The graphic attached here recently caused a bit of a stir in the Anglican social media airwaves. It was included as part of a document presented to the Archbishops’ Council, and was leaked (on its own, within the accompanying explanation) to social media, where it attracted mostly scornful comment, including comparisons with washing machines (going round and round—though of course washing machines to that to some purpose) and plugholes (as in going down the…). It was then presented again at last month’s General Synod, in an engaging presentation by Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, and we considered it once more at this week’s meeting of Archbishops’ Council. I think it is going to shape decision-making in the Church of England for the next few years in important ways, so it is worth reflecting on. So I would like to offer seven brief questions with reflection.
First, we ought to ask why the Church needs such a thing. Surely we already know what we should be doing, if we look to the teaching of Jesus, Scripture more widely, the creeds, and our own formularies? That is a fair question that might be raised for any local congregation which devises its own slogan, mission statement and strategy—why do we need them? And there are several good answers.
The first is that the picture of the people of God in Scripture is complex and diverse: at times we are likened to a holy temple; at others to the bride of Christ; then we are described as a disciplined spiritual army; then again as the body of Christ consisting of diverse members who all look different; and so on. Different aspects of this multi-dimensional vision will be important in different context and at different times, and part of this exercise is about (both locally and nationally) asking: what is God particularly calling us to be in this time and this place?
A second part of the answer involves being honest about what the Church of England is. Yes, it is part of the ekklesia of God in this land, and in the context of global Christianity, but it is also a complex institution with regulations, legal constraints, budgets, boards and meetings. It is not very easy to read off exactly how, for example, the Church Commissioners should be dispersing their income from the pages of the New Testament! Vision and Strategy statements like this, at their best, function as mediators between theological understanding and practical decision making.
But the third part of the answer is that, at the moment in the Church of England, there does not appear to be very much agreement as to what our priorities ought to be, and a good many ways of answering that are not working very well—as the annual Statistics for Mission show us rather clearly. Some have responded to this diagram by saying ‘The Church is dying, and instead of living in denial, we ought to allow it to die gracefully’. That might be an adequate response if the Church was only an institution—but it is more than merely that. God is a God of the living, not the dead, and where the kingdom of God is present, then there is life and growth. If we are not seeing that (and others are, both within and beyond the C of E) then we cannot allow ourselves the complacency of the ‘death with dignity’ response.
Secondly, we need to ask: is this any good? It was evident in the social media response that there are plenty of naysayers out there, and it is worth remembering that criticism is cheap, especially on social media. There were also some extensive critiques offered, but as far as I could see their main aim was to communicate how very clever the critics were, which doesn’t really get us very far. I think there are a number of very good things about this as a focus of our priorities.
It is very good that this diagram is focussed on the person of Jesus—and you might think that this really ought to go without saying. Yet the Church of England is often rather reluctant to talk about Jesus; if you do not believe me, then just listen to many of the Anglican contributors to Thought for the Day on Radio 4! One of the things I have valued about Justin Welby’s time in office so far is the fact that he is very happy to mention Jesus, and bring the focus back to him, including in his testimony about coming to faith as a Cambridge undergraduate. I recently spoke to a friend who is seeing exciting growth during lockdown, in part because he felt God was leading him and members of his team to visit door to door in the parish, after posting a note the previous week, to ask two questions: How can we help you through the winter during lockdown? and Do you know Jesus personally in your life? The result has been some remarkable conversations about faith—but I suspect this is not a widespread strategy in the C of E at the moment.
A second striking thing about this diagram is the inclusion, in the first inner ring, of the phrase ‘a church of missionary disciples’. This is hugely significant, in part because the vision of ‘disciple-making disciples’ has been central to a whole range of reflections on church planting and church growth, and in part because there has been strong resistance in the C of E even to the language of discipleship in any form. Embedding this in our current vision and strategy is a major shift in perspective, and one that many people will have seen for some time as essential.
A third question flows from this: how much of this diagram is rooted in theological thinking, and how much of it is naked pragmatism? Being pragmatic is not in itself a bad thing. When the fuses blow, or a water pipe springs a leak, or the ship is sinking, then pragmatism is the order of the day. The danger, of course, is that when we think ‘Something must be done’ and we are then offered ‘something’, we do it without proper reflection.
