Is Church decline the fault of poor leadership?

917cjkqyb-lIn the summer, and after a year’s delay, Bloomsbury published That Was the Church That Was by Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead. Woodhead is professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster, and Brown has been a religious correspondent for a national newspaper for many years. So you might expect them both to know what they are talking about when it comes to the Church of England. But the review by Edward Lucas in The Times sets out how much an explanation is needed of recent decline in church attendance—and how signally this book fails to offer it:

It deserves a definitive book, explaining how a mighty, self-confident and global institution, with centuries-old roots and run by kind, intelligent and hard-working people, was shunted to the sidelines of national life in less than a generation. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead have failed to do that. Despite flashes of insight and some vivid writing, their book is lazy, spiteful and meandering.

I was keen to read the book for myself to see whether this withering assessment was deserved, or whether it reflected the interests and concerns of the reviewer. Sadly it was the former.

The book starts with a personal and anecdotal account of a meeting of bishops at St George’s, Windsor in 1986. The reader is offered the hope that this anecdote will form a window into some serious insight into the situation of the Church at that time, and that the well-observed pen portraits about the bearing and attire of the main actors will lead into an assessment of their deeper qualities. But here, and throughout the book, it feels as though the clever and the superficial comments are as far as it goes. Most Christians (for Brown) were either ‘sinister or ludicrous’, and these characters do not fare much better. David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, was a man ‘intoxicated with his own cleverness’, and John Habgood, Archbishop of York, was ‘vague with precision and subtlety.’ Alongside this, the opening chapter begins a long process of inaccuracy and failure to understand; General Synod ‘sets no budgets’ claims Brown, omitting reference to the major votes on finance that happen annually, but allows clergy to set ‘generous remuneration’, an odd description of pay which remains below that of a newly qualified teacher.

The second chapter offers a partially sympathetic account of life at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, when Linda was a tutor. In this chapter we are introduced to the general cynicism about the clergy (who ‘enjoy eating [their] own cake whilst looking down on other cake-eaters’) mixed with parodic and simplistic caricatures of other theological traditions—mostly evangelicals. Her account of reviewing students as ‘gossip with intent’ illustrates more than anything how inappropriate it is to appoint a new Cambridge graduate, with neither a research degree nor any ministry experience, as a lecturer in a theological college. Another feature introduced here is the contradiction between one part of the book and another, possibly a result of poorly planned collaboration: Cuddesdon is mocked for its lack of self-analysis and inability to innovate, whilst a few chapters on, those who do both are dismissed as being captivated by ‘management voodoo.’

Chapter 3, on ‘Gays and Evangelicals’, displays some of the most egregious errors in the book. John Stott is described as a ‘Calvinist’, which suggests a manifest ignorance of Stott, Calvinism or both. Wild assertions pepper the narrative (‘evangelicals are disproportionately likely to be gay’) set within a genuinely poor understanding of evangelical theology, which is depicted as at once monolithic and constantly at war with itself, and the cause of all the problems of the C of E despite being frustratingly marginalized. The oddest part of this chapter is the sudden turn from Stott to an anonymous book about the experience of being gay and evangelical, The Returns of Love, and most readers must wonder about the connection. I know from a long phone conversation with Andrew Brown that he believed Stott was the author (he wasn’t) and I strongly suspect that this claim is what caused the libel case which led to the first edition being pulped, even though Brown denies this.

(I have recently seen extracts from the pulped first edition, and it contains some truly eye-watering comments as part of what reads as a prurient exploration of Stott’s supposed inner agonies about his own sexuality. I think Brown and Woodhead were saved from an even worse fate by this not seeing the light of day.)

Chapter 4 offers a ‘brief theory of religious decline’ which turns out to be an odd mix of helpful description with a kind of ideological fundamentalism. There is a recognition that the main reason for decline in church attendance has been external rather than internal—huge cultural changes, not least around the Thatcherite embracing of neo-liberalism and the individualism that accompanied it. But immediately the real problem is failure of the leadership. And what did the leadership fail to do? To ‘engage’ with the changes, rather than critique them, which appears to mean simply changing what the Church believes to fit wider culture. Description becomes prescription; because the C of E was a ‘societal’ church and clergy were no different from doctors or squires or milkmen, then for ‘evangelicals’ with their ‘Calvinist’ concern to stand against corruption was a failure to understand what the Church is for. (Once again, there is an odd identification of evangelicals with the overall leadership of the Church). Historically, the Church has ‘largely been unconcerned with corruption, and open to everyone’, something you could only believe if you had never opened up the BCP.

