Thursday, December 24, 2020

Covid Carols

Good King Wenceslas logged out
Feeling much dejection
All the slots had been booked out
For Tesco collection
Not deliveries there were
For his sauce and pasta
He would have to fight his way
Through the queues at ASDA
Angels from the realms of glory
Kindly stay right in your place
We’ve no wish to get infected
Have you heard of hands face space?
Sing that song at us
Don’t you realise
Droplets travel further
Have to isolate
We can’t emigrate
No way through at Dover
Wash you hands and please don’t sing
Now mask ye quickly gentlemen don’t mingle here today
We need your names for track and trace the church guidance doth say
Our distanced seating’s full so please book in for next Sunday
And we’re streaming on Facebook and Zoom
Meeting Room
And we’re streaming on Facebook and Zoom
See them dining now in Tier 4
Masks at table and an open door
All precautions so the covid spores
Don’t land on the Christmas turkey
How to eat up Brussel Sprouts for 10?
We disinvited
Aunty Gwen
At least we won’t get ugly socks again
And bits of gaudy paper chain.

While Donald watched the count at night
Saw he was losing ground
Upon his laptop did alight
And tweeted all around
"Fear not", said Pence, for mighty dread
Had seized his coiffured hair
"That Biden's old, he's got not chance
So please Boss don't despair"

All lawyers heed, clear schedules now
And double up your fee
For Trump will not admit defeat
Till 2023

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Reality Check

I've just has this in an email, relaying a Zoom conversation with Christians in Madagascar. 

The diocesan economic development coordinator Ialy has recently returned from a trip to his village in the far south of the island. Good time? Patsy asked. No, Ialy said. His aunt had been used to monthly visits from his cousins, who live 75 km away in a village which is even more remote than hers. Last month they didn’t turn up; nor this month. So she decided to go and see what was happening. She travelled the 75km by ox cart, which is the usual means of transport, and arrived to find that the entire family, parents and three children, had died three days earlier from starvation. They hadn’t been able to come to town to sell their charcoal because the oxen were too weak; they themselves had been too weak to walk. So they hadn’t been able to ask for help.

 One story, one family. But that story is being repeated all over the far south of Madagascar, which falls within this huge, young diocese. They are trying to get rice and beans to the area to keep people alive. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Random Opinions

The government decision to cut foreign aid is a terrible one, and will cost thousands of lives. It's great that we've produced a low cost vaccine for the world, but pulling the plug on essential programmes will be catastrophic. The Conservatives have had plenty of practice at U-turning this year so hopefully they can put that to good use on this one. 

Justin Welby is perfectly entitled to a sabbatical. I would say that, I'm having one at the same time. We don't have a pop at Jesus because he was only in active ministry for 3 years, took 40 days out in the desert, and repeatedly disappeared off to pray without taking his mobile phone with him. The NHS has sabbaticals and nobody complains that the doctors should get back to work and stop faffing about. If you were in charge of an 80 million member organisation, you might need a bit of time out yourself. 

The news about Megan Markle's miscarriage is very sad, but she was worthy of respect and courtesy before we found out about it. If you were ripping her to shreds before, don't bother feigning concern now. 

The maths of the Christmas bubbling bothers me. If you can spend up to 5 days in the same house as 2 other households, and 1 of you has got covid, the chances are that everyone else in the house will have it by the time you go home. The R rate will go through the roof won't it?

We see the Premier League footballers taking a knee on Match of the Day every week, but has anything actually changed in their sport? They also could show a bit of concern for their fellow footballers by offering a tithe of their wages to clubs in the lower leagues. £950,000 (10% of Gareth Bales annual salary) is around half the wage bill of some lower league clubs. Gareth if you already give it away, well done you.

Joe Biden is a flawed human being too, I hope our media don't do a Barack Obama on him and turn him into some sort of Messiah. He will be a better president than Donald Trump. He will make mistakes. Those two things are about all we can be sure about. 

Remember, 25% of what I say is wrong, the trouble is I don't know which 25%

Church Growth in the Church of England - the other side of the story

After depressing everyone with the latest CofE membership stats the other day, it was encouraging to read some very good news in this General Synod report

Yes you heard that right. The Strategic Development Fund is a 10 year project by the CofE to invest in mission. It focuses on areas where the church is struggling to make an impact - mostly deprived urban areas, children and youth. 

