The weekend was rather stormy, with thunder and lightning and some heavy downpours in places. The weather wasn’t that good either, but I am referring to the Church of England on social media.
The storm brewed up because of an article in the Church Times about the plan, as part of the new ‘Vision and Strategy’, to ‘plant new 10,000 worshipping communities’ which will primarily be lay led.
In other countries, including parts of Africa, it was lay leadership that was enabling rapid church growth, he said. “Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”
Adrian Hilton took aim with both barrels of hyperbole:
Gone are the naves, altars, vestments, organs, icons, stained glass windows and the monuments to centuries of parish continuity: in come rows of plastic chairs in a magnolia hall, where all eyes are drawn to the only point of interest: the lay leader wearing trainers and trackie bottoms, who declares ‘This is the day that the Lord has made!’, introduces the latest Graham Kendrick chorus (guitar, drums), quotes a few more scriptures, and then speaks on the absolute authority of the Bible in all our lives and how we all need to repent of our sin and love one another.
What is curious about this, and other similar reactions, is that it assumes that this one quotation, taken out of context, now describes the totality of the Church of England’s official policy ‘from the centre’ for the future of the Church.
There are several problems with this, not least that the person who said it isn’t even employed by the Church of England. John McGinley, whom I know and like, was vicar at Holy Trinity Leicester—where by all accounts he did a good job and saw growth in a local parish church as well as overseeing the planting of worshipping communities in the area. He is still an associate in the team, but is now employed as Director of Church Planting for New Wine, the evangelical charismatic network.
And John said this, not as part of a presentation about Vision and Strategy, but at a church-planting conference. It would be odd in that context for him to be anything other than enthusiastic about church planting! There is clearly truth in what John says: if you want to plant a congregation in an area that the current parochial system is not reaching, and you want to do this in many places at once, then you cannot invest first in a building and a trained, paid staff team—you need to be much more direct and creative.
This might not be the end of a church plant, but it must surely be the beginning. Yes, this was how much church planting was done in Africa—after which, African church leaders recognised that, once the churches were established, their leaders needed more depth and training, and so they asked for help in establishing good theological education. But John was here talking about starting out, not where the end might lead.
So why was there such a reaction to these two words ‘limiting factor’? The first is highlighted by Stephen Cottrell himself in the Church Times article.
“There is a lot of tiredness in the Church,” he writes. “We have had lots of initiatives. They have not always been well received. Neither have they always been particularly effective. It is very likely that the Covid-19 crisis has increased this sense of weariness.”
And this has been compounded by several other things. The release of Church Commissioners’ money through the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) has been a boost to dioceses, but there has been an inevitable sense of ‘them and us’ between clergy who have been involved in SDF projects, and those who’ve not, and feel that they have been bypassed by the initiative.
Added to that the news that several dioceses are making clergy posts redundant gives a sense of insecurity for those in parish ministry that they have not known for a long time.
Stephen Cottrell does not want the ‘Vision and Strategy’ approach to seem like one more initiative, but there is a lot going on in the C of E just now—some would argue too much. On top of adapting to the constraints of lockdown, and many feeling as though the approach of the House of Bishops to Holy Communion has been distinctly unhelpful, as well as the financial pressures both parishes and dioceses are facing, we are also expected to engage in an extended debate about sexuality, all the while concentrating on church growth and church planting! There comes a point where, at local and national level, we simply do not have the capacity to do all these things at once. It takes courage to say ‘This might be a worthy thing, but we cannot do it just now’; no-one has yet found the courage to say this.
I support many of the ideas in the Vision and Strategy document, but I have observed in discussions in Archbishops’ Council (and I repeated only last week) that it is short on using theological and biblical language that is recognisable as Anglican, and that has clearly put some people off. There are signs of this in the latest version, but we could do with more.
But the moment we talk about church planting, using the kind of language that John McGinley deploys, we are stretching the cords of the wide tent of the Church of England even further than it already has been. St Paul committed to ‘being all things to all people’, but he didn’t try and do it all at the same time. These debates once more raise the question about how far the coalition of the C of E can stretch; can it really be a hospitable place for views which are coming to be almost contradictory?
This was highlighted for me last week when, once again, I engaged in a discussion with Angela Tilby about whether the language of ‘missionary disciples’ was really Anglican. We have been here before! The language is clearly biblical, and features in the ordinal. It has not been a historically important part of Anglican language—since that has made the assumption of Christendom, so that mission was something you did elsewhere. But if we cannot throw off the shackles of a Christendom mentality we are in trouble.
The phrase is actually borrowed from Pope Francis.
First the pope said, “The missionary disciple has first of all a center, a point of reference, which is the person of Jesus.” He noted the several instances in which Jesus is acting in these verses: It was he who called them, he who sent them, he who gave them power, he who commanded them. In almost every sentence, Jesus is the subject and the apostles are the direct object. This repetition, the pope noted, “highlights the fact that the Apostles have nothing of their own to announce, nor capable on their own to show for themselves, but they speak and act as those ‘sent,’ as messengers of Jesus.”
The Holy Father went on to note that our status as missionaries is not a consequence of ordination, but of baptism, [my emphasis: please note Angela!] that all of us are called to be missionary disciples, to be sent by Jesus and speak on his behalf, not on our own.
“And even for us this mission is authentic only if it begins from its unchanging and consistent center which is Jesus,” he said. “It is not an initiative of individual believers, groups or even large groups, but it is the Church’s mission inseparably united with her Lord. No Christian proclaims the Gospel ‘on his or her own,’ but only as one sent by the Church who received the mandate from Christ himself.”