Chapter 5 explores the issue of women’s ordination. It includes an interesting and perceptive analysis of the role of women in faith, and some lyrical evocation of a bygone age of social religion, but this is mixed with serious omissions and unresolved contradictions. At the top of p 78, John Stott (the evangelical) is an uncomprehending villain because of this theological outlook; at the bottom of the same page Donald Coggan (the evangelical) is a heroic spokesman for the cause. Most extraordinary is the omission of the 1976 Synod motion which stated that ‘there is no theological objection to the ordination of women’; to omit this lynchpin of the process is an error of both writing and editing. The 1985 decision to ordain women as deacons was not (as is claimed) an ‘inadvertent’ step towards ordination to other orders, but a conscious move towards it. At least the chapter does note the key role of George Carey (hero here, villain two pages on) and the problematic compromise of the Act of Synod.

Chapter 6 takes the gloves off for a sustained character assassination of George Carey. It accurately charts the snobbishness and sneering of criticism at the time, then cheerfully adds to it. The facts are patchy; there is no mention that Carey actually led a church (why would that matter for an archbishop?!), or that he taught at St John’s, Nottingham, since whether he knew how to drink sherry seems more important. The Decade of Evangelism is dismissed in the (anonymised) account of the late (and much loved) Martin Cavender visiting Woodhead’s parish, where ‘he tried to convince a surprised congregation about the importance of mission by recounting a set of anecdotes about how his life had been changed by Jesus.’ How intensely distasteful! In the middle of this chapter there is one of what Lucas calls ‘flashes of insight’: pp 96 to 100 offer the best short overview of the different structures of the Church and how they are related that I have read—which highlights one of the key challenges to change in the Church. But there is soon a return to error; it is simply not true that Synod kept voting through over-generous stipends and benefits for clergy. And the contradictions continue: Carey was captivated by ‘management voodoo’ when he should really have been considering ‘cutting costs, entrepreneurial spirit, attentiveness to the views of customers [!] and performance review’, phrases I think you could find in any management voodoo handbook.

Chapter 7 feels like the most cynical, offering a mixture of clever writing and misunderstanding about the charismatic renewal movement, including a character assassination of Sandy Millar and HTB. Here, David Watson is known for healing miracles (rather than evangelism); the BCP is ‘cool and static’; Billy Graham had an impact, but not because he made any converts. The charismatic movement overall was mostly about techniques of manipulation, and Millar himself is ‘shrewd, slippery and polite’. The fact that HTB led to church growth was unremarkable (and apparently either unimportant or regretable), since these things often happen but are impossible to sustain in the next generation (is that what has happened?). The impact of the Holy Spirit is to ‘puree the intellect’ until charismatics ‘attain the happy blank credulity of acid casualties’. Any interesting insights are lost here in (probably Brown’s) delight in his own clever wordsmithing.

After a review of global Anglicanism in chapter 8, chapter 9 focuses on the failures of Rowan Williams as archbishop. Central to this is a forensic analysis of his betrayal of his own beliefs about sexuality, and its outworking in his betrayal of Jeffrey John and John’s non-appointment as Bishop of Reading. If Carey’s failure was to take management seriously, William’s failure was not to take management seriously enough. (He once said to me: ‘Even my best friend wouldn’t claim I was good at prioritising’. It is fascinating though that Williams is unstinting in his praise for Justin Welby’s ability to manage, and reciprocally Welby is unstinting in his praise for William’s deep theological thinking. They’d make a good partnership.)

The last two chapters draw together some ideas and reflections of the authors, and include a brief sketch of Justin Welby. But what continues here is the odd mixture of anecdote, cynicism, wistfulness and hopeless inaccuracy. On p 208, Coventry Cathedral has become part of the HTB network. On p 218, current approaches fail to take into account that young people are ‘ceasing to follow their parents into the pew’ (best not mention Soul Survivor, Messy Church, and the explosion of youth ministry then). On p 221, the Church must ‘somehow recover the exhuberant incoherence of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (best not mention either Victorian evangelicalism nor the profoundly theological Oxford movement then, both of which contributed to the renewal of the Victorian Church). The vision appears to be of the Church becoming like the National Trust: maintain the buildings and the staff as monuments to former grandeur, but let’s not worry too much about actual attendance and congregations or discipleship, and for heaven’s sake don’t mention theology.