Here are some snapshots from the report, of the impact the funding is having:

 - In a seriously deprived parish in Bristol Diocese, a weekly meal after Sunday worship started in 2019 and feeds dozens from the neighbourhood, for many it's their only hot meal of the week. A midweek service (with food) aimed at addicts and life recovery now has a congregation of 30-40, with several coming to faith. 

 - Rochester diocese’s project to invest in church growth in four priority parishes will include growing two new ministries established at Christ Church Anerley: Kings Car Wash helps ex-offenders to get back into work habits and Kings Boxing works with young gang members as an alternative to knife crime.

 -  A project awarded SDF in Leeds diocese has plans to support those battling addictions and mental health problems in the deprived town of Keighley, including launching a social enterprise with a coffee shop and prayer space.

 - Birmingham Diocese have been placing Children and Families workers in several parishes, and seen 800 new disciples in churches which are hosting them.

 - Canterbury diocese’s ‘Ignite’ project, which was awarded SDF in June 2018 to develop new worshipping congregations in the most deprived areas of the diocese and the Channel Islands, has launched eight new communities with attendance already of nearly 350 and testimonies emerging of lives being deeply touched and changed. 

 - At ‘Top Church’, a new church-planting-church in the deprived town of Dudley in Worcester diocese the worshipping community grew to 110 at the end of the first year (far exceeding the anticipated target of 30 in the first year) with four people exploring ordained ministry.

So far it's estimated that over 10,000 people have become new disciples through these projects, many 
of which are in a very early stage. 

And the report finds that intentionality in mission is fundamental. Churches grow where they have an active, outward-facing focus to create opportunities to develop new relationships; and then find ways to intentionally share the gospel with those new contacts, whether through explorer courses, social engagement, small groups, appropriate forms of worship, or through one-to-one discipleship.

All of which applies just as much to individual churches as it does to a national fund. I just pray that all of these have found a way to continue and to grow through Covid.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Government Consultation on 'Faith Engagement'

The government has just launched a survey on how it engages with faith groups, with an online consultation open for 4 weeks. Here's part of the introduction:
On 10 October 2019, the government announced that Colin Bloom had been appointed as the Faith Engagement Adviser at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
As Faith Engagement Adviser, Colin is leading a review into how best the government should engage with faith groups in England. He will make recommendations to the Communities Secretary about how the government can best celebrate and support the contribution of faith groups, break down barriers and promote acceptance between faiths, and promote shared values while tackling cultures and practices that are harmful.
Colin Bloom’s initial proposal is to structure the review around 4 main sections:
  • the first section asks the question, “Are faith groups, places of worship and people of faith a force for good in society?”
  • the second section explores the extent to which government and its agencies have sufficient faith literacy and considers the partnership between faith groups and the State
  • the third section looks at some aspects where harm might be caused through religious or faith-based practices and a review of the government’s role in tackling them
  • the fourth and final section will be a set of recommendations for the government to consider and respond to
The call for evidence will pose a series of questions around how those of all faiths, or none, perceive the government’s engagement with faith groups. Because the review is specifically about faith and religion, priority will be given to responses that fit within those parameters. However, space is given for respondents to share their views in a way that they feel is appropriate.
Respondents should feel free to make use of a range of sources, reports, case studies, surveys or even personal anecdotes to underpin their points where a general response is requested.
There will doubtless be well co-ordinated campaigns by interest groups to flood the responses with a particular message. It would be great if it was just filled out by ordinary people, so the government hears what's actually happening, rather than just getting the same shrill voices by another means. 
A few notes on the survey itself
 - you may find some of the questions phrased in an odd way, I wouldn't describe myself as 'having a Belief' - I have a relationship with God through Jesus which is sustained and expressed in conversation (aka prayer), action, attitudes etc., the same way that most relationships are sustained and expressed. I 'believe' that vaccines will make 2021 a better year than 2020 in terms of covid, but that thought/process is of a completely different order to my faith. There's a definition of 'Belief' on the very last page of the survey, which is ok, but it would be better to spell it out on page 1 so people know what they're agreeing to!
 - there are 50 questions, with opportunities to say both what positive contributions churches/faith groups make to society, schooling etc., and what you think is negative. There are plenty of comments boxes, so even where an answer is multiple choice, there's usually a chance to expand on your ideas. 
 - the survey is happy to take citations and evidence, so I would think the more of this you can supply the better. I've answered one of the earlier questions, on the positive impact of faith on society, with quite a few hyperlinks, covering everything from John Wesley to Street Pastors.
 - if you're not fussed about commenting, you could take 15 minutes to complete this. But you could spend hours on it. 
'History is made by those who turn up' - I never know how much notice is going to be paid to these things, but it doesn't appear to be a survey with an agenda (like previous government ones on, e.g., marriage). A good clutch of positive responses from Christians, church leaders and Christian agencies may be a fruitful use of time. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Review: Seven Sacred Spaces by George Lings

