What does the future hold for the Church of England, and what of the mission of the Church to the nation?
One thing at least is clear. Whereas in the 1960s, the Church could seriously envisage a working staff of some 16,000 full-time clergy (all of them men, incidentally), the Church in 2025 will be working with what, by past standards, would have been regarded as a ‘skeleton crew’.
When I came to the Diocese of Chelmsford in 1983, there were (as I recall) over 600 stipendiary clergy. By 2025, the number of incumbent-level posts will have dropped to 215. To cope with these changes, a diocese of several hundred parishes will be broken down into roughly seventy ‘mission units’ the size of mini-deaneries, each resourced by a centralized team.
Whatever else the future holds, therefore, the days of ‘one parish, one priest’ are over and will not likely return in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog.
The chief reason for this development is simple: recruitment has not kept pace with retirements. Some blame this on lack of imagination, others on lack of money. Whatever, the underlying cause, however, it is not unreasonable to describe the future as ‘life after clergy’.
Yet far from feeling doom and gloom, evangelicals at least ought to be somewhat pleased. It is evangelicals, after all, who have for decades been developing and encouraging the ministry of the whole body of Christ — what, in lay terms, is often called ‘lay ministry’. Finally, the rest of the Church of England is being forced to catch up. As I said at diocesan synod a couple of weeks ago, after working against the grain for so long, it is nice to find the grain has finally moved round to the direction in which we have been going.
Of course, other traditions than evangelicals have been developing the ministry of the body, but historically, though evangelicalism’s ‘lite’ theology of ordination has been an irritation to some, it has nevertheless encouraged the sharing of spiritual responsibility outside the circle of those with their collars turned back-to-front.
It will only be with a massive increase of ‘lay’ ministry that the Church of England will be able to maintain its policy of a presence in every community. If, for example, you have one clergy-person and four or five parishes, as is already the case in parts of the Chelmsford diocese, the choice is simple — either the non-ordained lead and preach or you reduce the number of services.
And if, as is often alleged, the most effective tool for church growth is church-planting, then clearly ‘church-uprooting’, by doing away with the regular, local congregational meeting, is potentially disastrous.
But developing lay ministry ought to do far more than just keep the present show on the road. The Church of England has been toying with lay ministry for decades. Yet despite this, very little has changed. The Church is still highly clericalized. And yet the clergy are fantastically over-stretched. Despite our best intentions, little has changed in practice.
Yet one cannot help wondering whether this is so surprising in an orgnization which insists that if someone is to give out the bread or wine at Holy Communion, they need the authorization of the bishop. Now I am by no means an anti-sacramentalist — on the contrary. But if the Thirty-nine Articles recognize that the unworthiness of the minister does not hinder the effect of the sacrament, what on earth makes us think that giving out the sacrament is an action which requires a certificate from an equally-overstretched bishop?
Arguably, the decline in clergy numbers may finally achieve what our best intentions have hitherto failed to deliver, by finally forcing us into a model of church which, whilst it has room for clergy, is not longer driven by them when it comes to local delivery of ministry.
Rather, the clergy will become more like the Apostles in the New Testament, or as the Chelmsford Diocesan document on the new ministry framework put it, they will themselves become more ‘episcopal’. It will be the local clergy who authorize and equip local ministry, whilst the bishop exercizes, perhaps, a lighter supervisory role.
The immediate question, however, is one of ‘delivery’. How will dioceses like our own deliver laity who can ‘take the lead’ in sufficient numbers within the required time period? And how will we prevent a mere descent into ‘amateurism’? It seems to me this will require a sea change in our spiritual culture.
The fact is that for a considerable period of time the Church of England has esteemed neither learning nor tradition when it comes to doctrine and ministry.
Contrast the mood of the Church of England with that of Islam or Judaism. At least in the conservative wings of both these religions, there is a respect for scholarship and an encouragement of learning. To give just one example, every Muslim (as far as I am aware) is expected to be able to read the Quran in Arabic. Indeed, many can recite it in Arabic in its entirety from quite a young age. Similarly, many Jews are expected to be able to read a text in Hebrew.
Now we should not over-estimate this. In Islam, mere recitation of the text is far more important than understanding it. Yet compare the attitude of Muslims and Jews to that of Christians, where a grasp of Greek and Hebrew is regarded as almost a mystical skill. Indeed, even most clergy have little Greek and no Hebrew whatsoever.
Why is this? The answer, I suggest, is because we have a concept of ‘pastoral ministry’ which emphasizes personal care above intellectual skills. And of course personal care is fundamental. The last thing we want is a community led by the merely intellectual. But might it not be that our attitude to the intellect at this point goes some way to explaining the anti-intellectualism that plagues so much of our Christian doctrinal development and application?
What I am saying is that the future for the Church in its ‘life after clergy’ potentially raises questions we have hardly yet begun to consider and cuts to the very heart of our notion of living the faith and equipping others to do so.
Peronally I am far from despondent. On the contrary, I am excited by the prospect. But I am under no illusions about our ability to deliver. To use a military analogy, of which I am fond, we are like Britain around 1936. Not only are we unready, we have hardly begun to appreciate what we need to get ready for. The next couple of years could be very interesting.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: