You are a very engaging writer, and I often enjoy reading your pieces. You have a great turn of phrase, and there are times when you are able to cut through all the complexity and dissembling, and hit the nail on the head (if you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors somewhat).
But much of the time, your articles are an admixture of this insight along with your frustration—anger even—and downright errors. I never quite know whether these errors are unintended, and arise from lack of understanding, or whether you are deliberately deciding to be economical with the truth. Your recent broadside ‘The Church is abandoning its flock‘ is a case in point.
There are some forms of Christianity that exist only in order to reproduce. Christians are here to make new Christians who, in turn, are called to go out there and make even more new ones. The purpose of church life is to beget more church life.
No, there are not ‘some forms’ of Christianity like this: all forms are like this, if they truly are reflections of the Christ they claim to follow. One of Jesus’ primary images of his followers comes from his ‘Last Supper’ or ‘Farewell Discourse’:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15.1).
Although Jesus is here addressing the Twelve (though there appear to have been others in the Upper Room as well), this has never been read as an exclusive depiction of them as leaders. It is an image of everyone who believes in him. If we abide (make our home) in him, then we will bear fruit, much fruit—but if we are unfruitful we do not and cannot remain in him. ‘Fruit’ here does allude to quality of life, and St Paul extends the metaphor in Gal 5.22 to describe the things of the Spirit—but the root of the metaphor is that fruit contains seeds, and seeds give rise to more plants which produce more fruit. Like so many of Jesus’ agricultural parables in the gospels, it is an image of reproduction.
In one of my favourite verses in the gospels, Mark 4.28, Jesus describes the growth of the kingdom as like a seed that grows automatically, ‘all by itself’, demonstrating the sovereign purposes of God in achieving his goals. But in the surrounding verses and the surrounding parables, Jesus is clear that (contrary to what you appear to assume) the growth of God’s people and the good news does not happen automatically. A sower must go out to sow; the farmer scatters seed on the ground.
Thus Jesus says to the Gerasene demoniac “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5.19). A repeated theme of the first half of Mark’s gospel is that ‘news about him spread quickly’ (Mark 1.28) because many who had encountered him did just that. Yes, there is a contrast with the more sober ethos of the second half of the gospel, but that does not nullify the first. In fact, a very similar thing happens in the Acts of the Apostles, when the believers, scattered by the persecution of the Jerusalem church, ‘preached the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8.4). In doing so, deliberately or by accident, they were fulfilling the commission of Jesus ‘You shall be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1.8)—again, a command or invitation issued to apostles, but always taken as paradigmatic for all believers.
It is no surprise, then, that one of these apostles writes to all ‘in the diaspora’ that they should be ‘always be prepared to give a reasoned account [apologia] for the hope that is within you] (1 Peter 3.15). Why do you think that this should only apply to ‘some’ Christians?
You then decry the new initiative publicised last week:
The new growth strategy from head office is code named Myriad, Greek for ten thousand. The idea is to have 10,000 new churches by 2030, creating a million new disciples. Don’t worry about the figures too much, they are nothing more than fantasy numbers plucked from the sky. As a general rule, church growth is inversely proportional to the big talk coming from head office.
But of course it is not that new, and it doesn’t come from ‘head office’; this is your paranoia speaking. Anglicans have been planting churches for hundreds of years; this is how the global Anglican Communion came into existence, because Anglicans from here went around the world taking the good news about Jesus as the Church of England has received it. David Pytches was a bishop in South America, and saw the importance of church planting, and brought that experience back to England in 1977 when he became vicar of St Andrew’s, Chorleywood. His vision there gave rise to the New Wine movement, who are partners in this church planting initiative, so the wheel has turned full circle.
But think about the building in which you minister. Where did it come from? Someone, sometime in the past, planted a church. Many of our Victorian and Edwardian buildings started life as ‘tin tabernacles‘, prefabricated kits to allow Anglicans to plant churches in the growing towns and suburbs around the expanding cities of the industrial revolution. This is hardly a ‘new thing from head office’!
I agree with you on one thing though: initiatives perceived as coming ‘from head office’ won’t get very far. The Decade of Evangelism didn’t have the effect it might have done, because we turned it into the Decade of Liturgical Revision (funny how rearranging the furniture suddenly becomes so attractive for Anglicans when the alternative is talking to people about Jesus) though there was a shift in culture and important things were learnt. (One evaluation contains the priceless phrase ‘bishops may not seem to matter a great deal…’!)
As this article, and your own profile, demonstrate, getting clergy to do anything is like herding cats. That is why Myriad isn’t a ‘strategy from head office’; it is a ground level initiative that will aim to work from the bottom up, not the top down, and that has been made clear in all its work.
I agree with you ‘that all efforts to put evangelism first are self-defeating.’ Evangelism and witness can never happen just because someone tells us it must. It can only happen when people see God at work in their lives and are excited enough to tell others about it. We would probably cringe in agreement at some of the things I remember being told in my evangelical youth, and (like many evangelicals) I have wrestled with the guilt trip of working out why I have not seen a succession of people dramatically come to faith as others appear to have. The simply answer is that I am not an evangelist—not that many people are—but like all followers of Jesus I am called to be a witness. This is reflected, from the very beginning, in Acts; here we find both an account of the high-profile ministries of the leaders of the movement, but equally important the ‘gossiping of the gospel’ by ‘ordinary’ believers. It is both/and and not either/or.
