Is the C of E a sinking ship?

cache_a1d87f158cdc877afe8b4214aec625e2Last week I spoke with Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, on whether the C of E was drinking at last chance saloon on a sinking ship. You can read a good write-up of it by Madeleine Davies at the Church Times. Since I don’t really drink, and have never been to a saloon, I focused on the metaphor of the sinking ship.

It was timely, since the previous weekend I had watched the Boat Race; the same two teams were in the final once again. As we watched the smooth, confident powerful movements of the Oxford crew pulling away from Cambridge floundering in the head wind as they both left the Hammersmith Bridge, I turned to one of my children and said ‘You know, one year one of the boats sank.’ They were incredulous—how could such an apparently secure boat actually sink?

Many people feel the same kind of astonishment about the idea of the C of E as a sinking ship. How could an institution which such a history, so deeply embedded in the history and social structures of the country, possibly be sinking? As a result, I have noticed five different responses.

1. OMG we are sinking!

For many in local churches and local church leadership, the astonishment can quickly turn to a kind of low-key despair. We are continuing to do the things we always did, yet in the past they brought results where now they seem ineffective. Or, worse, we are working harder and it is producing less fruit. Particularly in rural ministry, there is a sense of being stretched ever more thinly, ‘like butter spread over too much bread’ (said Bilbo in Lord of the Rings), and to no great effect. In this context, the last thing clergy or congregations feel they need to hear is a sense of rebuke from bishops and other leaders for the situation.

2. OMG we are sinking!

This second response sounds like the first, but is used in a different way. I think it was George Carey who coined the idea that ‘the church is always one generation away from extinction’. This is intended as a kind of rallying cry, an invitation to buck up our ideas and roll up our sleeves—but I am not sure it is very helpful. To take an example from my former occupation, it is true to say that Mars Confectionery is only one day away from bankruptcy, in that if from today no-one bought any more Mars Bars, then the company would go bust. But I am not sure that it is particularly helpful to think in these terms; it really gives few insights into either theology or practice.

3. You just need to row harder.

The commentary on the 1978 Boat Race is comic as well as tragic: ‘Cambridge are sinking…Cambridge are sinking…Cambridge have sunk!’ But what is striking about the film of the race, captured in the photograph above, is how long they continued to row when it was evidently futile. The stroke (at the back of the boat) is completely underwater—yet he is still trying to row, as if, by some herculean effort, the crew might be able to drive the boat back above the waves.

oxford_2160369bThis is one criticism of some the ‘Reform and Renewal’ reports, and in particular the ‘Green’ report on senior leadership. If only we are a bit smarter, if only we adopt the best business practices, then everything will come right. I am in complete agreement with Pete Broadbent that we need to face reality and act intelligently, but I don’t agree with his judgement of a number of the papers. I don’t quite understand why those involved in the process have been so immune to feedback. The Green report fails in its own terms, quite apart from failing in terms of what the church needs in reflection about leadership. It is just daft to suggest that you invest in training people for jobs for which they are not appointed, and the idea of a secret preferment group of people who in fact might or might ever be appointed to senior positions is unwise. Much better (but less well known) is the FAOC report on leadership by Mike Higton and Loveday Alexander; it is this (not Green) which should really be guiding us.

And the RME report contains some good things—but there is widespread rejection of the proposal to return to regionalised budgeting and provision, as I pointed out, as a number of university theologians have argued, and as Alister McGrath explained at length in the Church Times. Let’s drop this unhelpful part, whilst welcoming what is good in the report.

Mark Hart has criticised the use of research within the strategy that is now being tabled, and I think we need to take his criticism seriously. But I don’t quite go with his conclusions, that the levers we have won’t be enough to halt decline. They are the only levers we have, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are in fact effective in making a difference.

4. We should be sinking.

Some have argued that actually, in terms of the decline in attendance, that we actually should be sinking—this is a sign that we are living the cruciform life. It shows how much we are immersed in our context and committed to incarnational ministry. Giles Fraser put it like this at Easter: ‘Christianity, when properly understood, is a religion of losers… A church that successfully proclaims the message of the cross–death first, then resurrection–is likely to be empty and not full’. Fraser has no time for those churches which appear to be growing.

The worst of them judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers. Their websites show images of happy, uncomplicated people doing good improving stuff in the big community. But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion [and Fraser is in no doubt that he is!] then a church is at its best when it fails.

