Last 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.
This 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.
Perhaps 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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