General Synod

As the newly elected General Synod of the Church of England meets in London this month, a major theme will be the next stages of the Archbishops' Reform and Renewal programme to introduce changes to ministerial education and parish organisation to promote mission and growth.

In an essay published ahead of the Synod, the Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church and a Vice President of the liberal theology society Modern Church, critiques Reform and Renewal as ‘an initiative designed to save the church through prompt, aversive action’ which he believes ‘will cause even greater damage to the Church of England.’

Modern Church has published Professor Percy's article, titled On Not Rearranging The Deckchairs On The Titanic, on its website to encourage debate around the underlying assumptions on which Reform and Renewal is based. Percy told Modern Church his aim is to

‘galvanise a wide range of readers concerned about the narrowing of the church and the emerging "executive leadership".’

His critique focusses on the Reform and Renewal programme’s apparent lack of ‘academic depth, scholarly wisdom, ecclesial extensity and emotional empathy.’

He takes the image of the deckchairs on the Titanic to its full extent to argue that The Titanic sank, not because it hit an iceberg, but because of ‘the wrong kind of aversive, panic-led action’ and ‘cascading human errors’ which led to irreparable damage and fatalities that could have been avoided. So, he urges:

‘The Reform and Renewal programme needs to stop, not plough on. It needs to re-engage with theology, and find appropriate spiritual points of origin for its work, and be guided and shaped theologically. This needs to be inclusive, collaborative and collegial.’

He also calls for Reform and Renewal leaders to make ‘significant movements towards reconciliation… since the imposition of the Reform and Renewal portfolio has been characterised by high-handed, arrogant and rather dismissive approaches to the rest of the church.’

The proposed agenda for reform shows, he claims, ‘little evidence of having a deep and rich comprehension of the body they propose to reform.’ He adds:

‘It is far too easy to claim you are ‘cutting through red tape’; only to discover far too late that what you actually sliced through were crucial nerves and tissues in a delicate body-politic.’

Citing American contextual theologian James Hopewell (Congregations: Stories and Structures, 1987), he cautions: ‘Try and understand the value of the past… before you usher in a new future.’

The underlying assumption of Reform and Renewal Prof. Percy seeks to elucidate is that ‘unless it is accepted – largely wholesale – our life as a body is in mortal peril… Those querying the wisdom of colluding in a collective anxiety about the future, together with the ensuing ‘panic attack’ consuming the resources of this body, are held to be dissenters or deviants.’

Percy suggests that, without firm foundations of research and theological reflection, Reform and Renewal could undermine, not strengthen, the structures it seeks to re-order:

‘The builder that does not understand the material and structure of the house (of God), nor has any real appreciation for its evolved architecture, is likely, in attempting to improve the property, commit unintentional vandalism. The primary building blocks of the church are, de facto, theological: creeds, doctrines, ecclesiology – beliefs and structures. If you don’t respect these, you risk violating the building, and its inhabitants. The structure soon becomes unstable – even dangerous.’

Returning to the image of the church as a body, Percy calls for ‘vision from our leadership that is robustly intellectual, theological and spiritual’ to feed the church with something richer and more nourishing:

‘It does not want a meal consisting of processed pre-packed secular-business fodder, no matter how much passionate intensity it is served with… This neo-reformist agenda simply doesn’t feed the soul. And a leadership that can’t feed us won’t easily be able to lead us.’

Click here to read and download the full 4000 word essay, On Not Rearranging the Deckchairs on the Titanic: A Commentary on Reform and Renewal in the Church of England, by Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy.