Is Change and Growth possible?
Towards the end of last year the Bishop of Truro told his diocese that urgent action is required to stem the decline in the numbers of people going to church. He said: “I believe we’ve got about 10 years to do something with the Church of England.”
The diocese was told that it faced a deficit in the order of £1.2 million if the trends of recent years continued and nothing changed. In the light of that situation the Diocesan Synod agreed to increase the Parish Share by 28 per cent. That is a large request from the parishes as a recently published report on giving in the Church of England suggests.
The report states: “Parish income has not kept up with inflation. In real terms, 2013 income was similar to levels in 2003.”
It goes on to say that: “The average member contributed 3.3 per cent of weekly income to the church in 2013, but this varied across the country, from 4.1 per cent in Sheffield to 2.2 per cent in Truro.”
The danger is that if the substantial increase in the Parish Share is achieved it will only prolong the decline the bishop referred to unless there is urgent radical change. What is required is a major change in the current structure that consumes most of the Parish Share.
The parochial system is no longer really working. That is not only true for the diocese of Truro but the whole of the Church of England. The Church has a structure that served previous generations, although that in itself can be challenged, which is not relevant or effective for today’s challenges and opportunities.
From the South West to the North West
Whilst that was happening in the South West, in the North West the Bishop of Blackburn was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying that the Church of England must make wholesale change to halt the slide in attendance, or wither away in the 21st century.
He said that he feared unless the Church reinvented itself in his own diocese, it would disappear like the region’s textile industry.
He said: “I am convinced that we need to embark on radical change. We need to reinvent ourselves for the 21st century. Anything less will leave us to wither away rather like the once mighty Lancashire cotton industry. A few tweaks and adjustments will not suffice.”
Those warnings from the Bishops of Truro and Blackburn follows similar concerns from their colleagues around the country: that urgent action is needed to prevent dwindling numbers heralding the end of the Church of England.
One of the few exceptions is the Diocese of London where growth is very much in evidence, however that could well be due in large measure to the work and influence of Holy Trinity, Brompton.
There is no doubt that the Church of England is in crisis. Its worshipping life and influence are shrinking, and if it continues in its present trajectory within a generation it will be too small credibly to maintain its position as the National Church.
Indeed William Fittall, the Secretary General of the General Synod has written: “Recognition that the Church of England’s capacity to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation will be decisively eroded unless the trend towards older and smaller worshipping communities is reversed.”
It would be very interesting to know how many members of General Synod come from those older and smaller worshipping communities and how many come from growing churches. One suspects more come from the former than the latter, which begs the question if the Synod in a position to give a lead.
Reform and Renewal
It is against this general background that the Archbishops’ of Canterbury and York launched the ‘Reform and Renewal’ programme earlier this year.
The programme looks at the way senior leaders in the church are discerned and developed [Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership development for Bishops and Deans], the way in which future ministerial education and development is resourced, and the simplification of the way in which the Church can do things at the local level.
Whilst there will be considerable relief at the third area providing it goes far enough, it is the first two areas that have caused most debate not least the financial implications.
We are told that the Church Commissioners are releasing £2 million for the discerning and development of present and future senior leadership to cover the period up to the end of 2016 and that £785,000 per annum will be required from 2017.
These are staggering sums of money as far as the average ‘older and smaller worshipping communities’ are concerned struggling to pay their Parish Share even without a large percentage increase.
With regard to future ministerial education we are told that the goal is to recruit and train 50 per cent more candidates. However this will not provide additional resources as 40 per cent of the present stipendiary clergy alone will be retiring in the coming decade.
William Fittall, the Secretary General of the General Synod has said: “What is not in doubt, however, is that this agenda is designed for growth and not retrenchment.” That is hard to see when 50 per cent more candidates for ordained ministry, if achieved, will barely result in more stipendiary clergy bearing in mind retirements over the next 10 years.
At best it seems that the agenda is one to stem the decline at a slower rate than has been experienced over many years. The programme does refer to the recruitment and training of lay leadership. However in my experience when a diocese comes upon hard times financially it is usually the lay posts that go first.
Fresh Expressions could be a move in the right direction
One positive development in recent years has been the introduction of Fresh Expressions of Christian Community.
However again there is a danger of this being watered down by calling almost everything a ‘fresh expression’.
In addition, it is much easier to see this as an add-on to ministry rather than something new requiring new structures and different models of support. The Church Army Research Unit has recently published a paper based on its research and consultations regarding Ordained Pioneer Curates.
The paper is ‘Snapshots 5: Good practice in deploying and working with pioneer curates’. Whilst reading that paper, which makes some interesting and valid points, it left me with the thought of ‘new wine into old skins’. It is a good illustration of the Church attempting to box something new into an existing structure.
The very title ‘Pioneer Curate’ is a clinging on to the past using the word ‘curate’. The report states that an Ordained Pioneer Minister by definition is not called to be a ‘Parish Vicar’, it should surely therefore follow that initial ministerial training should not be an add-on to existing ordination training, which in many instances it is.
The report refers to Ordained Pioneer Curates serving a ‘Title’ with a Training Incumbent. Why do Pioneer Curates, if that is what we must call them, serve a ‘Title’ and how can they work with a Training Incumbent who is not a pioneer or has not had first-hand experience of pioneer ministry?
The paper based on experience, research and consultation states that: ‘‘It is helpful if the Training Incumbent understands that gaining experience of running an inherited Parish Church well, while important, will always be seen as second priority for the Ordained Pioneer Curate.” Why does a person called to be an Ordained Pioneer Curate need to know how to run a traditional parish well?
If the Training Incumbent ‘needs to understand’ it raises questions in the first instance if the so-called Training Incumbent is the right person. If such a person has not been a pioneer how can they train others? It’s like asking a dentist to train a GP – they are both in the medical world with different agendas!
The paper goes on to suggest the need for the ‘Training Incumbent’ to talk to the Parish before the Ordained Pioneer Curate arrives, especially if the Parish is used to a traditional model of curate. This implies that the Ordained Pioneer Curate is not going to the area because the Parish has identified an opportunity for an Ordained Pioneer Curate – should that happen?
It also implies that the Ordained Pioneer Curate is a replacement appointment for a traditional type curate. Surely an Ordained Pioneer Curate should be an additional person not a replacement. If that doesn’t happen confusion will always be around in the Parish.
The paper refers to a Fresh Expression dying well – what about an inherited model learning to die well rather than leaving them on life support machines? In other words the diocese ignoring them in the hope that they will eventually die.
The Church of England urgently requires ‘Reform and Renewal’ if it is to survive and reach out effectively to this and future generations. The question is whether the ‘Establishment’ is up to the challenge, which really does require radical emergency surgery or will it be allowed to continue its slow death?
If it is to be the former then radical action is required now. If it is the latter then the so-called new churches will continue to grow and flourish in part at the expense of the Church of England.
Philip Johanson OBE Is former Chief Secretary of Church Army