In other words, not only is an interest in numbers misguided, it represents a complete failure to understand the central message of Christianity—and is a contradiction of it. My favourite response to this came in a comment from the earlier blog post—from someone who is quite happily in the ‘liberal’ theological camp:

What is it with “liberal” clergy (the theological label ill-fits Fraser, a dyed-in-the-red socialist who loathes political liberalism as so much free market excess, but it’s the best we have) who take a perverse joy in failure? Some nihilistic streak? A coping mechanism? Whatever, it’s self-defeating to the point of farce.

The whole point of Christianity is the triumph over death and despair through Christ. Evangelicals tend to be a lot better at articulating this. If the evangelical perma-smile is unhealthy, surely the liberal perma-frown is worse.

5. There isn’t really such a thing as sinking

This appears to be the approached of Linda Woodhead and her sociological arguments about the future of the church. There is no difference between things inside and outside the boat; to suggest that the boat has sides which form a boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is to create a sect, and turn ordained leaders into chaplains to the sect. Water is not such a bad thing anyhow; who are we to suggest that being on the inside of the boat is in any way better than being on the outside? As long as we have a cox, no need for rowers; ‘if there were no congregations, 90% of what the Church does would continue.’

This view is, I think, sadly ignorant of the history of the Church, as another sociologist, Rodney Stark, has demonstrated. And it runs the risk of being seriously ignorant of theology. If we are baptising people, but this is not into any sort of distinctive community, discipline or way of life, what is baptism actually doing? And it ignores the central issue of discipleship, which in one form or another is a key idea in the New Testament, as well as within the understanding of the Church and the ordinal.

In all these discussions, one important factor appears to be missing: God. The Centre for Church Growth Research takes as its motto 1 Cor 3.6: ‘Paul sowed, Apollos watered but God gave the growth.’ In a discussion recently, someone suggested to me that this meant there was nothing for us to do; we just have to wait to see if God will do anything. But this is mistaken on two counts. First, there is plenty for us to do in terms of planting and watering. If Paul had not planted, and Apollos had not watered, it would have been very difficult for God to give the growth! There reason there was a crop of 30, 60 or 100-fold was because the sower had gone out to sow. In discussing my previous article on whether numbers matter, Giles Fraser commented on Twitter:

The purpose of Christianity is to say thank you – and live in the light of that thanksgiving. That is all we do.

And yet from the NT it is clear that when you are grateful for the harvest, you express that thanks by sowing and watering so that there will be another harvest for others. Just about every time that Jesus heals someone in the gospels, they go away and tell others about it, so that they can also know the grace of God for themselves. Not to act is not to be thankful.

But Paul’s comment claims something else too, something we need to take with equal seriousness. When seed is sowed and it is watered, God will give the growth. With God, nothing is impossible—that is, when God is present, it is impossible that nothing will happen. Growth will come—perhaps not in the ways we always expect, and not at the time we want, but it will come.

Slide08Perhaps the inter-relation between our action and God’s is best expressed not by rowing, but by sailing. Their is work involved in setting the rig, in preparing the boat and hoisting the sails. The boat will not move unless the wind blows—but the wind cannot blow the boat along unless the sailors have made the boat ready.

So we need both a sense of ruthless self-awareness and commitment for the task of sowing and watering. But we also need a sense of confident expectation of what God will do.

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23 thoughts on “Is the C of E a sinking ship?”

  1. Ian,

    While the subject matter is serious and cause for concern, the firm hand of God’s grace in your writing and public speaking are cause for joy!

    The situation reminds me of those wonderful accountants who can tell a businessman owner just how much money his enterprise is losing every a day and the alarming scale of delinquent debtors.

    They can happily contrast the ‘doom and gloom’ with promising news of small scale improvements in several key UK regions.

    What their research can’t do is to explain exactly what to do to turn things around!

  2. “My favourite response to this came in a comment from the earlier blog post—from someone who is quite happily in the ‘liberal’ theological camp …” My fifteen minutes have cometh! Thanks. 😀

    Great post (not just ’cause of my brief guest spot), and I dig the sailing analogy.

    Personally, I think the parish system needs to be abolished. That dividing the church into geographic slices is a remnant of medieval and early modern local government is illustrated by the London parish without a single home within its boundaries; and it embodies a catholic ecclesiology that, if it ever existed, no longer does. The Church of England, like other Anglican churches, is de facto congregationalist, with people attending a parish that suites their theological and stylistic preferences. This should be admitted.