One of the early criticisms of the central slogan was that it fell into a naive adoption of the Nestorian heresy, in which the human and divine natures are separated in the person of Jesus, rather than being a ‘hypostatic union’ as affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon. In fact, I suspect that the separation of terms in ‘Jesus shaped, Christ centred’ arose simply from the attraction of alliteration—and the danger of this is shown by the popularity of the nonsense phrase ‘From Maintenance to Mission’. Stephen Cottrell responds to this, and the other criticism that we should be focussed on the Trinity, in these terms:
We make no distinction between ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’. The two phrases are simply a shorter way of saying we are called to be Jesus Christ centred and Jesus Christ shaped. Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, fully God and the one through whom we have access to God. It is in Jesus Christ, and therefore in the Trinitarian life of God, that we root ourselves. We also know the Son of God as Jesus Christ, Mary’s son, the preacher and healer from Nazareth, who is still the same Jesus Christ, the one we read about in scripture, the man who shared our life on Earth, lived a life like ours, taught and healed and showed us what our humanity could be, who died upon the cross for our salvation and whom God raised to life.
This is far more productive than vague and theoretical appeals to the life of the Trinity, not least because of the widespread use of quite misleading understandings of the interior life of the Trinity as a model for social organisation, which are either heretical or infinitely plastic, and in either case unhelpful.
So here is the fourth question: will we take the theology here seriously, and will we think theologically about each of these issues? Some of the language here already has plenty of theological potential: will we take that seriously?
Stephen Cottrell observes the way that, at different times in the Church’s life, different biblical texts have had a particular importance, and in this case those involved in this process have settled on 2 Cor 5.17: ‘When anyone is in Christ, there is new creation’. This could be read pragmatically: God always gives us a second chance; we can always turn over a new leaf; there is always hope of change one way or another. But to read it in this way is to ignore the enormous theological ideas that Paul is articulating here. The language of ‘new creation’ is part of the apocalyptic outlook of Paul (and Jesus, and the other writers of the New Testament), in which there are two ages, this age, and the age to come (root in Old Testament prophetic/apocalyptic language of ha-olam hazeh, and ha-olam habah). Although there is some continuity between these two ages, there is mostly discontinuity; in this present, evil age, Satan reigns, sin abounds, and there is no hope, whilst in the age to come, God has triumphed, holiness is restored, and we live in the light of the presence of God.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for his kingdom to come, and whilst we might see glimpses of that realised in our current situation, we are mostly praying for the old age to pass away and this new age to be fully realised. That is the centre of Christian hope, not least in this season of Advent. The age to come was initiated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, which defeated Satan as the ruler of this world, and brought an end to the power of sin. We participate in this new life through baptism (Romans 6) and the life in the Spirit is a foretaste of that age to come. All this means that we should expect the church of God to be, in many respects, out of step with the world in which it is situated, whilst still being embedded in it. Is the Church of England, established by law, ready to be this kind of ‘new creation’ church? Are we content to be faithful to this theological vision, even when our approach to community, ethics, and culture might thus scandalise wider society? The early followers of Jesus were content to be so, and as a result they were mocked, challenged and often marginalised—but they saw growth and life.
The converse of this is my fifth point of question and reflection. Are we ready to use distinctively Christian language to express even the practical concerns and pragmatic responses? Some of the language appears to straddle the divide here. There have been questions about the terminology of ‘mixed ecology’, either wondering what this means or seeing it as a cloak for smuggling in the destruction of the cherished ‘parish system’ (whatever that means). The language of ‘mixed economy’ has actually been around in the C of E for some time, as a way of making space for non-parochial church plants and other ‘fresh expressions’, alongside existing structures. As Stephen Cottrell notes:
The Church of Jesus Christ has always been a mixed ecology. Every church was planted once. By using this phrase, we simply acknowledge what is, but also signal the fact that in the diverse smorgasbord of the different cultures and contexts which we serve in England today we will probably need a greater and more diverse expression of church life. Hence the proliferation of mission initiatives, church plants, fresh expressions, new religious communities, and this year the remarkable new communities of faith that have been established on-line. All this is a sign of how the Holy Spirit has been leading the Church of England in recent years, noting that the most vibrant and creative new expressions of church life nearly always arise out of healthy flourishing parish ministry. There is therefore no conflict between parish ministry and becoming a more mixed ecology church.
