On Friday, Linda Woodhead expressed in the Church Times her serious reservations about the recent series of reports on change required in the Church of England (under the general heading of ‘Renewal and Reform’).
Many of the responses I have read so far have been distinctly coloured by Woodhead’s previous comments and writing. This was, after all, the person who a year ago commented:
Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.
But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…
This bizarre notion arose because ‘The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.’ Though some reading last week’s article saw its analysis as a reflection on ecclesiology, this isn’t the kind of ecclesiology that most thinking people would relate to.
Woodhead was also one of the main figures behind the so-called ‘Westminster Debates’ on the state of faith in the nation. Although ostensibly involving sociological analysis of where we are at, it became clear that there was a theological agenda, and within that evangelical male clergy were the main problem.
Notwithstanding these back-stories, it is important to take Woodhead’s critique in its own terms. She starts with an arresting analogy:
IT TAKES courage and humility to admit that you need to see a doctor, and men are notoriously bad at it.
It is an ‘irresistible’ jibe, but perhaps a bit unfortunate, in that the Church Times styles her as ‘Dr Linda Woodhead’, when her doctorate is in fact honorary, and most universities would consider use of the title misleading.
I would in fact agree with a number of her criticisms of the reports, which are an uneven collection. The Green report (on senior appointments) has had the worst reception so far, though that was in large measure due to the poor way it was released and communicated. (See David Keen’s review for a more positive appreciation.) I think the report on ministry training has some refreshing and much needed recommendations—though also a serious problem or two. I agree with Woodhead too that ‘a mild sense of panic leaks out of all the reports’, and I am not sure how helpful this is. But beyond that, her analysis seems incoherent and unpersuasive.
Her opening criticism is the lack of action, expressed in the opening quip about an ailing man refusing to see the doctor. But the reports seem problematic because they are ‘resolutely practical and pragmatic’, as if that is not what is needed. In the next, rather confusing, metaphor,
“The car is stuck in a ditch! Quick! Grab the tools nearest to hand and get it out!” But, the more I read, the more I worried that the hard questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined: why the vehicle fell into the ditch; whether it needed a different engine and new running gear; and whether it was going in the right direction in the first place.
Yet, if a car is stuck in a ditch, getting it out does seem to be the most urgent task. And, despite Woodhead’s analysis, the questions about why it is in the ditch, whether it needs a different engine, and whether it is going in the right direction are all answered rather fully in each of the reports—rather too fully for many tastes. The general answer to the last two questions has mostly been ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively—and quite a few people have been unsettled by that. You might not like the answers offered (and Woodhead clearly does not) but it is a strange thing to suggest that they are not there.
Her central objection appears to hinge on the understanding of what the church is:
As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of “discipleship”.
On the question of clergy, all the research evidence points to the importance of good, stipendiary leadership in growing churches, so this is an odd objection (unless Woodhead in fact objects to churches growing). On the second issue, that of giving, everyone I know believes that giving is a sign of spiritual commitment and maturity; congregations where faith is flourishing are the ones that are giving, whatever their social context. Perhaps the key to both of these is the third, the idea that being a Christian is (in slightly mocking inverted commas) about ‘discipleship’. This is where the analysis becomes nothing short of extraordinary.
It turns out that Woodhead believes that the concept of “discipleship” is ‘theologically peripheral.’ This rather begs the question of what on earth Woodhead has been doing with her time—because it cannot have been spent reading the gospels, where the notion of discipleship is theologically central. In Matthew, five sessions of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples (after the fashion of a new Moses) is interspersed with five accounts of the disciples participating in and emulating Jesus’ ministry. In Mark, the question of confession of Jesus as Messiah and following as disciples forms the hinge of the whole gospel in chapter 8—rather helpfully placed by Mark at the centre. In Luke, the central motif from chapter 9 to chapter 19 is that of ‘following Jesus on the way’. In John, the shift is to disciples as witnesses, testifying to all they had seen and heard—and the goal for the reader is ‘that you might believe’ (John 20.31).
It might be, perhaps, that Woodhead prefers Pauline theology. Discipleship, as such, does not play a large part here. Instead, Paul focuses on the notion of ‘the body of Christ’, but I suspect that she would find this far too congregational, with its rather naive assumptions of membership, commitment, and community disciplines.
It gradually becomes clear that what Woodhead is offering us is an entirely secularised vision of the Church as a modern institution. We should have a positive view of modern society; to reject its ‘secularised, materialistic culture’ is nothing more than ‘paranoid and unevidenced projection’. We really ought to be aiming for ‘cuts and closures.’ Leadership in the Church should be decided by ‘open competition, proper accountability, transparency, and 360° assessment’ since ‘[i]t works for the rest of us’ in secular employment. (Looks like the Green report’s managerialism really doesn’t go far enough.) We shouldn’t be trying to ‘bring society into church’ (that is, tell anyone about our faith and expect them to act on it) since this is far too congregational. And we should raise money by means of ‘an annual membership charge along the lines of the National Trust, and competitive charging for some aspects of the Church’s work.’ Goodness; all those scare stories about privatisation wrecking the Health Service must be completely wrong!
For Woodhead, a model example here is the Church of Finland and its initiatives in offering internet prayers. Because membership is defined by a near-mandatory tax, it turns out that it is ‘one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world.’ And yet actual weekly church attendance is 1.8% of the population and falling (compared with 9%–12% in England at the moment, depending on how you count). And those that do attend treat faith as a strictly private matter.
Most Lutheran Finns are not like Nina Mustonen, a parishioner in Helsinki’s Pakila district, who attends church most Sundays. But similar to most Finns, she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about her faith.
She says she prays, but those thoughts are private. “Going to church brings a form of continuity. I believe there’s a higher power, but I don’t spend much time thinking about what the Bible says,” Mustonen explains…
Mustonen, a grocery store clerk, says religion is not a discussion topic in her workplace. In fact, she says she would feel uncomfortable if a colleague brought up matters of faith.
Is this really a ‘more imaginative vision’ of the Church’s future? It rather makes me want to run back into the arms of Green and his managerialism crying ‘All is forgiven!’
Woodhead’s solution to a declining church is not for the decline to end, and numbers (and depth of understanding) to grow, but to redefine the church as that section of society which vaguely supports it. This sounds very much like a return to the past, where bishops claimed the Church consisted of half the country, because that was the number who had been baptised—despite many of them never darkening the doors of a church ever again.
There is, in fact, a better vision, one that actually involves listening to God rather than worshipping at the altar of sociology. Martin Davie expounds this rather well in his latest blog post. There, he cites two people who do know something about theology, and rather a lot about both discipleship and sharing faith:
[T]he teaching of Matthew 16:18 is clear and unmistakeable: ‘I will build my church.’ To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon on this verse from 1933:
‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church; you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me.’
Davie goes on to cite Michael Green, from his latest book When God Breaks In (Hodder 2014) p.222:
There is no way in which human beings can orchestrate the sweeping power of divine interventions, such as the ones we have looked at. They are the work of the living God, with or without human agency, and they take different forms. They come at the times of his decision. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that they never appear when all God’s people are apathetic, prayerless, unconcerned about holiness, flippant about the great issues of life, death and judgement, or disposed to reject the authority of Scripture. Scepticism in theology and hedonism in lifestyle never spawn significant spiritual revival. That in itself ought to be a significant pointer to the way in which the Church should be moving.
Woodhead is absolutely right to note in her conclusion, that ‘There is a bigger, better, and more exciting Church of England out there, waiting to be born.’ But it is to be found somewhere other than in her reduced, secularised model rooted in sociology.
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