    Next, make services culturally accessible. The (rightly) disgraced Mark Driscoll did put it well when he said Mars Hill was theologically conservative but culturally liberal. Evangelicals recognize this in their use of music, social media, and stripped-down liturgy. Evangelicals, along with Anglo-Catholics, also recognize the church’s social functions.

    And the elephant in the room, the gospel message. I clearly disagree on content, but evangelicals put their vision over in clear, accessible language. They’re also, obviously, not afraid to advertise. If you have what you believe is a good thing, why keep it to yourself? Far too many liberal and moderate churches act like clubhouses, not joyful gatherings to which all are invited to hear the good news.

    Whatever my theological disagreements, evangelicals have clearly learned how to increase numbers. All Christians should take note and learn from their success.

    • ‘Personally, I think the parish system needs to be abolished.’

      Parishes within the Church of England might exercise a measure of theological and stylistic discretion, but not enough to justify complete congregational independence and autonomy. All that would happen is that struggling churches would be even more severely under-resourced, while rich popular parishes would continue the border crossing expansionism that depletes poorly equipped neighbouring churches of income.

      The problem isn’t even with the spiritual formation that St. Paul described in 1 Cor 3. He carefully describes growth in terms of maturity before he renders the popular verse 6: ‘You were like babies in Christ. And the teaching I gave you was like milk, not solid food. I did this because you were not ready for solid food. And even now you are not ready. (1 Cor. 3:1, 2)

      No, the real issue for the CofE is in the disenchantment with religiosity in the national psyche. While they may affirm the good work of church organisations at a distance, Christians appear to have no practical reply that answers modern Britain’s social ills.

      As an example, look at the stats on binge drinking. In 2014, the WHO reported the average global intake was 6.2 litres ethanol per annum for adults over the age of 15. In Britain, the average intake was twice as high, at 11.6 litres per adult.

      In many cities, Friday and Saturday nights are by far the busiest periods for ambulance services. Okay, so the local priest might set up a Street Pastors group to see the vulnerable home safely, but it only scratches the surface. You won’t see Saturday binge drinkers in church on Sunday.

      It reminds me of the 18th century gin craze. While not directly causal, its concomitant was rationalist unbelief among leadership of society. Back in 1738, Bishop Butler’s words from back then would probably sum up current notions about the Christian faith. He asserted in the Analogy that Christianity was treated as though ‘it was now discovered to be fictitious…and nothing remained but to set it up as the subject of mirth and ridicule’.

      Unbeknownst to him, a young man called George Whitefield had been born again and had begun preaching the gospel with an eloquent, but fearless conviction not seen since the days of John Bunyan. Whitfield didn’t need a church when he preached a sermon entitled, the Heinous Sin of Drunkenness’ no his ship bound for the US. The impact of this spirit-filled man on the ship’s company was noticeable and reported by his biographer Dallimore:

      ‘…the change on board was widely noticeable. Although but seven weeks earlier the men
      had been a scornful, cursing company, they now ‘stood forth like little children to say
      their catechism,’ many read their Bibles regularly, and almost all attended services both
      morning and evening. Such were the fruits of Whitefield’s labor in that short period of
      time. And when he left Gibraltar ‘many came to him, weeping, telling him what God had
      done for their souls,’ bringing him gifts’

      I should note that, initially, “Old Side” Presbyterians led by Robert Cross believed that Whitfield was ‘promoting a view of the faith which over-emphasized the movement of the Holy Spirit upon individuals and which disregarded the forms of polity and order which the structure of the Presbyterian church labored to maintain’. He’d probably get that same stick today.

      The point is that somehow Whitfield’s gifted ability to communicate transformatively with ordinary people (which is what the word of God should do) won through. He was a fisher of men and all of the discernment for ordination and catechesis in the world could never accomplish that. People like Whitfield just need to be unleashed.

      Also, in the very year in which Butler lamented the loss of Christian influence in England, two brothers had finally humbled themselves, following in Whitefield’s footsteps, and given their lives to Christ in the same way, John and Charles Wesley.

      I would contend that those gifted to evangelise by such transformative encounters with Christ are viewed by DDO’s and other clergy as loose cannons and routinely dismissed from the discernment process. Intellectual misgivings are commonly mistaken for humility and educational attainment and first career prestige are considered to be sure signs of a divine calling to public ministry. They couldn’t be more wrong.