And I think that the move from the language of ‘economy’ to the more organic language of ‘ecology’ is very positive, aligning us as it does with Jesus’ organic parables about the life of the kingdom of God.
Yet there are other areas where we could do with moving away from pragmatism and offering a more theological grounding for the strategy. For example, becoming a church which is ‘younger and more diverse’ might be taken as not much more than a practical necessity, since some congregations are dying for no other reason than the members are dying, because we are all mortal and the average age is over 70! Yet there are some very rich theological ideas about God’s promises being ‘for you and for your children’, for the importance of the household as a place of nurture, for one of the primary contexts of being disciple-making disciples is in the home, and for the theological primacy of parents knowing how to nurture faith in their children.
The most pragmatic elements of the diagram are those in the outer ring, both the headings of ‘bolder, simpler and humbler’, and the accompanying slogans which appear to be almost pure pragmatism. Yet each of these has a rich seam of theological thinking with implications for discipleship—as explored, for example, in Richard Foster’s The Freedom of Simplicity which I found profoundly challenging and influential as a young Christian. I suspect that John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry is doing something similar for this generation.
So I would love to see each of these areas given a stronger theological foundation so that we are clear that we really are committed to something distinctively Christian.
This leads to my sixth question: can we be clear and confident, instead of seeking to hold on to a thin popularity through the use of borrowed and ambiguous language?
We don’t need to incorporate controversial but widely-used slogans by talking of ourselves as a ‘church where black lives matter’; we have a rich enough theological vision of the racially diverse people of God for it to stand on its own two feet. (And including the BLM slogan only looks like virtue signalling.)
When we talk about ‘being bolder’, the primary example of this in the New Testament is the boldness of proclamation, the first mark of mission, the one that is consistently watered down and side-stepped in C of E documents, and the one looks rather conspicuous by its absence in this diagram.
When we talk about ‘diversity’, this is meaningless unless we are clear about diversity of what—culture, class, race, theology? Each of these has a quite different dynamic, different causes, and calls for different remedies. And the common applause for the idea of unbounded theological diversity (‘we are a broad church!’) flies in the face not only of the New Testament (with its repeated emphasis on the importance of good teaching and the refutation of error) but also of the formularies of the Church of England. When we are a church that, theologically, is a mile wide but an inch deep, we should not be surprised if people think us shallow.
Are we serious about ‘looking like the community we serve’? If so, then we need to take seriously the massively challenge to engage with working class culture, in all its variety, since this is the largest group missing from the Church. We will also need to step away from the dominance of questions of sexuality in our use of time and energy; for many at the moment, this is an indulgent concern of what looks like a metropolitan elite, when there are far more pressing questions to be dealt with.
Finally, the $64,000 question: will we follow this through in an integrated way? It is encouraging that this vision and strategy diagram and document have arisen from discussions in the House of Bishops, so we might hope that diocesan agendas will increasingly be shaped by it. It is also clear that this will lead to a reconfiguration of the Archbishops’ Council and its nine priorities, which will be rewritten for the next quinquennium (five year term).
But will we follow the goals here in a consistent way? I was very encouraged to read this early on in the commentary:
Therefore, there needs to be a strong call to the renewal of our life in Christ: a renewal of prayer and worship; a biblical and theological renewal where we grow in intimacy with God, and overflow with the love of Christ, and are able to give reasons for the hope that is in us. Our first priority is to be a people of prayer, rooted in the revelation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, the one who died for us and rose again and who pours his Spirit into our hearts for our renewal and for the renewal of the earth. This revelation is given to us in the Scriptures that we cherish.
Will we take the ‘revelation given to us in the Scriptures’ as our guiding authority, not least in the LLF process? Prayer must be a priority—but for the early followers of Jesus so was the study of the Scriptures. Will we recover a vision of ordained ministry as that of shepherds who feed their sheep through teaching the Scriptures? And will ordination training play a key part in this ‘biblical and theological renewal’? Will the study of Scripture and doctrine return to form the centre weight of pre-ordination training, as it once did, rather than this precious time being swallowed up in the sands of pragmatism and practicalities?
I look forward to the developments that follow this with interest…