for example, some recruits for the elite talent pool have been contacted). If a too pessimistic view of the Church's future drives change at too hectic a pace, then wrong decisions will be made and ordinary congregations and supporters in the wider community risk being alienated. An Anglican process has to be respectful of all opinions, giving time for proper consideration and scrutiny so as to take the whole Church forward together rather than proceeding with unseemly haste. Whether the motions taking forward some of the agendas (GS 1978, 1979, 1980) at the last Synod display sufficient caution and allow for sufficient scrutiny, time will tell.

Plans:

Concerns about presumptions and process are only exacerbated by the plans, which demonstrate serious weaknesses. Let me illustrate:

  • A veteran of previous reports regards the present batch as offering: 'old recipes for 'reformation' which have too often proved ineffective in the past'. Significantly, he notes that creative change normally comes from the fringe not the centre (Letter by Canon Anthony Harvey: Church Times 23 January 2015).
  • If there are problems with our finances, why is the family silver (£2 million) being spent on training elite clergy at the expense of future generations? How will ordinary folk in the pews view such expenditure, especially if they are being 'denied' their own vicar?
  • If we need to spend money, is this a sensible way to do it? Especially if experienced practitioners in the field suggest otherwise: 'it is a recipe for wasting large amounts of money, [and] taking the Church backwards' (Letter by former Professor of Organisational Behaviour, David Sims: Church Times 19/26 December 2014)
  • The Green Report has been critiqued by one earmarked for the talent pool (Article by Dean Martyn Percy: Church Times 12 December 2014), by one invited to tender for bishop leadership training (Article by Canon Keith Lamdin: Church Times 19/26 December 2014), by a critic of the report's 'managerialism' (Article by Associate Seminary Dean, Revd Justin Lewis-Anthony: Church Times 19/26 December 2014). Even knowledgeable supporters think the report too elitist, badly targeted, implemented insensitively, and lacking the 'wider and deeper conversation' required to make it acceptable (Letter by Keith Elford: Church Times 2 January 2015).
  • The language of 'discipleship' in the reports reflects a sectarian, exclusionary, and non-Anglican kind of vocabulary that fails to engage with 'Anglicanism as a living tradition with norms and perspectives that are organic, rather than organisational.' (Article by Angela Tilby: Church Times 30 January 2015).
  • The promise to reduce red tape seems welcome, but caution is required. By all means let's simplify, but let's not remove processes that provide checks and balances on the use of power. Who will ensure that this is so? Or will the impetus to do something new, to change things, over-rule common sense and inherited wisdom?
  • There are prima facie grounds for concern about plans for church growth if reliant on the official report From Anecdote to Evidence (2014). This research was seriously flawed: its aims lacked academic rigour (they would have been unacceptable if presented by any research student), and its methods were inadequate. So, its conclusions are thereby undermined (see Letter by Revd Stephen Brian: Church Times, 21 November 2014).

Purpose:

The reports' purpose is to reform the Church towards numerical growth—but at what price? Developments (for example in Carlisle Diocese) suggest that the parish system is being abandoned in all but name—but without proper discussion and debate. Annual targets for clergy as agents of diocesan strategies point to a more controlling, centralised Church. Linda Wooodhead says: 'These reports abandon [our historical] heritage without even realising it' (The challenges that the new C of E reports duck, Church Times 23 January 2015). This attempt at reform is in danger of making the Church of England into a very different, less Anglican, kind of church.

The Bishop of Sheffield, who chaired two of the reports, rightly hopes that there will be 'rigorous conversation' about these proposals. For that 'conversation' to be serious, sufficient time must be allowed for it to take place in the widest manner possible. For that conversation to be 'rigorous' there must be proper scrutiny, critique, criticism, and rebuttal.

Is General Synod up to the task? Will any Bishop dare break ranks? Or will we discover our Church has been re-branded before we've had chance to take breath?