      In a manner similar to influential bloggers, those 18th century Christians used pamphlets to speak directly to England’s social ills, such a slavery.

      We need to do the same today, It’s time to ignore the usual top-down dithering bureaucratic hand-wringing and for truly gifted Christian writers, preachers and counsellors, whether lay or clergy, to engage in direct grassroots public conversations with ordinary people; to take again Christ’s liberating message directly to those imprisoned by their addiction to over-indulgence and contempt.

      I’ve seen and participated in a genuine revival and what the CofE is proposing is not how it works. Instead, the most unlikely people discover their gifts almost by accident. All that’s needed is for the church to establish broad guidelines for participation and oversight and get its bureaucracy out of the way.

      While I’m sure many will critique the theology and techniques of his, ahem, ‘crusades’ endlessly, Billy Graham was successful in bringing Christ message in a fresh way to a modern generation. The organization to which he belonged simply established basic guidelines and got its bureaucracy out of the way.

      The CofE would do well to follow that example.

      • Thanks for that, David, much to think over.

        Congregationalism can be combined with sharing resources, so rich parishes hogging funds could be gotten around.

        Good points about discernment. I see no reason why congregations shouldn’t elect their own pastor, either from amongst themselves, or from a qualified pool (with gatekeeping made democratic in some way, perhaps by having candidates approved by an electoral synod).

        Interestingly, Richard Holloway has spoken out strongly for prophetic ministry and intrinsic authority, and noted how institutions like to squash them.

      • That is very interesting about Bishop Butler in 1738. I know that 100 years later, in the 1830s, there was an acute concern that many from the working population who had migrated from rural areas to the towns during the industrial revolution had no connection with the church at all. This led, as we know, to a major drive in Victorian urban church building, funded in large part by a government keen to civilise its working population. But even in the 1830s Evangelicals such as Thomas Arnold of Rugby were opposing the building of churches, arguing that what was really needed in those areas were more clergy devoted to attending to the needs of the poor. A government report explored the idea of “ragged churches”, a kind of Victorian fresh expression, to try to overcome the class barriers and sense of exclusion that, it was thought, discouraged the poor from attending church.

        Your noting of the parallels with earlier times is helpful, and I suspect that one of the main differences between those times and ours is that in those days the church’s financial viability and sense of legitimacy in no way depended on turn-out at Sunday services or money in the plate. The real urgency of the present situation, in practical terms, is created by finance, closely followed by a diminishing sense of legitimacy as the established national church.

        I think any move away from the parish system at this point would be unwise and shortsighted. In my view, far too many proposals for how the church needs to change to stem and reverse the decline mistake the Church of England for a non-conformist denomination. For all the changes in the significance of locality and place in the modern era, there remains an abiding need for a sense of home and community connected with where we live that it is the unique privilege of the Church of England to be part of providing. In many ways the idea of the Church of England only makes sense when it is locality and place focused, when it provides that reassuring (and, we hope, at times challenging) ecclesiastical and Gospel presence in every community, a sense of mission to a place as a place (that is, as a local community), and a rare hub of face-to-face community life.

        I think you’re right to highlight the wider social trends as lying at the heart of the current difficulties. The truth is, as Robert Putnam showed (in the US context), we are living in an era where participation in member organisations has been in steep and ongoing decline. It’s not just the church – very few member societies buck the trend. Political parties are only the most high profile of the badly affected. Then there is, as you put it, widespread “disenchantment with religiosity in the national psyche”, which only adds to our woes. In this context, I think perhaps we should be glad that things are not any worse, and that the decline curve, which began so sharply in the 1960s off its post-War high, appears to have begun to bottom out. The recent focus on mission, outreach and growth (since at least the 1990s Decade of Evangelism) will only help as we attempt to rebuild what has been lost.

        I think the most important thing at this point is not to panic, and so make some far-reaching changes which won’t really help matters, will make things more difficult in the long term, and which we (or the next generation) will later look back on and regret – as many do now with the sell-off of church property a generation ago. Many of those in leadership seem to think that evoking a sense of panic in order to clear the way for some radical changes is the most needful current remedy. I am far from convinced, and agree with a number of commentators that many of the ways that leaders have been doing this have been exaggerated if not disingenuous. I hope this trend to panic-inducement disappears soon, and more measured and wise advice, of the kind Ian is promoting, will come to carry the day. A solid focus on building up robust and resilient local churches, supplemented by fresh expressions in various contexts, should set us in good stead for benefting when, we can only hope, by God’s grace, the times turn once again – and will help us survive in the meantime.