 Back in the days when books were published on paper, and the literature about Fresh Expressions and emerging church could fit on a single shelf, the Church Army began producing Encounters on the Edge. Written by George Lings and his research team, they profiled the growing number of church plants and experiments happening around the UK. Lings visited, interviewed, reflected, and drew lessons for the wider church. 

As well as feeding into the whole Fresh Expressions/Mission Shaped Church initiative in the CofE, one or two of the Encounters took on a life of their own. 'Seven Sacred Spaces', published in 2009, was picked up in a variety of settings, including an entire Welsh Diocese, and is now a full length book. Bible Reading Fellowship, the publishers, have also published a suite of study, follow up and application materials

If you want Lings' summary of the Seven Sacred Spaces, its here. In brief, his work focused on monastic communities ancient and modern, and the discovery that the same key spaces were found regularly across all of them. These spaces expressed different aspects of monastic life, and Lings explores whether they give us a creative and fruitful template for discipleship and church life. The 7 spaces are

Chapel – for worship together

Cell – for personal prayer

Scriptorium – for study and passing on learning

Garden/Kitchen – for work/service

Refectory – for hospitality

Chapter house – for decision making

Cloister - for community - planned and unplanned encounters. 

Lings questions whether local church life, which invariably focuses on the 'Chapel' - both the building and the act of corporate worship - is missing a trick. Many local churches have a thin parody of the other 6 spaces if they have anything all, from grim coffee (refectory) to a dated bookstall (scriptorium),  with work nowhere to be seen. What would we look like if we had a balance of all 7? 

The 7 Sacred Spaces book takes us through Lings discovery of the 7 spaces, with a chapter explaining each one in more depth and looking at where it is found in the Bible, in monastic rules and Christian communities, and in the world at large. One chapter shows how different groups have put the Spaces into practice, and there are separate sections applying the Spaces to mission, discipleship and life (the chapter on the latter is mostly a critique of current church practice). Lings, refreshingly, closes the book by downplaying it, cautioning against taking these insights as a new reformation or a silver bullet, but as a resource, lens, portal or diet which can help us grow more in our life in Christ: ‘the mental battle of living a life in Christ, alone and together, is central. The spaces are but the arenas in which that life is played out’

Each chapter is worth reading on its own - the chapter on Cell will help you reflect on your personal prayer life, the chapter on Chapel should be required reading for anyone looking to rethink their church building. I can't remember the last time I read a good Christian reflection on meetings, despite the fact we spend a large proportion of our life in them. But in the Chapter chapter, Lings throws out this challenge “The church should be a community where decision making together becomes sacred, because it faces down grumbling and judging, and where it listens well, because it expresses mutual respect and humility. Bring it on.” 

The section on Cloister - the connecting place in the monastery which allowed for meetings, as well as bumping into the people you wanted to avoid - focuses on the quality of community life. 'Community is the cheese grater of the soul'  The monastic rules tend to say very little about what happens in these spaces, but often this is where the quality of community is found out. Every organisation has rules, but studying the rules won't tell you what it's like to work or live there. 