If this is good enough for the Church of Rome, why won’t it do for the Church of England? If we cannot agree even on this central, basic idea, then the coalition is going to pull apart.
Three issues here need further consideration. The first is the developing vision for lay ministry. If the vision of lay-led church planting was the entirety of the strategy, then we will have lost a real vision for what it means to be a lay member of the people of God. The recent report Setting God’s People Free offered a rather different perspective:
The task we face as the Church is not a functional or managerial one. We are not trying to train up new volunteers to fill the gaps left by declining clergy numbers or make people work even harder to rescue the institutional Church. Rather our aim is that all should be able to respond to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ and rejoice to the full in following the vocation and using the gifts he has given them. Our aim in this paper is to find a way to enable Christians to live the life of Jesus Christ in all its fullness.
God uses people to reach people, and he has put each of us in a particular place to reach the people—our friends, neighbours, families, work colleagues—in that place. Lay-led church planting might be an important, even essential, part of what we need to do right now, but it cannot represent the vocation of most lay people.
Just as ‘those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8.4), taking the seeds of the gospel into all manner of fields, so lay ‘missionary disciples’ are to live out their lives scattered amongst the population, testifying to what they have found in the person of Jesus.
The second issue is the question of theological training for those leading churches. Adrian Hilton mentions this, albeit in his usual sardonic register.
A parish-based innovation which is overseen by qualified parish clergy is welcome if it leads people to Christ. But church leaders who have not submitted to a “long, costly college-based training” will have little theology and poor (or no) formation. You end up with a Wesleyan model of church (conveniently forgetting that the Wesleys were steeped in theology and had a profound understanding of Anglican orthodoxy), with all the inherent dangers of error and heresy being lay-preached.
Dr Brett Gray, who is chaplain of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, focusses more directly on it in his online comment:
My main problem with 10,000 new churches and the Myriad approach? I’ve read too much Wendell Berry, Eugene Peterson, Calvin and Barth. So, I think this is a consumerist/technological response to a spiritual problem.
Theological education and formation, vital for both clergy and lay leaders, is an enabling and not a limiting factor. Unless one is using ‘limiting factor’ only in a resource management context. The problem is, having lived in that part of the Evangelical world for a while, that’s not completely the bounds this language stays in. I can’t tell you how often the ‘heart knowledge is better than head knowledge’, and ‘theological study is bad for your faith’ tropes played out in parts of my Christian formation. This is not true of all Evangelicalism. There are other, deeper, traditions. But it plays out in parts of Anglican Charismatic Evangelicalism still, alongside a deep seated pragmatism (and not the good sort of pragmatism).
So, for those saying ‘calm down, limiting factor is about resources not a judgement on people’, that’s not really, completely, true. It’s language which betrays deeper commitments and it’s not harmless.
I think he is quite wrong on seeing church planting as ‘consumerist’; consumerism is what you get in large (and mega-) churches, which can often be more about broadcast and less about relationships. But small group church plants will be high on relationships, and in that sense the antithesis to consumerism. Churches become ‘mega’ when they don’t plant, and if larger churches (from which it is easier to quietly leave) change and become clusters of church plants, this will be a good thing.
I also disagree with his ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ about the language used. But I agree whole-heartedly with his concern for theological education and formation. The Resourcing Ministerial Education (RME) process of 2015 introduced radical changes, apparently unintentionally, even though there was clear warning this would happen. It has led to a whole-sale shift away from full-time, residential training to part-time and context-based training, neither of which (though they have some important pedagogical and practical advantages) give nearly the same time for learning and formation. I teach on both context-based and local courses, and they have a valuable and vital contribution to make. But the wholesale shift in the national patterns was unplanned and not given proper consideration. This has not solely been the result of ‘charismatic evangelical pragmatism’ as Brett assumes, but the result of pragmatism in all quarters, including liberal pragmatism.
And for the last 40 years we have had a pattern of theological training which is fragmented (since there is no common syllabus) and, historically speaking, very thin on the traditional disciplines of biblical studies and doctrine. If Stephen Cottrell is right, and ‘Whatever strategies we develop need to begin with and flow from a profound spiritual renewal and a greater waiting upon God’, then this should begin with having a shared, depth syllabus for ordination training.
The third and final issue is one that casts a shadow over all this. As long as bishops make divisive comments about sexuality, in which they denigrate those in their care who actually believe what the Church teaches, then we are compounding the stress, overload, fragmentation and disagreement that already exists.
Adrian Hilton ends his article with this sarcastic summary:
Isn’t it a curious vision for renewing and reinvigorating the Church of England that the strategy is apparently to inculcate a new generation with the theology of the Free Church: you don’t need knowledgeable priests, you don’t need beautiful buildings, and you don’t need rigorous qualifications in theology: these are key limiting factors to mission. All you need is a passion for Christ and the ability to lead a Bible study. The rest is otiose.
Possibly by accident, he has made a true observation: what we need is a passion for Christ. All too often learned traditionalism lacks this infectious passion. How else can you explain that fact that only 17% of the average Church of England congregation would even contemplate inviting a friend to a service? By contrast, new church plants see that figure rise to 70%, 80% or even 90%. We don’t want ‘zeal without knowledge’ (Rom 10.2), but neither will we survive with the knowledge without zeal that is all too frequent.
The church will only grow with passion; it will only endure with understanding. We need both.