    • Interesting comment about the parish system. As another alternative, I have heard it suggested that we should revert to a minster system, which I understand as a larger (minster) church running both itself and a smaller group of missionary churches around it.

      • Sorry I meant to say “group of smaller churches” not “smaller group of churches” Is there any way to edit comments here after they’ve been posted?

      • Anna,

        It’s a bit boring and not for the statistically challenged, but when you download the parish stats for a given diocese, you can use a spreadsheet to tabulate the Parish Share of each per electoral roll member and as a proportion of its income.

        You’ll find that in the same deanery, as a proportion of income, Parish Share, can range from 20% for a large church of over 500 to 60-odd % for a small congregation.

        Whatever informal agreements might be put in place, one parish church will bring in, say, 300 every Sunday drawn from every corner of the deanery. It will pay the share with ease and still have over £200k left to pay its overheads and then fund additional ministry and mission to ‘grow the church’.

        If someone is inspired to journey every Sunday half way across the deanery to belong to that thriving church, they are not told: ‘“Go home to your family and friends. Tell them about all that the Lord did for you. Tell them how the Lord was good to you.” (Mark 5:18) They are encouraged to join in its tacit border-crossing deanery-wide mission.

        In contrast, in the parish where that same visitor lives, there is probably a small church with congregation of about 50. We might quibble over its less than invigorating style of worship, but after meeting ministry and shared costs, its left with little over £25k a year to maintain its infrastructure and consider mission.

        These are the well-known disparities that frustrate the current parish system and they are exacerbated by the kind of clerical careerism that gravitates towards well-resourced vacancies.

        In stark contrast to this narrow parochial success mindset, St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to demonstrate a level of reciprocal generosity towards the Macedonian church that no amount of structural reorganization (including the Minster system) could achieve:

        ‘This is what I think you should do: Last year you were the first to want to give, and you were the first who gave. So now finish the work you started. Then your “doing” will be equal to your “wanting to do.” Give from what you have. If you want to give, your gift will be accepted. Your gift will be judged by what you have, not by what you don’t have. We don’t want you to have troubles while others are comforted. We want everything to be equal. At this time you have plenty and can provide what they need. Then later, when they have plenty, they can provide what you need. Then everyone will have an equal share. As the Scriptures say,

        “Those who gathered much did not have too much,
        and those who gathered little did not have too little.”

        To think in that way requires that larger parishes to abandon the parochially-blinkered ‘tax on growth’ refrain whenever an increase in their proportion of the Parish Share is mentioned. Perhaps, the threat of a neighbouring parish church’s imminent demise will finally change that.

        • I’m seeing echoes of the Westminster Confession of Faith in this discussion about parish systems 🙂 Pray do not find me rude for commenting late to the party.

          A Presbyterian Church of Ireland minister I know who is also a Clerk of Presbytery is always keen to point out how close the Church of England came to becoming Presbyterian when the Westminster Confession of Faith was put before parliament. I can think of many benefits of the ruling elder/teaching elder system and of general congregational autonomy under presbytery oversight and within the confines of the WCF. (Which the CoE parish system is actually quite close too when you change some labels around)

          However, structures and procedures are not a cure-all. The Presbyterian Church of Ireland is facing similar problems to the Church of England. Basically in many areas PCI became the ‘established’ church with all the problems that brings, like schism (the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Non-subscribing church before that), apathy and nominalism, etc.

          Thinking of this topic reminds me of Habakkuk. Be faithful, go to your metaphorical watchtower and wait for God, who says “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness”.

          Finally, I was talking to a PCI ruling elder relative about PCI’s decline and the rise of charismatic/independent evangelical churches. There is much to worry about on behalf of PCI and much for PCI to do to develop meaningful discipleship instead of maintain buildings, but it only struck me afterwards, that we must rejoice with Paul who rejoiced whenever the gospel was preached, never mind the source.

  3. While the Church of England is undoubtedly going through hard times there is no fundamental reason why things could not be reversed. Long gone are the days when, as a state church, respectability and national habit brought people through the doors on a weekly basis; but perhaps those easier times were not good for the church and we are now reaping the fruit of an engrained lethargy.