It has left me wondering why anyone would write such a book or bother to publish it. Perhaps a central aim is to trash the reputation of some key figures with whom the authors are acquainted. I think the book succeeds in that, at least in part. But I cannot help feeling that the reputations mostly trashed by this book are not the ones named in the pages, but the ones named on the cover.

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56 thoughts on “Is Church decline the fault of poor leadership?”

  1. That last comment was devastating!

    I think you’re absolutely right though, ordinary people are interested in theology, provided it is communicated in an understandable way.

  2. So, should we actually bother to read it?

    Normally I’m quite content to read things that have been reviewed negatively here, as even if I end up inclined to disagree there is value in taking time to see an issue from another perspective. A good example was “Journeys in Grace and Truth”, which I learned a good deal from, despite not necessarily agreeing with some of the content.

    This review however is unusually scathing of the book and the authors. Are there any redeeming features of it that would warrant me parting with my money?

    • Worth buying if you want

      a. some juicy tit-bits of gossip

      b. to admire some wonderful turns of phrase and clever allusions—though quite often you need to really be ‘in the know’ to understand what it is talking about (the problem with all clever allusions, including in the Book of Revelation)

      c. if you would like at least a partial list of the challenges facing the Church.

      Not worth buying if you are of sensitive disposition or would like any sensible analysis of where we are and where we should go from here, IMHO.

      In terms of the flavour, I have seen the first edition, and it includes, in relation to a prominent and respected Christian leader, the phrases ‘This is the morbid swelling of the Calvinist ego, inflamed and agonising…This is supposed to remind us of the humility of Christ, but it reads like the pride of Lucifer.’ You need to brace yourself to read someone who would choose to write such things about another human being. There is not much charity.

      • So, no then. *laughs*

        If I want to find well-written, polemic or vitriol aimed at the church and it’s leaders I’d go back and find my old Christopher Hitchens books (or some of Peter’s for that matter).

        As an aside, it is an interestingly backhanded compliment from you to praise the cleverness of the writing while simultaneously condemning it for it’s opacity.

        There’s something in the use of the word ‘Calvinist’ too, often a synonym for “Fundamentalist” in pieces of criticism aimed at evangelicals, as if the word is somehow an antonym for “Liberal”.

  3. Books like this pop up every ten year or so, with the intention of augmenting someone’s pension pot. They should be taken as seriously as the Church Times. Glad to see that the authors – fully paid up chatterati – have been systematically demolished by The Times.

    • Yes – the last one was Hampson, Last Rites, with an almost identical front cover.

      Even Hampson saw the weakness of pre-Percy Cuddesdon tuition which fled facts and anything solid, exalting questioning and indeterminacy – but were they encouraged to ‘question’ this whole approach? (Biblical studies was a welcome exception and an oasis within all this).
      This was the same Cuddesdon that then (and often in the last couple of generations, till recently) produced a highly disproportionate proportion of church leaders, albeit a less impressive degree-count per student.

      Woodhead is nostalgic about the 1960s which saw precipitate decline in both attendance and vocations.

  4. Pulp Fiction? ‘Pulp’ used as a verb…..

    Thanks for this Ian. I’m concerned that anyone might take this book seriously…unless they were predisposed to. When is an inaccuracy, in truth, a lie in a smart frock?

    • No. That is characteristic of the non-systematic, anecdotal nature of the discussion. The focus is on writing off personalities, incredulity at the supernatural, and commenting on how ineffective church planting has been.

      • “The focus is on … commenting on how ineffective church planting has been” ?!?!? I

        There is one paragraph in the whole book which even mentions church planting and it runs like this:

        “Most importantly, there is a sense in which the central secret of HTB’s success threatens some of the foundations of the Church of England. Church planting works, in the sense that it makes some new congregations. But it does so at the expense of the idea that the Church of England is a church for everyone, and that it is best as a broad church in which diversity is respected. The theory of church planting, developed at the Fuller Seminary in California, and whole-heartedly embraced by HTB, is based on affinity marketing. People catch religion from people like them. Strange beliefs become reasonable when they are espoused by people like us, whose reasonable character we trust in other contexts.”

        That is literally all that we say about church planting, and it starts with the phrase “Church planting works”.

        But by all means take Ian Paul as your guide to the book if you don’t want to think or engage with the questions that it raises.

  5. “The impact of the Holy Spirit is to ‘puree the intellect’…’ anyone who has received the gifts of the Spirit would be incapable of writing about the Holy Spirit in this way!

    • Another display of what Mary Archer described (in her husband) as “a gift for inaccurate precis”. The book certainly says that some charismatics had their critical faculties pureed. The example given to stand this up is a conversation I had with a fervent member of the congregation at St Marks’ Battersea who told me that the only reason people were not resurrected from the dead at English revival meetings, as happens in Africa, is that the English don’t have enough faith. This woman also had in her lavatory one of the most obviously photoshopped pictures I have ever seen, showing flames reaching upside down from the ceiling of a church in Africa. So I think the description is fair.

      It also mentions that I have myself been zapped by the Holy Spirit in Medjugorje, and describes the experience. It argues that the charismatic element of HTB was invaluable in allowing to to break out to some extent from the social and doctrinal rigidities of Stott-type evangelicalism.

      I think the charismatic movement was immensely important; I also know it had ridiculous aspects.

      If you don’t understand that both things could be true I can’t really help you.

      • Thank you for your response, Andrew.
        ‘I think that the charismatic movement was immensely important; I also know it had ridiculous aspects.’ Indeed. I suspect that some of the ‘ridiculous aspects’ came about because some people were high on enthusiasm but low on spiritual maturity. So I do not think that is fair comment to suggest that the critical faculties of such people were ‘pureed’ but I do think that there is a need of us to pray for greater discernment and wisdom for such people and also for ourselves.

  6. Ian: as a matter of interest, why do you think the decade of Evangelism failed to make any real impact? Was George Carey a great leader who was simply unable to turn the decline around? Or were there problems with his leadership that caused the decline?

    • This other Ian H.. Thinks it did make an impact on the mission ‘climate’ in the CofE. Not everywhere of course. Some were predisposed to dismiss it.

      • Ian H: worth reading the study by Leslie Francis and Carol Roberts. It concludes: “First, it is clear that, in terms of the range of performance indicators used, most dioceses in the Church of England completed the Decade of Evangelism in a significantly weaker condition than they entered the Decade. This is probably not entirely good news for the Church of England and it may, overall, be difficult to herald the Decade of Evangelism as a resounding success.”

          • Who are you kidding? The important point about the Alpha Course is that it doesn’t actually reach people who are not in some sense Christian already. It has two qualities: it turns one sort of Christian into another, and if keeps the people who run the course to some extent in touch with what non-Christians think of it, as you can see from the successive de-emphasis on traditional sexual morality. These aren’t nothing. But they are not what it is sold as doing.

            Look at the statistics in todays CT story:

            “ONLY two per cent of Anglicans in England and Wales are converts, a new study suggests.

            “The director of the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Dr Stephen Bullivant, has gathered statistics on religious affiliation from the annual British Social Attitudes surveys. … His deduction is that, in a group of 100 Anglicans, 93 will have been brought up as such, five will have started life in another Christian denomination, and only two would have belonged to no religion. (The sample group was 1681 Anglicans.)”

            And we know from other sources that only about one in three of the children of Anglican parents will inherit their parents’ faith.

          • Meanwhile, from the same story,

            “The report also looks at levels of disaffiliation, and the increasing number of those who, brought up as Christians, now categorise themselves as belonging to no religion. For every one convert who enters the Church of England or the Church in Wales, 12 who were brought up as Anglicans leave.”

            This is the single, central fact about the state of the Church of England in the last thirty years, and you would not suppose from Ian Paul’s piece that it existed, or that it was the subject of our book.

    • I was part of one of the first Springboard teams, so had some first hand experience. I have not read any serious studies of the Decade, because it has long gone.

      Two main observations. First, much of the C of E was simply not interested in the idea of evangelism—and I think Woodhead’s anecdote articulates this well. The idea that Jesus might make a difference in your life, and that you would even talk about him is just, well, laughable. And lack of worry about decline robbed this idea of any urgency.

