The C of E has just published (yet another) report. It publishes many of them. During my 14 years on the General Synod I think the authorities must have destroyed half a rain forest to produce all the paperwork we were given.

This one is called “Challenges for the New Quinquennium” which, you must admit, is a catchy title. It was written by the Bishops of Birmingham and Derby with others. The bishops have realised that the future of the church is under threat. One great need, they say, “is to be explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem. This is partly about taking on the ‘new atheism’.”  It goes on “about challenging public bodies to understand that the proper avoidance of religious discrimination does not mean being suspicious of or hostile towards churches and other faith groups.”

That is indeed a major challenge. I’m not naive enough to hanker for the (allegedly) “good old days” but it is amazing and disturbing to see the change in our own society over the last few decades. We have changed from a society where religion (mainly Christianity) was respected to where it is treated as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, anti-social and even dangerous. We have changed from where the church’s position and influence in society was accepted to where there is an increasing desire to marginalise and exclude it.

Yes, we need to take on the “new atheism” which is what I have sought to do in this website (see http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/apologetics.html).  But we also need to take on the more subtle attacks through politicians and society leaders who have let political correctness undermine their common sense, and through the constant secularist propaganda emanating from news, documentaries and drama in the media.

However, I think the church itself is significantly to blame. I note that the report does not refer to the church’s failings. As I read it various serious weaknesses in the church came to mind.

1. The clergy are not trained to do evangelism

“Challenges for the New Quinquennium” calls on the church “to take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England.”  It adds: “Giving priority to the gifts and practice of evangelism will be an urgent challenge for the Church of England in this quinquennium.”

This sounds good and I’m glad evangelism is getting a mention, but in my view it is just words, rather like the Decade of Evangelism some years ago had little practical effect. The problem is that many clergy simply don’t know how to do evangelism. They don’t know how to put the gospel over simply and convincingly so that people want to commit their lives to Christ. They don’t know how to lead a person to Christ.  As far as I can tell, there is very often no practical training in evangelism in ordination courses and colleges. That’s because many of the trainers (including of clergy) don’t know how to do it themselves. Whilst this remains the case there is no hope of extensive numerical growth in the C of E.

I thank God for my background and training which gave me practical help as to how to do evangelism, how to lead people to Christ. Such help is available – but not in the average C of E ordination (or Readership) training.

2. “A growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community” is a pipe dream

The report calls on the church “to re-shape or reimagine the Church’s ministry for the century coming, so as to make sure that there is a growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community.”

This is a laudable aim but it is a pipe dream as things stand at present, partly because of the lack of evangelism and partly because of a lack of radical thinking about the role of stipendiary clergy. The report notes that “40% of the Church of England’s stipendiary clergy are due to retire in the next decade.”  This means that the remaining stipendiary clergy will be spread very thinly across the country. Already clergy have 8, 9, 10 or more parishes under their care, especially in rural areas. In practice this breeds a filling station approach to the church. The vicar rushes around filling up the tiny, dwindling congregations with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons. Eventually the vicar will be rushing around taking funerals and then there will be no more need to rush around with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons.

It is essential that the church uses local people, living permanently in the parish, as the mainstay of the church’s ministry to that parish. But again, the church has paid lip service to developing every member ministry. Many clergy simply don’t know how to do it.  It requires:

a.       Encouraging spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture. Sunday services are not in themselves adequate for this but without this spiritual growth and openness to the Holy Spirit there is no foundation for every member ministry.

b.      There is a need for practical teaching about the different gifts and a practical way of finding the individual’s gift(s).

c.       Then there is a need for encouragement and training to use that gift.

Leadership is important but it won’t be able to rely on stipendiary clergy. The church is lamenting the imminent retirement of 40% of the stipendiary clergy and yet many of those clergy, when retired, will be willing to take a practical lead especially in the parish where they live. The church appears to be very haphazard, inadequate and wasteful in its approach to the use of retired clergy who are willing to be used.

Then there are NSMs (non-stipendiary ministers) and OLM’s (Ordained Local Ministers) who can be helpful, although it appears that their training leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes NSM’s and OLMs are attached to parishes well served by stipendiary clergy and that can be unhelpful. I had two OLMs in one parish alongside a stipendiary curate, two Readers and myself as Rector. A lot of the effort I put into planning worship was working out how to use the whole team adequately and fairly. We were overstaffed, yet other local parishes were understaffed. We need NSMs and OLMs in parishes where stipendiary clergy are not constantly available. We can also use Readers to take the lead in the local church. I’m not denying this happens in some situations but the C of E still seems too wed to the idea of the stipendiary cleric in every parish. And it won’t work.