 There are plenty of insights in the chapters on Work (garden) study (scriptorium) and hospitality (refectory), each of which is probably a post in its own right. Whether you buy into the 7 Sacred Spaces or not, each of these is worth a read on its own. How do we rediscover work as a spiritual practice, part of the 'work of God? What would a church look like if it was centred on a kitchen and shared table rather than a worship space? In a culture which churns through information and attention at high speed, how do we treasure and pass on true knowledge? 

Our Story Part 1

Skip this bit if you want to get back to the book. St Peters church on the Westfield estate in Yeovil is one of the two churches I'm vicar for. Last year we demolished the 50 year old church hall and built a new Community Centre, wrapped around the church. We've ended up with a single building, with a kitchen/cafe area at its heart (refectory), connected by a single door to the church building (worship). The vision for the centre includes skills and learning (scriptorium - we have a mini library in the building already), drop in (cloister), and as a hub for volunteers and the local community association to use to serve the community (work/service). Committees are part of the running of the place (chapter). The vision is not simply to be a building for hire, but to be a community hub which brings positive change to the community - better literacy, skills and employment levels, less isolation, better mental and physical health, stronger community etc. During lockdown, the sole users have been a health team, the local community midwives, which is a bit of a nod to the '8th space' of hospitals and hospices which were often found in monasteries and convents. 

The 7 Sacred Spaces has given us a framework for thinking about the mission of the new Community Centre, and how it expresses the life of the church. More than that, it has given us a way of looking at discipleship. We had an away day in a nearby village hall last year. During it, we tried to tease out the values which underpinned each of the 7 Spaces. For Cloister, we identified Availability. One of the group took a walk through the village during our extended lunch break, and deliberately sought to put that into practice. She came back bouncing with excitement, having had several conversations with complete strangers as she ambled slowly up the main street, smiling at anyone she met. She now makes it her practice to 'bimble' around Westfield, usually taking way longer than she'd planned to get anywhere, because of the 'chance' conversations she gets into. 

The main mission activity of St Peters is..... wait for it.... a coffee morning. Is that it? you cry. But Mondays 'Community Coffee' (Refectory/Cloister), held initially in the church and now in the cafe space, has been the way into church membership for several people over the last 5 years. A couple of years ago when Christmas Day fell on a Monday, the regulars all asked for it to continue on Christmas Day as many of them were living alone, and 15 of them turned up. St Peters has grown from 15 to 50 in the last 10 years, principally by prayer, hospitality, and being available to the community. 

Our Story Part 2

Lockdown shut us out of our churches back in March, and did so again last week. Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth lurks the question: is there a way of being church which doesn't depend on gathering together in the same building at the same time every week? Can we be a local church if we can't meet as one body for worship? Again, the 7 Sacred Spaces offer a tantalising answer. Is it possible to be a local Christian community based on some form of rule of life and set of shared values and practices? They include corporate worship, but they aren't defined or exhausted by it. So when corporate worship stops, the church continues. 

So we created a workbook of bible meditations with a week on each theme, and encouraged people to meet in 2s and 3s to reflect together each week on what God was saying. And a set of videos on each theme to complement them. And quite a few people - both from St Peters and from the main parish church -  have taken these up and found them powerful and helpful. Where we go next..... we don't know!

Questions and Comments

1. I would recommend the book for anyone who is frustrated with how we do church now, and wonders if there is a better way, but is weary of cavalry charge solutions. Lings is always worth reading, and you are bound to find something which challenges or stimulates you.

2. I see that the original 7 Sacred Spaces booklet is no longer available online. That's a shame - there are people who might read a 40 page booklet but not a 220 page full length book. The BRF resources are some help here, but there's still a space for a substantial explanation of the 7 Sacred Spaces which isn't book length. 

3. There are 3 areas where I was longing for the book to go further

 - Biblical material: in some chapters there were fewer Biblical examples than I'd expected, and some of the 7 Spaces take on different qualities when seen through the lens of scripture. For example, if Cloister is to do with availability, then you see this time and again in the mission of Jesus and the early church (many of Jesus healings, the beggar at the beautiful gate, Philip). The workbook we produced on the 7 spaces is based on a daily bible reflection over 7 weeks, and there were dozens of possible verses and stories which didn't make the cut. 