    But things could be reversed because genuine Christian endeavour is in the service of Christ, whose great commission was not based on a vision of failure and it is underpinned by the power of His spirit. However, the fruits of Christian endeavour are not always guaranteed to be easily harvested and our present materially rich but spiritually barren Western culture is a challenging environment for the Gospel of sin and repentance and new life to flourish.

    We are all aware that a small number of churches and cathedrals can survive (and even thrive) based on qualities which are not specifically Christian such as a fine musical tradition or an unusual social clientele or geographic location. But for most churches it is the most basic of arithmetical calculations to work out that if they are not producing more Christians they will eventually die.

    I think there is both a corporate and a personal responsibility here, and sooner or later the talking about it has to stop and we just have to get on and do it. In fact it should be a part of who we are that this happens but we have to admit that we regularly fail in this area and that energy and organisation from our church leadership will inevitably be needed if anything serious is to happen. The energy comes from clergy imparting their vision and confidence through their preaching, teaching and example; clergy who cannot or will not do this are a serious problem. The organisation is about best use of people’s gifts, vibrant and inspiring worship, a clear on-going program of outreach, readily available material for explaining the Gospel – in fact all those things which are obvious but which amazingly often don’t happen. (For example, it seems a no-brainer to me that every wedding guest, baptismal parents, bereaved funeral attenders should receive a small but clear piece of literature explaining the Gospel and God’s relevance to the big life events – but is that routinely done?)

    Of course to many in the world around us we Christians are at best a gullible bunch and at worst unpleasant bigots. So we have to be thick skinned – but not thick headed. Most of us could go on at length about the way our CofE is corporately thick headed, but it’s our church and we assume it’s where God has put us (for now at least) and so we have every reason to press on. It’s not sunk yet.

  4. One thing the CofE is not and should not become is congregationalist. The CofE is an episcopal church with tree orders of bishop priest and deacon. This top down approach is complimented by the bottom up approach of synodical government. Even here there is recognition of the 3 houses of bishops, clergy and laity. As a national church ( singular) it cannot be a mere collection of churches. If you sweep all this away, you will find something close to your ideal already exists. The parish system is in the process of reform due to declining numbers and improved transport. Many now have of choice of Anglican churches they can attend. The parish map does ensure that someone is responsible to ministering to everyone. This need continuing updating for changes in housing. Some “Fresh Expressions” may only fit into this in an untidy way

  5. According the Benjamin Franklin, the effect of Whitefield’s ministry was profound:

    ‘wonderful… change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

    In contrast, the Anglican commissary to Georgia, Alexander Garden dismissed it as rank emotionalism: ‘The ears and passions, not the understandings, of the lower sort, were taken’.

    Whitefield was also pejoratively associated with Dissenters and, as a consequence of fears that he would provoke schism, was banned from Anglican pulpits in the colonies.

    Could it happen today? Well, Rev. Julian Mann (Cranmer’s Curate) Sheffield vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge wrote this about a non-parochial church plant in Sheffield:

    ‘We have an example of this here in Sheffield Diocese in the form of Christ Church Central. It was planted from Christ Church Fulwood in 2003 when Canon Hugh Palmer, the current rector of All Souls Langham Place (2005), was vicar. The Revd Tim Davies, curate at Fulwood, led a group of around 50 to plant in the parish of St Matthews in central Sheffield and they started meeting in Egerton Hall. Canon Palmer was chairman of the diocesan mission committee at the time, so his decision not to go down the parish planting route was understandably controversial’

    Rev. Tim Davies, the founding minister of Christ Church Central simply describes the outcome of the exploratory discussion in 2002 by saying in a 2013 statement that: ‘diocesan support for this initiative was withdrawn’.

    So, Tim Davies was in charge of a thriving church plant that was not supported by Sheffield diocese. In describing Fulwood, the Bishop of Sheffield stated: ‘the plant could not be contained within the legal structures of the Church of England.’ Well, that’s a pity, since the Fulwood church family now numbers over 900.

    The 2013 debacle over this growing church reveals a key reason why the CofW boat is sinking. It was a lack of diocesan support that resulted in Christ Church Central planting Christ Church Walkley ‘without consultation’ and seeking the overseas ordination of Rev. Pete Jackson (who trained at Oak Hill Theological College and then worked for four years as an Associate Minister at Christ Church Central).

