Monday, 1 August 2011

A Very British Institution

The Financial Times is currently running a series of articles on British Institutions. The Church of England got the treatment on 29th July in a well researched piece by Matthew Engel. It reads as the view of a sympathetic outsider (I may be wrong) and it is well worth a look.

Engel notes the falling attendances and wonders about the effectiveness of the church's forms of government and the exercise of authority - is power too quirkily spread? He tells the stories of some inspiring and effective ministry in places as far flung as County Durham, Surrey and Herefordshire - clergy and congregations who are enthusiatically contributing to making the world a better place. He wonders if, or in what sense, worshippers actually believe the words of the creeds they recite and notes their loyalty to a tradition which is broadly and not too specifically defined. He identifies ++Rowan's dilemma in holding the church together and makes the point that, with only 1.13 million worshippers in England (though 20 million self confessed 'supporters') and 85 million Anglicans worldwide, any solution to divisions in the church must take into account the global perspective. I quote his penultimate paragraph,

'One can see that although Anglicanism may touch barely one percent of the world, it is the lingering sense of universality that gives it what bite and purpose and dynamism it still has. Its problems need to be resolved in a global context; in the words of Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times, 'You can't have a Surrey solution.' The church has to be about improving life here on Earth and not just a bet on the existence of Heaven.'
Well, amen to that.

Having spent much of my holiday in Wales where church attendance and numbers of clergy are declining more rapidly than in England, I am left with big questions about how we square this with the obvious and genuine life that exists in many congregations, be they everso small. Do we just bury our heads in the sand and keep going much as we are for as long as we can? There is something about a two pronged approach here. Faithfulness to a sense of God's call, commitment to Christ as our Lord and mature understanding of our tradition are vital and to be celebrated wherever they are found. On such ground is the future of the church built. At the same time, I want to ask every church, 'Have you sat down with a group of non-members and asked them what they see in the life of the church (both good and bad)?' If we took the answers seriously, they might be very sobering, but they would surely contain vital pointers to what we should be giving our attention to and how we might go about it. The trouble with bodies that are shrinking is that they become tribal and defensive. The Church of England needs to guard against this and that is our dilemma - the tension between the need to look inwards and renew our own confidence in our mission (talk of National Mission Plans at General Synod - not necessarily the way to go, I think) and the need to keep looking outwards, not just within our own nation but towards our neighbours around the world. (++Rowan's example of the press-ganged soldiers of the Congo saying 'the church has not forgotten us' is a good example of this.)

One of the things that Engel picks up on in his article is the changing nature of people's view of authority. The institutional church is heavily based on notions of respect for authority figures and I believe that one of our problems is that, within the church, these figures are plucked from a relatively narrow section of society and therefore pretty unrepresentative. Another problem is that whereas, today, many organisations operate through the personal influence of leaders who have won respect by words and actions that make a difference and who have posed relevant challenges, the Church of England is, for all its complex, power spreading structures, ill equipped to move away from authority structures that guard the status quo. We literally creak at the seams as we try to operate systems of synodical government, patronage, regulation of buildings, education, training and adminstration in 44 independent dioceses that are far too complex for the number of 'workers in the field'. The effect? We are all over-busy looking inwards and keeping the usual balls in the air to generate many leaders (at local or national level) who can truly lead by influence, speaking to the hearts and minds of people outside the church precisely because they understand their concerns. We are all too focussed on tinkering with matters that seem important to those of us who spend a lot of our time thinking about the way the church does things and, consequently, we fail to spot what we must find a way to stop or to reform. Every now and then someone has a radical idea; usually it is hailed as prophetic and then ignored, watered-down or shelved for 25 years (think of the Tiller report!)  Odd, for a body of people whose leader led entirely by influence which drew its authority from relationship with God rather than from earthly authority structures; indeed, a leader who was a thorn in the flesh of those who sought to operate the authority structures of His day and who was sometimes so radical in making the tradition within which He stood work in terms of the society in which He lived, that people said He was either mad or He must be of God.

My husband, coming from a profession that spends a lot of time thinking about the future, has often remarked that church life seems to have an imbalance in terms giving too much weight to the past. This seems to render us short on imagination about the way things could be. It also prevents us preparing for the future in any effective sense (think of the difficulties we in are in over vocations and training enough clergy and lay leaders.) In Christianity the doctrines of the second coming of Christ at the end of time ('eschatology') have always been as important as the doctrines of creation, incarnation and salvation. This ought to make us a people who have some confidence in imagining, planning and thinking about the future and who feel just as called to be commentators and interpreters of up-to-the-minute trends as to be guardians and interpreters of the past. The point about tradition is that it expresses truth which has to be 'dug out' and applied in every new context and time. This is hard work and demands not only a profound understanding of how a tradition has been shaped in the past, but an equally profound understanding of the comtemporary context in which truth needs to emerge. To my way of thinking, groups like Forward in Faith and Reform seem to ignore the second half of the enterprise; the more middle-of-the-road parts of the Church of England explore contemporary context a bit half heartedly and the Fresh Expressions movement is focused on contemporary context, sometimes without the depth of understanding of tradition that is essential to sustain new churches beyond the staring point. Of course, the difficulty for a global communion (which the Anglican churches are) is that the contemporary contexts are many and various; this difference gives rise to several of the arguments that are at the heart of current Anglicanism, especially the ones about gender and sexuality.

OK, all this might sound a bit esoteric, but everything I have been saying applies at parish and local community level just as much as at the level of synods, church leaders and national and diocesan structures. To boil what I have been saying down to a few simple principles, I believe that the survival of the Church of England depends on
  • the continued faithfulness of worshippers.
  • a deep commitment to give service wherever we can.
  • an urgent willingness to listen more to those outside the church and radically to re-interpret our traditions in the light of what we hear. This means changing what we do and how we do it, deciding not to change some things and the wisdom to know the difference.  
  • a refusal to become tribal, defensive and inward looking.
  • greater simplicty.
It is the last three bullet points which we particularly need to give attention to, because we seem to find them difficult to put into practice.

Oh, and many Yorkshire readers will be pleased to know that one of the other Bristish Institutions examined by Matthew Engels is horse racing! (see the Finacial Times 10th June, if you missed it!)

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