 - Mission and outreach: monastic rules tend to be inward looking, and focus solely on those who are in the monastic community. There are missional ways to look at prayer, study, hospitality, work, and cloister. Lings notes with sadness that mission - sharing the good news of Jesus - has disappeared completely from the Franciscan 3rd order. This is a failing shared by the local/institutional church too. 

 - Social transformation: which connects to the previous point. After the fall of the Roman Empire (bear with me), monasteries play a significant role in the history of Europe. As well as spreading the Christian faith, they became the hub for thousands of towns and cities. They transformed the land, draining and irrigating swathes of territory to make it productive. They preserved and passed on learning - monastic libraries were often the only place literature was kept safe, and the monks themselves were among the few people who could read and write, so often ended up in key administrative positions. The monasteries housed travellers, cared for the sick, educated the young, invented new technology, developed trades (those Belgian monastic beers......) and pursued science (Bacon, Grosseteste, Copernicus, Lull, Ockham). Though Lings notes that several voices are calling for a renewed form of Christian community within society, there is more to be said about the initial impact of such communities when they first spread across the UK, and what we could learn from this. 

4. How the 7 Sacred Spaces can underpin both an individual and a shared rule of life. This brings things back full circle, as the monastic spaces are themselves expressions in architecture of the monastic rules. There are glimpses of this in the stories Lings shares, but I guess we don't know what this really looks like until there are communities living it. 

I'm so grateful to George Lings for doing this work, and putting it into a framework which can be used in so many different ways. The 7 Sacred Spaces framework is a challenge to the way we 'do church', and Lings calls for a form of Christian community life which gives equal weight to all 7, rather than orbiting 6 as minor satellites around the Chapel space. Historically, the Church of England has always seen worship as the defining activity within the parish church. Out main buildings are for worship, and our main investment in human resources - clergy - puts them in a special caste of worship leaders. But in the days prior to the parish system, it was monasteries which spread the faith and established new Christian communities. Maybe a community along these more holistic lines is a more suitable form of church for  post-Christian England than parishes centred on a worship building for a gathered congregation. And covid makes this an even more pressing question. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Archbishops Lockdown Letter

 The letter below was issued yesterday by the two CofE Archbishops, and the Bishop of London. It centres on a call to make November a month of prayer. I spotted the letter this morning on Thinking Anglicans, a few minutes after a conversation about our monthly parish prayer meeting, which we'd scheduled for Thursday. Which all now seems quite timely...

To the clergy of the Church of England

1 November 2020

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Greetings to you on this All Saints Day and as we are reminded again that we are indeed part of a universal company of saints.

We are writing to you to set out some of our thinking in the light of the most recent announcement by the Prime Minister. We are very aware that details are still not clear and there is much discussion still to be had about what the impact of the new lockdown will mean. We are also writing to assure you of our prayers for you and our thanks for all you do. We are clear that we do now need to call all Christian people to pray and to do so continually over this next month. In this letter as well as reflection we also set out an invitation to you to join in this call to prayer and to keep both praying and serving our communities.

This is a difficult and challenging time for all of us. We are sure that some of you reading this letter will wish we had made other decisions during the period of the first lockdown, or even challenged the government harder on the decisions it has made. You may be right. However, it is our view that the best way we can serve our nation now is by pouring our energy into doing the things that we can do, which is to pray and to serve. We also dare to hope that we will be kind to each other and that God will give us the courage and humility we need to be faithful witnesses to the gospel of peace.

A second lockdown will be upon us on Thursday. It is going to be different from the first one. The days are getting shorter and colder. We are anxious for ourselves, for those we love, especially those who are vulnerable and elderly, and for our families. We know that this pandemic is having a devastating effect on our economy and on people’s mental health. Thousands of people are dying. The National Health Service is being stretched to the limit. We also know and must continue to bear witness to the fact that the poorest communities in our nation are suffering the most. We are in for a long haul. It is going to be a hard winter.