I share with you the frustration you express at the way the leadership of the Church has responded to the pandemic, and I appreciate your willingness to throw out the challenge.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to celebrate and broadcast the Eucharist on Easter Day 2020 from his kitchen, rather than popping down a few stairs to Lambeth Palace’s fine 13th-century chapel, he was clearly making a point: all those old stones are holding us back, they are unnecessary.
I don’t ascribe this decision to the conspiratorial motives that you imagine; I just think it was an ill-considered blunder, like many other things. Why collude with the unevidenced ban on singing, so that it appears the virus can be transmitted in a church building by worshippers, but not in a pub by football fans? Why the ridiculous, poorly argued and contradictory prohibition on the use of individual cups in Communion, which has pushed many into the unAnglican practice of receiving in one kind only? Why the lack of high profile engagement with questions of mortality and finitude, preferring instead to be enforcers of government policy?
This is where I always turn to my favourite mantra about the Church of England:
Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.
Like the rest of us, our bishops have felt the pressure of this strange season; already, their jobs were impossible; and I don’t get the impression that they are working well together either.
But here you weaken your own argument, first in citing the ridiculous cynicism of Martyn Percy—the Great Leap Forward, in which millions died of starvation? How can you dare to trivialise it in this way?—and secondly in citing the current situation in Winchester.
The recent revolt of the Diocese of Winchester against their Bishop is a case in point. They threatened a vote of no confidence and he has stepped back from ministry.
You appear to know nothing of what has been happening there; people who agreed with the initiatives Tim Dakin introduced were amongst those who signed the motion of no confidence. This does not appear to be a concern about strategy, but about leadership style. In pushing your conspiracy theory, you are taking 2 and 2 and 2 and making 222.
And you continue to do this in your pointing to Chelmsford:
The Diocese of Chelmsford is culling 61 posts by 2021 with a further 49 under threat by 2026. Others are following suit. But as these “limiting factor” clergy are being culled, central funds are being directed towards new evangelistic initiatives through what is called Strategic Development Funding from the £9 billion piggy bank held by the fabulously wealthy Church Commissioners.
I agree with you that this is a disaster for any diocese, because there is clear research evidence which shows that cutting stipendiary ministry actually undermines growth. How do I know that? Because the same ‘head office’ people supporting the Myriad initiative have done the research. The issue in Chelmsford, as the suffragan pointed out in his address to the Diocesan Synod, is that giving has not matched resources in the diocese. I recently read a disparaging comment online about ‘wealthy evangelicals who have all the money’ and wanted to ask why they thought this was the case. The answer is that evangelical clergy consistently teach about the importance of giving, where those of other traditions often squirm at the idea. What about you?
The ministry of the local church needs to be self-sustaining in the medium and long term, and that is true both for historical parishes and new church plants, whether they are funded by the Strategic Development Fund or the Myriad project. You give the impression that the costs of your stipend and the running of your church buildings should be provided ‘automatically’, as if by magic. They won’t be, and they shouldn’t be.
And there isn’t the trade-off you suggest between the cutting of stipendiary clergy posts (decisions made locally, by the financially independent dioceses) and the availability of pump-priming money from the Church Commissioners (provided centrally). You are letting your cynicism trump both logic and evidence.
Your final flourish is an oft-repeated slogan: ‘the church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful.’ But faithful to what? The paradox of the liberal Catholic tradition in which I think you sit is that it wants to hold on resolutely to outward forms of Christian faith, many of which are not much more than historical accidents, but negotiate away (often under the pressure of the contemporary Zeitgeist) core aspects of Christian belief. It is hard not to see this as example of what St Paul described in 2 Tim 3.5.
The current issue over which the Church of England is tearing itself apart is that of sexuality, in which people like me arguing that the Church should ‘remain faithful’ are the enemies of your own position of wanting to see change.
The ‘faithful remnant’ whom you laud are those who have held fast to the truths of Scripture and the words of God in defiance of the culture around them. And they have then passed this word on, and testified to the truth of who God is and what God is done. In scripture, they are a very far cry from the Eleanor Rigby ‘who lives in a dream’ or the Father McKenzie who ‘writes sermons that no-one will hear’. They live in reality, and shout it from the rooftops; I am sorry if that is distasteful to you! Yes, belonging to the church is about being cared for, being listened to, being supported. But no-one ends up in church without someone else inviting them. Why should we receive all this grace and not invite others to receive it too? What should we think of people with bread eating on their own, and not sharing it with the starving world around them?
You are right in this:
[W]e won’t outlast this period of history by being more business-like or by adopting slicker models of evangelistic marketing. We won’t be saved by panicky spread-sheet evangelists, Indeed, we must be more of what we have been called to be – more thoughtful, more prayerful, less fearful, more obedient to God’s call. We are resurrection people after all.
But what are called to be is also sacrificial givers, witnesses of Jesus to others, and unembarrassed to walk to a different drum-beat, often out of step with the world around us. Those who saw the empty tomb did not merely ‘say nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’ (Mark 16.8); in the power of the Holy Spirit, they ‘stood up with the others, raised [their] voice, and addressed the crowd’ (Acts 2.14).
Are you up for that?
The picture at the top is from a fascinating article on what a shepherd has learned from lambs. There are some excellent observations that could be applied to church leadership—except perhaps the point about roasting sheep on a spit!