      Secondly, once we got into Common Worship, to all intents and purposes it became the Decade of Liturgical Revision. You cannot focus on two big things like this at the same time.

      • Thanks Ian. I think I’d want to gently challenge your comment about liturgical revision. Common worship essentially just collated in to one book the results of three decades of experimentation and liturgical revision. Series 1, 2, and 3 and the ASB of 1980 had enabled us to know what we wanted and they were the bigger thing.

        You failed to answer the question about George Carey however. Given the title of this blog post is the link between decline and leadership, do you think that the C of E was poorly led during the last decade of the last century? Even if your point about the decade of liturgical revision is correct, why were our leadership allowing us to focus on two big things at the same time? Isn’t that a failure of leadership?

        • Were you on Synod during Common Worship? It dominated and was exhausting.

          Yes, there was a failure of leadership at the end of the 90s. But it was a time of massive cultural transition within the church as well as in culture.

          I think my main observation is that, looking from the inside, the existence of Archbishops’ Council has enabled some absolutely vital decisions to be made. I don’t think it functioned well over recent years, but if George Carey was responsible for its creation, then that is a vital legacy.

          • But Ian evangelism isn’t something that needed or needs to go through General Synod! It’s something for parishes and communities to get on with.

            Why did the leadership allow it to dominate so much?

  7. Iwhether or not you agree with the thesis put forward in the book, I think it’s worth reading. Yes, it’s gossipy. Yes, it’s a little free with labels (though is ‘Calvinist’ any worse than revisionist? Motes and planks…). But behind this lies a serious argument about why the CofE is declining and what might be the priorities in addressing this. Any serious thinking about the church needs to engage with this argument, irrespective of what you consider the merits of the argument to be.

    • “…. why the CofE is declining…” – the wrong question, possibly? If someone asks whether the entire Church of God in the UK is declining, and if so why, people might feel more enthusiasm for the discussion. If it is declining – not proven imho – then my suggestion is that part of the cause is the failure of almost all the churches to heed Lesslie Newbigin’s plea for “a radical theological critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism.” [Foolishness to the Greeks, SPCK 1986, page 144.]

    • Jonathan, what exactly do you think the thesis is that is being put forward?

      One thing that struck me afresh in re-reading is the sheer contradiction and incoherence of the book.

      What proposal do you think we need to consider here?

    • “Any serious thinking about the church needs to engage with this argument.”

      Is that not the point of this review? A conversation about church decline needs to be had, and had with more urgency, but this method is about the worst way to go about it possible. Ian’s position would be that this book is as bad as no book, and in fact takes us further away from the starting point of looking seriously?

    • There is no time to engage with poor arguments in a world which contains plenty of good arguments. ,It is the good arguments that will obviously be prioritised.

      Worse: the arguments that we identify as poor are often so identified because they do not make sense or are self-contradictory. So by definition those particular arguments deserve zero engagement, because how can you engage with something that does not make sense in the first place?

  8. An amusing review which lessens my already low respect for the authors (I don’t know much about Linda Woodhead except that she regards ‘discipleship’ as a concept alien to the church, but Andrew Brown wilfully misunderstood a comment of mine on a panel at Greenbelt this year, taking it to an extreme I had never intended). As for John Stott being the author of The Returns of Love (a fine book, though I don’t agree with its conclusion), I know exactly who wrote it, and no way was it Uncle John – a man for whom, though I don’t share his evangelicalism, I have enormous respect, especially for how he modified his views over the decades in light of further Scriptural study, which some of his contemporaries failed to do. Thanks for warning us off this book Ian – sounds like the sociology of religion equivalent of Dan Brown!

  9. When I read attacks on people like John Stott and Sandy Millar I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s attacks on Billy Graham. Perhaps the best response being from the President of Union Theological Seminary Henry P. van Dusen:
    ‘Dr Niebuhr prefers Billy Graham to Billy Sunday. There are any, of whom I am one, who are not ashamed to testify that they would probably have never come within the sound of Dr Niebuhr’s voice or the influence of his mind if they had not first been touched by the message of the earlier Billy. Quite probably five or ten years hence there may appear in the classrooms and churches of Billy Graham’s severest critics not a few who will be glad to give parallel testimony to his role is starting them in that direction.’ Christianity and Crisis 2 April 1956 p.40

  10. It’s very cleverly written though. For example: “A threat from Eton could be discerned from the battlements of Windsor Castle; no-one could see that a dangerous attack might come from places like Datchet, where people were proud to vote for Margaret Thatcher and were worried about gays.” And “If you want to become a Catholic or an Anglican, you can just drive to a different church on Sunday. Of course it does not seem that way to the clergy, for whom a change in theological opinion is also a change in pension provider.” Had me in stitches.

