Stephen Hance is National Lead for Evangelism and Witness for the Church of England. He has written a fascinating Grove Booklet arising from his research in his current role, Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Perceptions of the Church of England. I was able to ask him about his research and its implications for national and local ministry.
IP: Your research on how the Church of England is perceived seems to represent a convergence in your own interests and the current needs of the Church. Can you explain how this all came about?
SH: In 2021, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, the Church of England embarked on a process to articulate a vision and strategy for the next ten years. A number of people who work for the National Church Institutions were asked to prepare background papers which would go to the House of Bishops and others who were working on this. I was asked to write a paper on how the CofE is perceived. My first degree is in sociology, so I was really glad to be asked to do this.
I spent time looking at all the media coverage of the Church of England over the last eighteen months, at every piece of research I could find that touched on the Church from the last five years, and then convening five round table discussions with people inside and outside the Church sharing their own perceptions. The round tables were particularly interesting, not least since, because we were in the early months of the pandemic and everyone was stuck at home, it proved possible to engage people whom I probably would not have been able to involve in normal times.
IP: Some people might respond by saying ‘We should just preach the gospel and get on with the business of ministry’. Why do you think this kind of research matters?
SH: When Paul went to Athens, he didn’t begin by going straight to the Areopagus and preaching the gospel. First he explored the city and reflected on what he saw, and then when he did preach he drew on his reflections so that what he had to say would connect with his audience. Actually, good preaching is never just a matter of just speaking out the gospel. It’s always a matter of finding the space where the gospel might speak into the life of this particular culture.
In one sense the gospel is unchanging. In another sense it always sounds different according to where it is preached. We often fall into the trap of thinking we know how we are perceived or where people stand in terms of their attitudes to God and church and faith. Sometimes those presumptions are right, and sometimes they are not. It’s worth taking the time to listen and learn.
IP: The first attitude you explore is a widespread sense of benign indifference—to the point at which, for an increasing number, the Church just does not feature in their lives at all. Were you surprised to find this? What does it mean for the ministry of the local church?
SH: I wasn’t really surprised at all. I’ve been in Christian leadership of one kind or another since my mid-teens. That’s a long time now. I can obsess as well as anyone else over the minutiae of church life. But these things that seem so important to me, most people never give them a thought. It’s not that people are hostile. They just don’t think about us. Of course, we have contact with lots of non-churchgoers through occasional offices etc, and through people visiting beautiful cathedrals and so on. But even more people don’t have even that contact.
I think of a woman I met at a carol service at Derby Cathedral who told me that she hadn’t been before because she hadn’t known she was allowed to come in. She thought it was for other people, not her. The local church needs to realise that we need to earn the right to share good news by actually being good news in our communities, and realising how intimidating the thought of church can be to many people.
IP: You note that only about on fifth of all church attenders are attending Church of England churches—so we are not even as important as we think within the Christian scene! What implications do you think that has for us?
SH: The key ones are humility and partnership. The Church of England vision speaks of the need to be humbler, and I think that’s right. We can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as powerful and able to do things on our own. But we aren’t, and we can’t, and actually that’s a good thing. We need to partner with other Christian communities to be good news and to share good news in our communities, and to worry more about extending the Kingdom of God and less about sustaining just our own little bit of it.
IP: Despite the benign indifference, you also identify affection something akin to that of an ‘elderly maiden aunt’—though the most negative press about the C of E appears to come from our own conflicts! Is all this a challenge or an opportunity?
SH: It’s both. The ageism and sexism here are not mine but came from a round table participant who said “The CofE is like your elderly maiden aunt. You don’t go to visit her very regularly, and when you do you don’t look forward to it, but when you get there it’s really nice, and you wonder why you don’t go more often.” There is affection there. For some people the very fact that the Church of England looks a bit dusty, a bit out of time, is part of the appeal. They see this more positively than other churches who are perhaps a bit slicker, a bit more pushy about what they believe or what they want to accomplish.