    Reform and Renewal and Bishop’s Mission Orders aside, at some point, the CofE will have to decide whether it wants revival enough to maintain support for these somewhat unorthodox, but thriving church plants, instead of rigid conformity to the wishes of incumbents who view them as offensive territorial incursions.

  6. As a Reader the diocese withdrew support for our Church plant when I was running it. The withdrawal of support was total and yet Church plant gave substantially more per person to the Church’s work than the Mother Church.

    Ironically the Diocese ran a course for fresh expressions!

    I know the experience.

    • Clive,

      Thanks for sharing that. I think that your experience resonates with me and many others here.

      Nevertheless, I’m heartened by the fact that our God continues to revive faith through those unlikely to be discerned to have a calling to ordained church ministry.

      I am also reminded of how God deployed a young and zealous schoolteacher called Howell Harris to spearhead the Welsh Methodist Revival.

      Despite official misgivings, God still used Whitefield and the Wesleys to reach Bristol’s 18th century coal-mining community of Kingswood Chase that lacked any parish provision.

      I read some of Whitefield’s sermons yesterday and I was particularly impressed by their insightful dissection of the human character: how they exposed our woeful self-serving tendencies.

      The sermon entitled ‘The Seed of the Woman, and the Seed of the Serpent’ is a prime example of this kind of moral scrutiny:

      Its key themes regarding the fallen state of man and our need for divine redemption should be revisited time and time again in modern sermons and Bible discussions.

  7. Thank goodness we don’t quite believe in the same world view that Whitefield did with any angry, punitive God. David, surely you can see that he is dealing almost entirely in mythological terms?

  8. Andrew,

    On what basis is love incapable of retributive justice?

    Strange then that John Newton interpreted the many harsh adversities that eventually brought him to Christ as God-wrought portents of future accountability: ‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, Twas grace my fears relieved’.

    Your interpretation of the biblical use of the anthropomorphism, wrath, reminded of this account of J.I. Packer writing Knowing God:

    According to the dictionary Packer had at the time of writing this book, ‘wrath’ is defined as “deep intense anger and indignation”. ‘Anger’ is defined as “stirring of resentful displeasure and strong antagonism, by a sense of injury or insult”; ‘indignation’ as “righteous anger aroused by injustice and baseness”.

    “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness.” –A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, as quoted by Packer.

    The biblical writers feel no inhibitions regarding God’s wrath. Why do we?

    For one, it may be that we perceive wrath as being unworthy of God. It implies a loss of self-control, wounded pride or plain bad temper. It would definitely be wrong to attribute to God traits such as these.

    But God doesn’t share our limitations and imperfections. God’s wrath is never capricious, self-indulgent, irritable. God is angry only when anger is called for.

    Second, to some, God’s wrath suggests cruelty. This isn’t the case:
    1.God’s wrath in the Bible is always judicial, i.e. administrating justice. Those who experience God’s wrath receive precisely what they deserve.
    2.God’s wrath in the Bible is something which men choose for themselves– John 3:18-19. “[T]he decisive act of judgment upon the lost is the judgment which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ.”

    “The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character on which we need to meditate frequently.

    First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God’s detestation of sin. We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely we are to realise its heinousness.

    Second, to beget a true fear of God in our souls for God. ‘Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb 12:28-29). We cannot serve Him ‘acceptably’ unless there is due ‘reverence’ for His awful Majesty and ‘godly fear’ of His righteous anger, and these are best promoted by frequently calling to mind that ‘our God is a consuming fire’. Third, to draw out our soul in fervent praise [to Jesus Christ] for having delivered us from ‘the wrath to come’ (1 Thess 1:10). Our readiness or our reluctancy to meditate upon the wrath of God becomes a sure test of how our hearts really stand affected towards Him.”

    So, if wrath is understood as an anthropomorphism representing inexorable retributive justice, it is not petulant. Do you think the capture and imprisonment of Myra Hindley, or Ian Huntley were capricious, spiteful acts? Or do you consider their deprivation of freedom to be the result of hateful behaviour on the part of the State?

    So, let’s look at more of what you consider to be Christian mythology, shall we?

    ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ (Matt. 5:21 – 22)

    Hell is no more or less than God’s final acceptance of a person’s manifest desire to be rid of every providence that, as an expression of God, has been rejected with contempt.

    Now, I’d agree that we have to be careful with the use of anthropomorphisms, but your position suggests that we really don’t have any choice in whether or not we accept God’s offer of mercy.

