Lurking behind many of the current debates on mission, ministry, doctrine and discipleship there is often an unspoken assumption about whether or not the Church of England should be considered in terms of its ‘members’. At one end of the spectrum, some appear to think that it ought to, and that there should be a clear distinction between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. Those at the other end of the spectrum consider this to contradict the notion of a ‘broad church’, and consider such an idea a move from ‘church’ to ‘sect’. They would rather see no clear bounds at all, and ‘membership’ (if that is even an appropriate category) defined by being English (since the Church is for all), or perhaps by self identification. They in turn are viewed by the first group as naive and counter-productive, undermining the possibility of discipleship as a normal part of church life. (For a very funny spoof of this view, go here.)
But this discussion fails to ask a more basic question—not whether the Church ought to have a concept of ‘membership’, but whether it already does. (Note, I am not here asking about membership of the church of God, which was explored previously, but simply what the institution of the Church of England says about itself.)
The first place to look for this is in the Church Representation Rules (CRR). The Rules are available to read online, and the relevant forms about election are also online in an appendix. The relevant sections relate to eligibility for inclusion on the parish Electoral Roll, and similar wording is repeated in a number of place. In the first part of the rules relating to the formation of the Electoral Roll, the wording is as follows:
1. (1) There shall be a church electoral roll (in these rules referred to as ‘the roll’) in every parish, on which the names of lay persons shall be entered as hereinafter provided. The roll shall be available for inspection by bona fide inquirers.
(2) A lay person shall be entitled to have his name entered on the roll of a parish if he is baptised, of sixteen years or upwards, has signed an application form for enrolment set out in Appendix I of these rules and declares himself either –
(a) to be a member of the Church of England or of a Church in communion therewith resident in the parish; or
(b) to be such a member and, not being resident in the parish, to have habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment; or
(c) to be a member in good standing of a Church which subscribes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (not being a Church in communion with the Church of England) and also prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England having habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment.
There are several things to note here.
The first is that the C of E does actually use the language of ‘members’, which might come as a surprise to some.
Secondly, a good number of people read 1 (2) (a) as suggesting that membership of the C of E is about self-selecting identification and residency in the parish. But the first paragraph in 2 adds the stipulation of baptism, which sets out at least one clear ‘boundary condition’ for membership. Any research (for example) which surveys the views of ‘members’ of the Church really ought to include this as a condition.
Thirdly, in 1 (2) (b), if the person is not resident in the parish, there is a stipulation that he or she should ‘have habitually attended public worship in the parish’. This has been interpreted by some to suggest that those who are resident have no expectation of ‘habitual worship.’ But this hardly makes any sense; why would the threshold for membership be higher for those not resident in the parish than those who are resident? Is there really a theology in the C of E which says that, by living within a certain distance of a church building, this somehow constitutes participation in worship? The only sensible way to read this is that it rests on the assumption that, should a baptised person be resident in the parish, and declare themselves to be a member of the C of E, then it goes without saying that they will habitually attend worship in the parish church. The provision for those resident elsewhere requires they attend habitually at that church, rather than their own parish church, to prevent multiple membership.
This is, fourthly, confirmed by the final paragraph, 1 (2) c. Someone is eligible who is resident in the parish, but a member in good standing of another Trinitarian (note: not necessarily episcopal!) Church ‘also prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England having habitually attended public worship in the parish’. This last phrase strongly identifies being a ‘member’ with ‘habitually attending’, which supports the exegesis of paragraph (b).
If that is not persuasive, then it is worth reflecting on the expectations set out in the baptism liturgy. In the Commission (p 72) we find:
As they grow up, they will need the help and encouragement of the Christian community, so that they may learn to know God in public worship and private prayer, follow Jesus Christ in the life of faith, serve their neighbour after the example of Christ, and in due course come to confirmation.
Those who can answer for themselves are asked (p 73):
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will.
Along with the communal language of discipleship drawn from the NT, it is quite clear that ‘habitual attendance at public worship’ is assumed to be an integral expectation for those who are baptised. This explains why the CRR (written first in an earlier, more participatory, age) simply assumes this without making it very explicit at every point. You get the sense that the original authors wouldn’t have contemplated the notion of being a ‘member’ of the Church without ever attending. And why would they if the idea simply wasn’t current?
So the Church of England does use the language of membership. It has a ‘hard’ boundary of membership, in the form of the rite of baptism, but alongside that has an assumption that habitual worship will be the marker of this membership. It is certainly true that this expectation is not expressed in the form of a legal requirement—though it is expressed clearly and explicitly in relation to those non-resident or not baptised as Anglicans.
What does that mean for public discussion of ‘members’ of the Church of England? I think it is pretty clear that few clergy take this understanding of membership into account when revising electoral rolls (for whatever reason)—I am not aware of anyone being refused entry on the ER on the grounds of failing to attend habitually, even though that appears to be the expectation—so it would be rash to equate ER membership with church attendance. The difference between ER and church attendance represents the those who are baptised and continue, in some way, to identify with the C of E—but do not ‘habitually attend.’ If nominal Christian faith is on the decline, then we would expect that ERs would converge to more closely match attendance figures. It would not be too hard to check this by looking at national statistics.
But it is also clear that any discussion of the views or habits of ‘members’ of the Church cannot ignore the questions of whether such people are baptised and whether they actually attend public worship.
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