  11. Is it not the case that the decline of the CofE and its influence in the life of the nation started after the first world war and accelerated after the second? The vast numbers of people killed in those periods had an affect on people’s attitudes to religion as well as the cultural changes the wars brought about.

    That it also declined in the 1980s is also true but surely it was already underway long before that?

    • The flaw in that is to think that there has to be only one ‘decline’: logically, there could be any number. A graph will show an overall shape of decline. But it will not show that different stages in that overall decline were actually different declines because they had different chief causes.

  12. I’m so glad you read this book so I don’t have to.

    Whose reputations do you think they manage to trash, and are the accusations fair? It would be a shame if such spite claimed any scalps.

  13. I do not know the answer to this. In our church we have had small growth and are continuing to grow slowly. Things that have taken people away have been a change of location, a move, distractions ie we lost a family because their kids started playing football, a couple of others went to other churches and we lost a few through clashes of personalities….! The parable of the sower comes to mind. However I am encouraged that with the seeds sown there will be a harvest at some point and rejoicing and singing. The church has planted many seeds over the years and are still doing so. The harvest will come. I think also it is what are we introducing them too when they come to church? Is it Jesus or churchianity. some times the second takes top place and will never sustain someone long term?

  14. I’m intrigued that Ian Paul and other detractors of this book so often have to resort to distortion. Why? One example will suffice:

    Mr Paul says: “The facts are patchy; there is no mention that Carey actually led a church (why would that matter for an archbishop?!), or that he taught at St John’s, Nottingham, since whether he knew how to drink sherry seems more important.”

    The book says:
    “[Carey] had been the vigorous and inspiring vicar of a large student church in Durham; a lecturer at Oak Hill, the conservative evangelical theological college; Principal of Trinity College, Bristol; a competent and energetic diocesan bishop.” (p.94)

    Read it for yourself and judge. Now into its second reprinting, and a bestseller.

    • Hi Linda, thanks for coming on the thread. I was asked upstream to sum up the thesis of the book. I was going to summarise by saying that you argue that the decline of the Church of England is, in part, due to:

      – the church changing 40 years too late its attitude to women, thus alienating a modern, independent generation
      – the church becoming more conservative on homosexuality, while the rest of society became more tolerant, again alienating modern generations
      – the church becoming more congregational in culture, leading to large parts of society not feeling that it was ‘their’ church anymore
      – the church not facing up to social changes realistically, ignoring evidence of change and resorting to ‘solutions’ that didn’t address the core problems.

      Is this a fair summary of (at least some of) your arguments?

      • Surely the even sharper decline in churches which were ahead of the curve on social issues gives the lie to at least part of that thesis. The claim that social liberalism as a rule retards decline (or brings growth) has been thoroughly debunked.

        Perhaps the church could have responded to the deep social changes in a way which would have left it in better shape today. But if so it is hard to know how – the decline has affected almost all the major churches in Europe. It seems perverse to blame the declining fortunes of the CofE on its leadership given this wider context.

    • Linda, thanks for the correction on Carey; I would be happy to make that correction.

      But that is hardly ‘so often resorting to distortion’. can you offer corrections on the other inaccuracies and inconsistencies that I note?

      many thanks

  15. The basic argument is that the CofE collapsed because it’s a societal church in its history and DNA, and Church and society came apart. A long process, but we look at the story since the 1980s. In that period, we focus particularly on:

    -the ongoing moral revolution which saw women and gay people claiming equality, and the Church opposing it (starting with exemption from Sex Discrimination Act 1975)

    -money: the postwar financing model which cut the old link between local church and people & centralised finance; the growing clergy pension liability which led to unsustainable burdens on congregations

    -structural: Synod as sub-democratic and a stage for division and further separation from ordinary people; bureaucratic centralisation and managerialism

    I’d also add loss of intellectual credibility: failure to engage with widespread questions generated by a shifting cosmology; retreat into modernist Biblicism; intellectual marginalisation.

