This is the third in my series of posts looking for changes of approach in church leadership, away from the post-1970s version of Evangelicalism that currently dominates its thinking and policies. Here I address the need for an outward-looking focus.
I share the archbishops’ sense of frustration. Although the number of full-time paid clergy in the Church of England is declining, there are still many thousands. If the Dalai Lama could command a workforce of this size, wouldn’t Buddhism take over the nation? What are we doing wrong?
There are some obvious answers. Work expands to fill the time available. As a curate I was advised: if you want to ‘get on’ in the Church, attend every meeting. So there are lots of clergy meetings. A lot of the professional energy available goes into negotiating one’s way within the institution.
In the 1970s Ivan Illich wrote a series of short books arguing that institutions initially set up to meet a real need - such as education, health and transport - gradually changed their character to suit the preferences of the professionals employed to run them.
This has happened to the Church of England, only more so. Offering spiritual resources to society at large has been subordinated to running the institution. More so, because the dominant theology of church leaders is that maintaining itself ought to be the Church’s top priority.
This is made clear in the emphasis on ‘church growth’. All clergy know what it is about. Those of my generation have seen the change, and most of us lament it. We were ordained, back in the 1960s or 1970s, to serve the parish - everyone who lived in the part of the country delimited by the parish boundaries. Today parish clergy are expected to focus on building up congregations.
The talk of growth is the way church leaders put a positive spin on their anxieties about decline. What they most hope for from local clergy is measurable evidence that more people are attending services.
Nobody can do everything. The more pressure there is to focus on attendances, the less the attention to the unchurched. Those who have no wish to attend services get the message that the church has nothing to offer them.
This retreat from the parish to the congregation was always bound to be self-defeating. The reason is obvious. Any increase in the congregation must come from the population outside it. Declining organisations don’t get more supporters simply by proclaiming that they are trying to grow. New supporters will only come from people who positively approve of what they are doing anyway.
The public discourse of church leaders therefore needs to be less about the institutional church itself and more about what it can positively offer - to the unchurched as well as the churched.
We have inherited an unfortunate tension. At their height, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Evangelicals had major achievements to their credit. They had contributed massively to banning the slave trade, restricting child labour and other social reforms. They cared about benefiting other people, Christians and non-Christians alike.
By the end of the nineteenth century Evangelicalism had turned inwards. Pentecostalism and the hopes of the Second Coming produced a reaction against social concern. Instead, Evangelical procedure would be to deal with individuals one at a time. The first response to someone who had fallen on hard times was to convert them to Christianity. Only then would it be possible to provide practical help.
The tension between these two attitudes is still there, but the dominant Evangelicalism of the post-1970s era heavily emphasises the exclusive sort.
I am old enough to remember the 1960s, when Evangelical churches were in decline. Their ministers argued that, just because other churches attracted more attenders, it didn’t mean they were Christians. Today this has been turned on its head. It has become a characteristic feature of the post-1970s dominant Evangelicalism to assume that all Christians are churchgoers.
In this way, the traditional Evangelical commitment to converting individuals conveniently gets identified with church growth. It means ignoring - or rather, refusing to see - that large numbers of Christians absent themselves from their local church precisely because it offers that kind of Evangelicalism.
Researchers have shown that there is a great hunger for spiritual guidance among the general public. Most of them don’t expect to find it in the Christian churches. Common reasons are that they don’t want to attend services, they don’t want to be told what to believe, and they don’t want to be given an identity that separates them from their non-Christian friends.
In other words, they avoid churches because they dislike the very things the post-1970s dominant Evangelicalism is busiest promoting. For many people, this is the only version of Christianity they have come across.
How do we get out of this downward spiral? My suggestions would be as follows.
- We need to separate the task of managing the institutional church from the task of being spokespeople for Christianity. 50 years ago most bishops were skilled in theological scholarship. Now, very few are theological scholars. The two roles need to be separated, and more priority needs to be given to ensuring that the public hear well-informed and convincing Christian voices, without any ulterior motive of shoring up a struggling institution.
- Instead of trying to manipulate people into church (via bring-a-friend Sundays, etc.) we could ask what we can provide to the unchurched for their own sakes. This would involve taking their concerns seriously, without filtering them through an ecclesiastical agenda.