Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Painful Truths, Awkward Questions

In the last couple of days I've posted some breakdown of the Church of England attendance data for 2001-2010. Compared to the 1990s, it shows a continued, albeit slower, decline across the CofE. Only London diocese has seen its adult numbers rise from 1990-2010, every other one of the 43 dioceses has seen a decline. It's only slighly better with under-16's, with 3 Dioceses showing an increase in 1990-2010 (London, Canterbury and Southwark).

There are some truly frightening figures here. My own Diocese, Bath and Wells, is one of at least 6 which have seen a fall in adult numbers of over 30% in that 20 year period. Yes we have been sailing into some pretty strong headwinds: membership of all sorts of voluntary groups has been declining, culture is changing, Sundays have vanished as a day of leisure etc.

But, but..... we need to inspect some of those bullet wounds just below the ankle. Is it just possible that we may have got some things wrong? Like:
1. The parish communion movement. The CofE has developed a 'norm' of communion being held in every parish on every Sunday. As parishes have been amalgamated, this has put great pressure on clergy to run around dispensing holy wafers, and stood in the way of churches developing worship to reflect a changing culture. In turn it has become a totem, with many local churches fiercely protective of it. (I know vicars who bear the scars from relatively tame attempts to try somthing different) The original Lords Supper (correct me if I'm wrong) was a Passover meal. These weren't celebrated by a priest bussed in from Jerusalem, but by the head of a household. Once a year. How we got from that to where we are now is, well, too complex to go into. But we need a complete rethink, and yes I'm absolutely fine with so called 'lay presidency' at communion. It would set our clergy and our local churches free.

2. The parish system: there is more than one way for the CofE to be a mission presence in every community, and we don't need to have a building to do it. There are other ways, I think one is called 'people'. We could even (careful now) do this in partnership with other churches, rather than trying to do it all ourselves.

3. I'm afraid we have to ask questions about the quality of leadership in the church, both at local level, but nationally. What have our bishops and archbishops been doing? I applaud George Carey's 'decade of evangelism' in the 1990s (which is seen as a failure, but laid the foundations for some of the best work of the last 10 years) and Rowan Williams championing Fresh Expressions. And yes, the CofE is an impossible beast to lead. But what has our church leadership been doing whilst all this is going on, and how do we hold them to account for it? What is the point of the next General Synod holding 4 (count them) debates on women bishops, if the only decision the first female Archbishop will have to make is who will switch off the lights as they leave the building? Where is the sense of urgency?

Even from down here in Somerset I can smell the breath of fresh air which is Steve Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, making his principal focus as leader of the Diocese mission and church growth. But how many of his colleagues are doing the same? How many of our bishops and Archdeacons ever led a growing church? How many of our Dioceses make it a policy to only train curates in growing churches? And a hundred more questions.

My point is this, if we don't get our finger out on this one, there will not be much point in the church of England debating anything else. With the Ordinariate, we seem to have got more upset over a couple of dozen Papally inclined clergy following through the logic of their theology, than we have over hundreds of thousands of Christians who have lost their faith, left the church, dried out, burnt out or dropped out. And that's not to mention the millions that we've not reached at all.

If any Anglicans have got this far, next time you see your bishop, a question for him: "what are you doing to grow the church in this Diocese?" If he sticks around for a supplementary, then David Cooke has plenty more. And if you're reading this and you're on General Synod, then how about every February synod devoting a session to considering the mission stats that come out every January, and coming up with a plan of action in response?

1 comment:

  1. I'm in Canterbury Diocese. As a diocese we are using the Going for Growth Initiative.

    Some led through Increasing Discipleship, a new Welcome Ministry course and local deanery initiatives.

    Within our benefice we've seen an increase in new families (at a trickle) some as weddings held bring them back afterwards, some through demographics as our 5 villages serve as dormitories for those working in Canterbury and its environs.

    We have active, volunteer led youth groups and utilise outreach through our school and by participation in all community activities.

    Small initiatives seem to work slowly at the start, than build up over time as they are consistently run. We have formed Friends Groups for our historic churches, which bring in more people, including those who are sympathetic towards the church buildings.

    All of this takes time, effort and volunteers and are vulnerable due to that, but the outcomes are a small rise in regular attendance and occasional attendance.

    Stragegic plans are fine, but if they're not resourced well, just don't work. Mission at the local, parish level through building community seems to me to be the way forward, certainly in a rural context.