    All this exacerbated by a loss of the old equilibrium/healthy tension between high, low and broadchurch parties. Import of the US ‘conservatives/evangelicals v liberals’ rhetoric its place.

    Our contrast is with the sister churches in Scandinavia, especially Denmark, which have very different financing and governance agreements and a theological tradition which has kept them better articulated with their societies, and with much slower decline.

    • Well, that sounds far more measured, thanks.

      The problem you’re going to face here is that when this intelligent analysis is “glossed”, for want of a better word, by the sort of language and writing style that characterises the book (language that seems to go out of way to be spiteful and self-satisfied, I went and read a few pages on google books following my comments this morning), is it any wonder that we’re unwilling to see the wood for the trees? Did you not expect this reaction?

      As for the points you make, I think starting at the 80’s is way to late. The “ongoing moral revolution which saw women and gay people claiming equality, and the Church opposing it (starting with exemption from Sex Discrimination Act 1975)” is a symptom of the decline of marriage and family, which while yes, part of the ‘ongoing moral/cultural revolution’, began as early as the 50’s and 60’s.

        • Enough to be able to generalise about the style and tone, yes, at least partly.

          Also, i thought I was clear about not condemning the premise of the book, rather the style. As Linda has clarified here, and now yourself, the argument you make has merit, but I just found it needlessly provocative and a little patronising.

          So, in fairness, I might read it fully at some point and apologise for being sarcastically dismissive of it initiallly. But if I had picked it up in a bookshop and thumbed through it, without reading any reviews, I would have been put off.

      • I’ve dealt with church planting upthread but here are some more examples of inaccurate precis:

        ” On p 208, Coventry Cathedral has become part of the HTB network. On p 218, current approaches fail to take into account that young people are ‘ceasing to follow their parents into the pew’ (best not mention Soul Survivor, Messy Church, and the explosion of youth ministry then). On p 221, the Church must ‘somehow recover the exhuberant incoherence of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (best not mention either Victorian evangelicalism nor the profoundly theological Oxford movement then, both of which contributed to the renewal of the Victorian Church)”

        It;s not Coventry Cathedral as a whole: it is the replacement there of Paul Oestreicher by Andrew White. that is undoubtedly an example of the spread of the HTB network.

        2) Page 218 British Social Attitudes tells us that the children “Nones” are 90% likely to be nones themselves. The children of Christian families have only a 30% chance of being Christian. Stephen Bullivan’ts research shows that 12 people leave the Church of England for every1 who converts. The median agi of congregations is now (from memory) 59. The facts show perfectly unequivocally that young people are not following their parents into church. The “explosion of youth ministry” is in this wider context about as significant as a fart in a thunderstorm.

        Page 221: “Incoherent exuberance” is a remarkably polite way of describing Victorian Anglicanism. TThe exuberance is obvious. The incoherence is demonstrated by the way in which “ritualist” priests were actually thrown in jail by their evangelical brethren and the way in which there was no agreement, and still isn’t, between the two sides on what it is that a priest actually does, and why he’s there. Of course the individual positions were perfectly coherent. They were just ocmpletely incompatible with one another.

        Finally, the point that the hurchof England has never been much concerned about corruption. Here is the quote in context:

        “By the first part of the new millennium 90 per cent of the British population subscribed to a liberal set of values: this was evident in their attitudes to issues like women’s liberation, abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted dying. In most people’s minds these fell into the category of it not being appropriate to tell other people how to lead their lives.
        This was not a matter of abstract belief, but of everyday practice. To put that in the terms in which the pioneering oral historian Elizabeth Roberts once explained it, in the past when a lad was naughty at school, he was punished by the teacher, got a slap round the ear on the way home from the policeman who’d heard about it, and was then slippered by his dad. Social order was upheld by an interlocking set of authorities which supported one another. Sometime in the 1970s, they collapsed like a pack of cards.
        Religious people often think that churches decline because people stop believing in God, but in fact belief ceases to seem credible when people no longer act on it. Rituals and routine practices construct their own meanings. It is the unspoken and inarticulable parts of religion which give it strength. The more ‘religious’ belief comes to be something distinct and separate from the normal beliefs and practices of the society around it, the more vulnerable it becomes. T. S. Eliot expressed this perfectly when he wrote that ‘Bishops are a part of English culture, and horses and dogs are a part of English religion.’
        The Church of England was for most of the twentieth century an extreme example of a societal church, one which sanctified and drew strength from the everyday lives of the people. The vicar was a part of society like the squire, the doctor or the milkman. You didn’t have to be a member of church to acknowledge this, any more than you have to be ill to know what a doctor is for.
        But this is only one way for churches to function, and societal churches are different from congregational ones. The latter – which sociologists call ‘sectarian’ in a non-pejorative sense – draw a sharp divide between themselves and the rest of society, and distinguish members from non-members, in terms of commitment, finances, piety, theology and salvation. Tony Higton’s parish in Essex, though notionally Anglican, was actually run on entirely puritan-sectarian lines, with a really clear division between those who were in (and who donated 10 per cent of their income) and those who were out, unsaved, and deserving of God’s dreadful wrath. The intensity of the war between some evangelicals and the rest of the clergy derived from the clash between their congregational model of church as a community of the saved separating itself from corruption, and the Anglican model of the church as largely unconcerned with corruption, and open to everyone.”

        The plain meaning, I’d have thought, was that the Church of England did not for most of its history reject the secular world as corrupt. Again, I wouldn’t think that was particularly controversial.

    • I should add though, that while I am nothing like an informed spectator on the subject, I would be inclined to accept your other points as accurate, particularly money.

    • Linda, thanks for articulating these issues, each of which deserves further comment.

      But just to take your last point, you appear to be suggesting that Denmark is a model for us to aspire to. A recent study made this observation:

      ‘Denmark and Sweden are both characterized by remarkably low levels of traditional religious belief and church attendance (Inglehart 2004; Halman 1994). According to Palm and Trost (2000:108), Sweden is «one of the most secularized countries in the world.» Andrew Buckser (2003:59) describes Denmark as «one of the sociology of religion’s type cases in the secularization of modern society.»’


      And this is despite a historical church tax structure (like that of the Lutheran church in Germany) which it would be impossible to introduce here.

      So are you suggesting that we should aspire to even lower levels of church attendance, and complete theological marginalization in an increasingly secularised society, where Christian belief has little or no impact on the values of society?

    • very helpful and concise summary of a simple argument. The leadership of the Church is often incompetent, frequently unpleasant to the laity and deeply hypocritical in talking about mission but actually acting like the provisional wing of the National Trust who would prefer no congregation to one that challenges their authority.Unfortunately too many clergy are more interested in playing power games than adapting to a society that finds their pomposity and amorality in running its bloated organisation ludicrous and irrelevant.

  16. Shopping malls emptied churches as much as anything, helped along by the collapse of traditional authority Andrew Brown highlights above. Churches have always had competition, but with the rise of income, it got serious. The state taking over the churches’ welfare functions is linked.

    Most people don’t spend hours fretting about theology: they follow the crowd. When churchgoing was the norm, peer pressure, and social authoritarianism, kept the pews filled. Churches have always struggled in cities, where conformity’s weakened. As the West became more prosperous and urban, Christendom imploded.

    We’ve now got the sectarian model Andrew highlights above. HTB and Willow Creek are undoubtedly successful, but they’re clubs for enthusiasts, and will never serve as the means to re-evangelize nations. That’s gone, and unless Western urbanization is reversed, can’t see it returning.

    • There are now 3500 registered Messy Churches around the world. Definitely not clubs for enthusiasts, and definitely meeting a need in their local communities, or they wouldn’t be there.

  17. My copy has numerous marginal comments along the lines of ‘harsh’, ‘untrue’, ‘rubbish’…
    Nothing was been underlined because it was interesting or important
    A waste of my money and time. simon

  18. In our Northern diocese, the congregations of our traditional Anglican churches have been steadily growing smaller and older over the last 40 years, with hardly an Evangelical in sight. So don’t blame them. In fact, the few Evangelical churches seem to be growth points. Sorry if that doesn’t fit someone else’s explanations.

  19. For the record, ‘The Returns of Love’ was written by Alex Davidson. During the 1980s, he spoke at Greenbelt when it was still a largely evangelical event, and received a standing ovation for his painful and honest exploration of sexuality and faith.


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