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Has the English Church a future? 1

Who might save the Church?

There was an article on the BBC News web-site recently which began “The Bishop of Truro has said the Church of England has only “five or six years” to save itself’: “radical changes” were needed to halt a “steady decline” he said, and ‘the Church of England will struggle to exist in 10 years.’ This is probably not news to most of us, but what grabbed my attention was the notion that the Church has to save itself. It was not clear if the Bishop actually said that, but all too often those in authority in the Church give the impression that that is what they believe and it gives me considerable cause for concern.

My main ministry is in spiritual direction and the stock question of the spiritual director is ‘Where is God in all this?’ or ‘What is God up to here?’ or even ‘What might God be inviting you to be or do here?’ So naturally I am inclined to ask the same set of questions when faced with the crisis that is undeniably facing the church. And it takes me in quite a different direction from that which the article attributes to the Bishop.

It leads me to assume that the Church’s decline is something which God is bringing about and that there is some divine purpose in it. Our task thence is:

  1.  for each of us to ask ourselves what God might be calling me to be or do at this time?; and to learn to trust it;
  2. to notice what God appears to be calling others to be and do, and to see if there might be things we can do together;
  3. to assume that God is behind all this, and that our role is not to try and control what is happening but rather to trust and follow it. We need not know where we are going. Indeed its best if we don’t, because if we think that we do then we’ll certainly try to control it!

It’s a fundamental tenet of Christianity that we can’t save ourselves, only God can do that, and the same applies to the Church. To ask what the Church must do to save itself implies the opposite: that this is a problem that the Church has to solve by itself, or worse still solve by managing it, and it leads to what one senior churchman described to me recently as a culture of ‘institutional atheism’. A church that talks a lot about God but when push comes to shove appears to place its faith in secular management techniques rather than in the activity of the God about Whom it speaks.

[Read part 2.]


  1. Rev Mike Catling

    Yesterday I conducted 2 carol services in my 9 church rural parish with a population of around 2500 people. The combined attendance was 135 people, who for whatever reason decided to come and hear again in contemporary ways the telling of the Christmas birth narratives. They come because something draws them and they connect in ways that often they cannot express in words. They are in biblical language ‘working out their own salvation.’ This is the one time of the year – more so than at Easter – when ‘non-churchgoers’ feel able to come and share and enjoy the spiritually festive story of the Light that says to the darkness ‘I beg to differ.’ The spirituality of this season offers hope and connects with our human longing for peace.

    All of this contrasts with the growing obsession, conscious or otherwise, with the Church’s need ‘to save itself.’ The Church is not hearing what the Spirit is saying to it. The Church is not ‘the kingdom of God’ or anything like it.

    Like the Magi, the Church is being led by an unexpected path to an unexpected place and it cannot control – despite its best efforts – where the journey will end. I think the Church is in a phase of its life when it needs to be prepared to look in unexpected places and for unexpected people.

  2. Ruth Yeoman

    I am a vicar and a trustee of the Annunciation Trust. The period since Christmas Day has given me some time to think about Henry’s reflection. and offer a few words.

    In the village where I live there are at least three different expressions of Christian worship taking place most Sundays. Christians in the locality are volunteering in many ways to provide care, support, understanding, meaning and presence in the local school, an Abbeyfield home, a church cafe, through electronic communications and all over the village. In the workplace there are other opportunities. Already the English church is beginning to look very different. People felt free to come to church over the Christmas period as part of their Christmas celebrations and we went out to other places in the village to celebrate the story and good news of Christmas. This is both a joy and an encouragement.

    One of the joys and challenges of the Church of England is that we are the church of the state. The state as we know has focused predominantly around economy, with devastating consequences over the last decade. During this same period the institutional side of our life has grown ever more complex and statutory, with little new formal infrastructure at the local level to manage it. My hunch is that if you drill down much of this comes back to finance. Rightly or wrongly up until recently I spent a considerable amount of my time dealing with quite a lot of this. I still do, but I have moved more of my attention towards God and people, being with people and God, and building the connections between people, and between people and God more overtly. I am only partially successful at this as I need to make this same commitment in my own life to the world and to God. This is the place where I seem to be stuck and it is a great stuck place to be; to be faithful to God myself. Maybe this is my resolution for 2015. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have a problem with this as an idea, an ideal, a hope, but I do struggle to give enough time and energy to be faithful to God first (ie a whole day off, a retreat week, days spent in re-creation, enough physical exercise, reading, meeting and doing things with people outside the church and hours spent in silence and prayer!)…….. Then I pray that the life of the church will follow on. Like Henry, I don’t believe that the salvation of the church is in our hands. I also really think that the church will look very different very soon!

  3. Tony Connell

    As ever Henry provides a challenging perspective on the nature and potential future of the Church – dead or alive!

    Just to make my position clear from the outset, my personal experience of religious institutions is that if you want to avoid God then they’re a great place to hang out.

    The English Church is clearly an institution in decline – fewer worshipers in the pews and dissent in the ranks. The figures are truly desperate; while non-Christian faiths have grown in strength and evangelical churches flourished, the Church of England has been in constant decline since the Second World War. Although half the population profess to be Anglicans, only 2% of the population attend church on a weekly basis with an average age in excess of 60. The decline in paid clergy is even more stark with present trends indicating clergy would disappear within half a century.

    Born of political necessity in the 16th century the English Church has only survived thus far by asserting itself as a bastion again Roman Catholicism in its earlier existence and more recently as a place for societal rites of passage (births, deaths and marriages). It has long been associated with class and privilege, owns large tracks of land and has a significant international property and investment portfolio. All of this is in stark contrast to the true essence of spirituality so eloquently articulated by Henry in his article. If the Church can rid itself of the shackle of being the ‘established Church of the State’ then it would be better equipped to reach out to the young, the poor and those marginalised in our communities; essentially, it will have relevance in the modern world. If this country needs an ‘established’ Church at all then it has to be an organisation which can talk to all its multi-cultural citizens.

    So let’s save a fortune, ditch the buildings and reinvest the money in the ministry of community development. Home churches can change venues and times to be more adaptable and responsive to the community’s needs – taking the church to the people will really illustrate that the Church is people not place. No longer having a static place of worship will also allow for the fluidity and blurring of the secular and sacred as described by Henry. So the Church gets put together differently in different communities and different cultures and most importantly in ways that are relevant to the new congregation.

    Although Henry talks about a potential death of the Church, maybe it’s about facilitating a re-generation and re-birth. Adaptation using the Churches greatest asset – not its material riches – its people. Oh, if the last person could just turn the light out please.

    Tony Connell

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