But this second lockdown will also be different in other ways. There is much that we have learned from the first lockdown and there is much to celebrate and be proud of. Of course we are full of gratitude and respect for the amazing courage and commitment of all key workers especially those working in the NHS. Their contribution is rightly and widely recognised. We also applaud the many creative ways that churches up and down the land have been serving their local communities and working with others to make sure that the hungry are fed and the vulnerable cared for. We have managed to maintain and, in many cases, extend our outreach by streaming worship online and by developing other ways of building community online.

We are grateful for people’s energy, hard work and creativity in making this happen and we hope and pray this will continue. We are grateful that the new guidelines being introduced on Thursday not only allow churches to remain open for private prayer but also enable online worship to be broadcast from the church building. We were cautious about these issues during the first lockdown – perhaps overly so – but in this second lockdown we want to encourage church buildings to remain open for private prayer wherever possible, making sure that their buildings are Covid secure in the ways that we have learned in recent months, and to broadcast services from their church buildings. However, if you do not have the resources or wherewithal to do this, please do not feel that you have failed in any way. The good thing about provision of worship online, is that people can join in from anywhere and therefore we can support each other more easily in this endeavour. Our national digital team will continue to offer training and support and provide national services each week.

However, worship online still means that the people of God do not have access to the sacraments which are so central to our life in Christ. This is a huge loss and since we were not consulted about the lockdown provisions, we fully intend to speak with government about why certain exemptions are made and not others, emphasising the critical role that churches play in every community. The sacramental life of the church cannot be seen as an optional extra. Nor can we separate out our worship from our service, it is always both and not either or.

Nevertheless, we will of course abide by the law and ask you to do the same. We must do all that we can to keep our communities safe and to enable the NHS to manage this crisis. The Recovery Group chaired by the Bishop of London will be issuing specific guidance in the next day or two.

Bearing in mind our primary vocation as the Church of Jesus Christ to pray and to serve we call upon the Church of England to make this month of lockdown a month of prayer. More than anything else, whatever the nation thinks, we know that we are in the faithful hands of the risen Christ who knows our weaknesses, tiredness and struggles and whose steadfast love endures for ever.

Above all we recall people to some of the fundamental spiritual disciplines that shape our Christian life. How we do this is up to each congregation and clergy person. We will publish resources to support you before the first day of lockdown. During the first lockdown we cheered for the NHS every Thursday. During this second lockdown we invite you to fast in a way appropriate to you as well as pray for our nation every Thursday, for its leaders, its health and essential services and all those who suffer.

We thank you for your service and ministry and pray that God will sustain you and encourage you. After consulting the House of Bishops we will be writing a more general letter to the whole nation we serve, a letter expressing the hope we have and calling for courage, calm and compassion.

In one of the climactic passages of the New Testament, Paul says to those who follow Christ that their “love must be genuine, that they hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” He asks them to “serve the lord”, exhorting them to “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (See Romans 12.9-12.) None of this is easy. Especially not at the moment. But it is our calling.

Yours in Christ,

The Most Revd & Rt Hon Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury

The Most Revd & Rt Hon Stephen Cottrell

Archbishop of York

The Rt Revd & Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally

Bishop of London

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Last Chance To See...... Church of England Membership and Attendance Stats 2019

 The Church of England has published its latest 'Statistics for Mission' for 2019, links to the various documents - press release, Excel spreadsheets (did 16,000 members drop off the end?) etc. can be found here. You'll find analysis of previous years stats here

The more upbeat the press release, and the further you have to go before it mentions church membership and attendance, the worse you know it's going to be. This year is no exception. After making a great deal of social action and digital engagement it's paragraph 15 of 16 before we discover that attendance was down a further 2% from the previous year. Here are the figures for 'Adult Weekly Attendance' (average no of adults attending worship each week) for the last 5 years. 

And here are figure over the same period for children:

Hereford has seen an increase from 1000 to 1300 during the 5 years the stats cover. Otherwise, the overall picture among under-18s is worse than it is among adults. 