The CofE feels quite unthreatening to a lot of people, and there actually is an opportunity there, to come alongside and walk with people without them being afraid we are going to try to push our faith down their throats. But there is a challenge too, of course. At some point, if people are going to become Christians, then the Christian faith is going to have to become real and vibrant and relevant to them, and we are going to need to be able to articulate it with some clarity and conviction.
IP: It is perhaps most encouraging that the ‘local trumps national’—and that people outside the church pay almost no attention to ‘diocesan’ things. What does that imply for local church ministry?
SH: My research demonstrated that positive or negative encounters, experienced personally or heard about, shape how people think of the whole Church. Many of these encounters are around life events. A friendly, welcoming vicar, a priest who went the extra mile for a funeral family, a parish church that is thoroughly involved in their local school, a church that serves vulnerable people, all make a positive impression. A lack of welcome or inclusion, a feeling that visitors are not wanted by a cliquey in-crowd, does the opposite.
So a local church which engages positively and creatively with its community in very simple ways can gain a good reputation not only for itself but to some extent for the whole CofE. At the same time, a local church which is unwelcoming, unhelpful, or unprofessional will develop a poor reputation which is hard to shake, and which also impacts on how local people see the Church as a whole. And of course all of hat impacts on how open people are to faith.
IP: Your most damning observations come under the heading that the Church is ‘embarrassed about God’, with some commenting that they simply do not know what the Church believes. ‘People do not associate the Church of England with a quest for spiritual experience’. How have we got into this sorry state, and what can we do about it?
SH: Good question, although I don’t think I want to see this as “damning” so much as a friendly albeit sharp challenge that we need to address. How have we got here? Well, partly it’s because of our history as a church in Christendom, with the assumption that everybody was basically a Christian unless they had made a deliberate point of opting out. But that’s not our context anymore. People are growing up three or four generations unchurched. They simply don’t know the Christian story unless we communicate it.
Then a lot of the way the Church of England communicates our faith is through our contribution to the common good. I’m thinking about food banks, street pastors, toddlers’ groups, work with homeless or asylum seekers. We hope that this will point people to our faith, and up to a point it does, except as Tom Holland points out in ‘Dominion’, and said in one of our round table discussions, the problem is that Christianity has so shaped the values of our culture that we don’t realise how specifically Christian these values are. So, the idea of caring for the poor, or the value of every individual, are not in fact shared across every culture, they are culture and faith specific, but they are so embedded in ours that we take them for granted and think everybody basically believes these things even if not everyone does anything very much about them.
We think we’re living out our faith, others think we are just being good people. And the Church gets known for these things, which everyone approves of by and large, rather than what we believe about God, about reconciliation through Christ, about the life of the world to come. So people who want to explore these things go elsewhere. What can we do about it? We need to keep doing the good things that people value and appreciate, and probably do even more of them, while equipping one another to always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have within us.
IP: You offer suggestions throughout as to how readers might respond to these observations in their own witness, life and ministry. Will we also see changes in the strategy of the Church at the centre?
SH: Well, the Church’s vision and strategy which we touched on earlier emphasises three key objectives. We want to become a church of missionary disciples, younger and more diverse, where the mixed ecology is the norm. So, yes, these are changes from the priorities we may have had before. In fact, it’s a change that we even have three clear objectives at all, and these are potentially exciting and life-releasing for the Church.
Over this year you will see new resources being released, such as ‘Everyday Witness’ and ‘Leading in Evangelism’ – resources designed to help us be the Church of England that God is calling us to be, so that every person might have the opportunity to meet and receive Christ.
IP: Thanks for answering my questions—and for all your work in the C of E! We really look forward to seeing all the resources as they come out.
You can order the booklet from the Grove website, post free in the UK or as an ebook PDF.
Stephen Hance is the National Lead for Evangelism and Witness for the Church of England. He has previously served as Dean of Derby, as Director of Mission for Southwark Diocese, and as a vicar of parishes in Southwark and London dioceses. He has written or contributed to a number of books, the most recent of which is Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Perspectives on the Church of England (Grove 2021)