    According to your thesis, even an avowed Satanist, or impenitent mass-murderer could not fully and finally reject God and thereby experience the loss of all providence, because for God to allow such an exercise of choice would be a terrible flaw of character.

    Of course, you then need to rationalize why an all-powerful God can and does allow evil to exist in the first place.

    By replacing the demonstrated capacity of God in Jesus’ resurrection to reverse harm and death with a ‘hope springs eternal in the apostolic heart’ placebo effect, you will still end up with Stephen Fry’s response when confronted by God:

    ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods then I would have more truck with it, because the Greeks didn’t pretend to not be human in their appetites, in their capriciousness, and in their unreasonableness… they didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent, because the god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish.’

    “We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that?’

    While you may view his preaching with the same suspicion as those who banned him from Anglican pulpits, we’ve seen that Whitefield was effective in the Age of Enlightenment. In contrast, we see Exeter going from an electoral roll of 33,900 in 1996 to 28,400 in 2013. Equally, my diocese, Guildford, has gone from 30,600 to 29.500 over the same period.

    As Ian has indicated. It’s a mistake to simply row harder.

    • Hi Giles, good to see you. 🙂

      Romans c.6 is about personal and corporate spiritual renewal through Christ’s death and resurrection; it isn’t commending institutional failure. In any case, as a theological liberal, you’d presumably feel free to disregard Paul on this, as you (rightly) disregard him on sexuality.

      I could understand you believing the Church of England deserved to fail as an organization, but as you remain a salaried priest within it, you presumably haven’t reached that point yet; in which case, surely a part of your role is to work to increase numbers and giving? Liberalism will have no voice in the church without numerically and financially successful congregations.

  9. And I hardly think God missing from my perspective. It is precisely faith in Him that allows us to drown without fear. Indeed, the problem with an ecclesiastical justification by works is that it has no need of God – is the belief we can save ourselves by our own efforts, i.e. row harder. (And whilst on the subject of sinklng ships – see also

    • Giles,

      There is vast difference between ‘devil-may-care’ resignation and complete dependence on God. That difference is hope.

      In terms of Christ’s example of hope, we read:

      ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.’ (Heb. 5:7)

      Again, we read of Christ: ‘For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb. 12:2)

      He wasn’t seeking a self-immolating submersion of all individuality into the cosmic consciousness. In resurrection, He remained identifiable as Jesus, down to the distinctive way in which He broke bread.

      I’d agree that, at face value, the depiction of any group of worshippers might be interpreted as ‘images of happy, uncomplicated people doing good improving stuff in the big community’. So what? We both know the reality in our respective churches.

      I know that, in my parish (one afflicted with the ‘vice’ of numerical growth) my 90 year-old neighbour Margaret at my church smiles blissfully as she reflects on the wonder of our Lord. Yet, she has to deal with a stoma bag which needs to be emptied one to three times a day.

      Sue is another blissful soul who runs our Community Project. It consists of Olive Branch (a clothing exchange) and the Larder (a food bank). Just the sort of ‘big community’ stuff that brings cynics out of the woodwork. Yet, Sue’s life is far from uncomplicated. She has terminal cancer. She’ll discuss it at times and the entire church family gets involved in making her life easier.

      The thing is that neither Margaret, not Sue make an ‘advert’ of their adversities because their hallmark is joy in adversity. They don’t simply resign themselves to the ravages of disease, since that kind of heroic fatalism is surely the flip-side of the ‘justification by works’ coinage that your article described..

      It’s one thing (as Ian explained) for Paul to plant, for Apollos to water, while both leave it to God to give the increase. It’s quite another to neither plant, nor water and to decry any thought of numerical increase.

      That mindset is more akin to the last servant in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14 – 30)

      ‘But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion, then a church is at its best when it fails, when it gives up on all the ecclesiastical glitter, when the weeds start to break through the floor, and when it shows others that failure is absolutely nothing of the sort’.

      Church growth does require resourcing ordained and volunteer leadership (And if not, why not abandon your church office and let your parish learn the vital lesson of how to ‘drown without fear’?)

      Church growth has also still involved becoming a practical extension of God’s promise to share guts and gore in the ordinary lives around us. The focus of resourcing mission has nothing in common with ‘ecclesiastical glitter’!

  10. Dear Giles. I hope your reference to Romans is tongue in cheek. And you are not comparing death to the old life in baptism (& then resurrection) with the church dying ……


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