Prof Linda Woodhead

The Church Times of 23 January contains several pages of reports on proposed reforms to the Church of England – particularly the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy, and the use of central finance.

It also contains some first reactions to these reports. Modern Church President, Linda Woodhead, has written a full article which is truly outstanding, deserves to be studied by all decision-makers in the Church, and is full of what can only be called common sense.

On the Letters page, there is an equally commonsense contribution - among others – by Canon Anthony Harvey, who led one of our most successful Annual Conferences a dozen or so years ago. Perhaps Modern Church should be renamed Commonsense Church?

The biggest problem with the proposals, as Linda analyses them, is that they assume a model of the Church which is increasingly clergy-driven as the key strategy for growth. All the effort must then be devoted to clergy recruitment and training. There is some sense in this at first sight. It is difficult to grow the Church – however you define that process – without people who have the skills and the time to engage with their surrounding communities. And the age profile of the (stipendiary) clergy suggests a risk that such people will be in shorter and shorter supply in the years ahead.   Does that mean a further downward spiral in active church membership? And, if it does, does it matter?

Woodhead, Harvey and others point out that there is has rarely been all that much correlation between the strength of the official church structure (in terms of numbers of stipendiary clergy) and church growth (or effective ministry, which may not be quite the same thing). Yes, effective ministry does require effective ministers.   But those who have been most effective have not necessarily been parish priests as conventionally understood. From the peripatetic ministries of the great saints of Anglo-Saxon England, through the similar ministry of John Wesley, and more recently the impact of reinstituted religious communities (mentioned by one correspondent) as an outworking of the Oxford Movement, growth seems mostly to have come from something other than a settled structure – often at the fringes of that structure, and sometimes actively opposed by it!

All the growth, and all the effective ministry, that I have seen has depended on people – people with gifts, who might be clerical or lay, in the stipendiary service of the church or otherwise, and in quite a few cases rather unlikely to fulfil the official criteria for office and preferment. The intensive, directed efforts of such people can yield truly remarkable results – in terms of meeting spiritual needs, healing the wounds of society, and, yes, bringing people into active church membership. The church needs to be far, far better at identifying and enabling such people. It does not need to be better at co-opting them into the official structures, and then busting a gut to pay them.

As Woodhead points out, this clergy-driven and congregationally-oriented model is based on the “secularisation” paradigm, which assumes a level of alienation from the Church of England (and/or Christianity/religion generally) which is not borne out by her own research. Are our leaders buying into a paradigm, now widely contested by sociologists of religion, which almost inevitably leads to the reinforcement of a sense of decline? Might it be that our opportunities are far greater than we realise, if only we could be less obsessed by numbers (whether of clergy, of bums on pews, or of notes in the collection plate)?

I am not sure that I could go quite all the way with Woodhead in implying that those numbers – especially of worshippers, and of finance – don’t matter all that much at all. Both she and Harvey criticise the implicit model of “discipleship” in the reports, which appears to assume a huge emphasis on both church attendance and regular giving, and not to recognise the sheer diversity of responses to the church’s message and life. Yet these things are not trivial in terms of what it means to be a church. Almost sixty years ago, when the “crisis” was far less marked than now, Martin Thornton wrote a remarkable little book called Pastoral Theology: a Reorientation, in which he pointed out that the core purpose of education is not to produce more teachers, nor that of the NHS to produce more doctors, so why should the church be so obsessed with producing more clergy or even active laity?   Yet even he had a very clear – if for some tastes rather Anglo-Catholic – idea of what “discipleship” meant, and why the church needed to be more disciplined in discipling those people who were called into its ranks, so that the wider ministry could go on. And if we look just at the finance problem, it is far from clear to me that Woodhead’s suggested solutions would be any substitute for committed regular giving on the part of a sizeable and disciplined church membership.

Where does all this lead us? Possibly, and regrettably in many ways, to some concentration of the church’s efforts, in fewer places. In my own deanery, there are 29 Anglican parishes and just four Roman Catholic ones, yet the total attendance in each is much the same. Growth points occur where the critical mass of members is sufficient to throw up the sort of highly gifted people I referred to earlier. A church which focused its efforts on a very few, very highly trained stipendiary clergy, who in turn focused on enabling a huge number of ordained local ministers and other kinds of truly gifted spiritual leaders, might well get more bang for its buck. (It might get more buck too, as it appears to be doing in many places despite decline in numbers.) But we do need to nourish the grass roots, and that cannot ultimately be done from the centre. As St Paul said, some plant and some water, but it is God who gives the increase.

It’s just common sense really.