I've been keeping track of these stats, inspired by Bob Jackson, as far back as they go. A few years ago, church growth enthusiasts like myself were encouraged to see London Diocese bucking the trend, and hoping that where the capital led, the country would follow. Sadly not, here's the stats since the beginning of the century - as you can see above, London is now on the same trajectory as everyone else: 

This is a catastrophic decline. The Church of England now is where the Methodists were a few years ago (305,000 members in 2003, 170,000 now), and the URC a few years before that. The figures for children, as always, are worse: 

There is a generational feed through into other church activity - we are baptising 9% of children, marrying 17% of couples getting married, and taking the funerals of 25% of those who die. Each of these is down 30-40% over the last 10 years, and there is a clear progression through the generations. 

The report does find some good news - over 90,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2019, with a significant proportion being first time church members

10% of parishes are reporting growth, but 4x the number report statistically significant decline. Overall growing churches are still a tiny minority, but some new churches have been planted - 90 recorded in the stats, who have seen their membership more than double since 2016. 

Finally, I'm always interested in this chart, which gives a fascinating cross-section of what the 'average' church looks like:

Translation: the top 5% of churches have an average weekly congregation of 185 or more, of which 1/6 are children. A church exactly in the middle of the 16000 Anglican churches in terms of size has 31, of which 6% - 2 - are children. The largest churches have a larger 'fringe' of non-members, sustainable numbers of children and youth, and enough people to comfortably fill the building. The one upside of social distancing is that the smaller churches can still meet as a whole congregation, since there's plenty of room in the average church for 20 people to sit on their own at the same time. 

By accident rather than design, the Church of England has ended up with a Tesco structure. Tesco has a small number of 'Tesco Extra' megastores (Cathedrals), about 15% of its outlets are 'Tesco Superstore' (large church, kids and youth work, several outreach projects, sizeable fringe), there's a few 'Tesco Metro' stores which are scaled down versions of the superstores (75th percentile churches), but 3/4 are either Tesco Express or One Stop, small corner shop versions, providing local access to a core selection of produce. The management, logistics and life of a megastore is very different to that of Tesco Express, though they all carry the same branding, and some shared products. 

Here's the thing. Half of our churches, 8000 of them, have 26 adults or fewer on a Sunday. If you had 26 people to form a Christian presence in a community, you wouldn't start from here. You wouldn't have a listed building which costs thousands to heat and insure. You wouldn't have the protocols for running the church written into law. You wouldn't have so many aspects to Sunday worship (warden, verger, organist, reader, prayer leader, vicar, sidesperson) that there's barely anyone there who isn't there because they're on a rota. You wouldn't open an Anglican Extra, you'd have an Anglican Express. In fact, you probably wouldn't open a building at all. 

Covid will make the figures for 2020 such a mess that there probably isn't any point collecting them, and 2021 may not be much better. As many have observed, it is accelerating changes that were already happening. Businesses on the edge are shutting down. Trends towards online shopping have increased. What does that mean for the church? There is nothing in the stats to suggest that we are about to turn a corner. Or if we are, it's turning in the opposite direction to the one we want. There are islands - many islands (1600 according to the stats) of growth, many others holding their own, and making a life-changing contribution to local individuals and communities. 

But. But...... the parish system hasn't changed since it was introduced towards the end of the Dark Ages. The overall structure of the CofE hasn't changed for a century. The buildings we operate on haven't changed for (insert your own figure here). The structure of deployment, church life, legal framework seems set in concrete. Witness the absurd debate about communion since lockdown. Don't get me started. 

Maybe the Bishops should have shut us down for longer at the start of covid. Because we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Any church that doesn't have a life without it's building, or its Sunday gathering, has been so shaped by them that it has ceased to be a church. Instead of hanging on until we could re-open, maybe 12 months of 'being church' without 'the church' would have done us some good, if we'd allowed it to shape us. For many of our folk it was a break: suddenly the small army of people involved on a Sunday morning could forget the rota, roll out of bed, make a coffee and switch on Youtube. Sure it's great to involve people, but we pour so many resources into worship, and the building and professional caste that make it happen, that there's precious little energy, time and money left for anything else. 

The church in its present form will have to die. It is dying. It's slow and drawn out because we don't have the nerve, or the structures, to make clear and painful decisions. Political debate today is dominated by whether we need a 'circuit breaker' lockdown. I'd argue the CofE needs the same. Shut everything. Pray and seek God. Stop wasting energy, lives and talent on a structure and system which, in most places, no longer works.