3. There is a lack of corporate prayer

Here we are, facing perhaps the greatest challenge to the future of the church and you won’t find the word “prayer” anywhere in this official General Synod report. I heard a bishop say once: “When the church gets stuck it appoints a committee.”

Maybe the Lord won’t take our concern for the future of the church seriously until we all get down on our knees to ask him to do something about it. Oh yes, we pray in church – for a few minutes. But we follow someone who, despite a very busy timetable, spent nights of prayer and often withdrew to prayer.

The church which prays together will grow. Some traditions are not used to prayer meetings. Even amongst Evangelicals there seems a widespread lack of interest in them. No wonder the future looks bleak, the church is declining and in many communities will die of old age.

The real challenges for new quinquennium are:

1.      For clergy to learn how to do evangelism, to teach others to do evangelism and to engage in it.

2.      For churches to encourage spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture, to teach about and practically find the gifts of churchmembers and to use them.

3.      For the church to be more creative as to how it uses retired clergy, NSMs, OLMs and Readers to lead local congregations.

For the church to get down on its knees for extensive, regular prayer about the future and its challenges.

12 Thoughts on “Is the Church of England in terminal decline?

  1. The Church of England needs to change with the times and also use modern marketing methods to promote itself. We have moved on from the authoritive and god fearing Victorian days when the faithful were expected to attend church. Today there are many distractions such as late night and sunday shopping, car boot sales, satellite tv and computer games. English pubs are also being deserted in favour of staying at home and drinking cheap booze from Tescos. With so many natural disasters, wars and civil unrest in the world at present, now may be a golden opportunity to revive the christian faith and spirituality with something to believe in, that being God. Would you agree Tony?

  2. Thank you for this, John. I agree that the church needs to use modern marketing methods. We ourselves in our village church use websites, literature distribution, etc. However, it is one thing to advertise and quite another to have something worth advertising. If all you have to offer is a small, elderly, dwindling group of rather exclusive church people, clinging to old fashioned ways and kept going by fundraising, it’s best not to advertise it! Don’t misunderstand, I value the hard work of fundraisers. But there needs to be a church which:
    • Believes God is love so it gives a warm welcome and offers strong support to all with whom it comes in contact.
    • Believes Christianity is supernatural, so it prays – and expects tangible answers to prayer.
    • Believes the Bible is the church’s handbook, so it reads it and discusses it together.
    • Believes it exists for the whole community not just the congregation, so it reaches out with the Good News of Jesus.
    If anyone’s local church isn’t like that, they shouldfind one which is.

    In our church we really enjoy being together, whether on a Sunday or at our midweek Explore the Bible gathering. Alongside the serious issues, we have a lot of fun together. It knocks “late night and Sunday shopping, car boot sales, satellite TV and computer games” into a cocked hat. And as for “staying at home drinking cheap booze from Tescos” (which sounds mind-numblingly boring) there is no comparison.

    We all need to be on our own sometimes. But human beings were meant to be in community and to relate to each other face to face. If we miss out on that we become less than fully human. That’s why Jesus started a church. We were made for something more than “late night and Sunday shopping, car boot sales, satellite TV and computer games.”

    Does the church need to change? Yes, it needs to combine returning to the fundamentals – prayer, exploring and teaching the Bible, reaching out with the Good News of Jesus – with using modern means of communication.

    But Society needs to change too. The sort of society which you briefly describe is missing out on the real purpose of life and the fulfilment which comes with it. Materialistic, pleasure-seeking individualism doesn’t satisfy. It never has.

    As for “natural disasters, wars and civil unrest” our first and most important response must be to reach out to help those affected by them. But these events might make people think about the ultimate questions in life.

  3. I enjoyed reading this article. I think the Church is growing in other parts of the world, but I’m not too sure about home. Holy Trinity, Brompton and All Souls, Langham Place seem to be thriving. Maybe the Church leadership should emphasise a more personal and vital Faith, with fewer pronouncements on political topics. There are more young people in parts of North America joining Anglican Mission (A.M.in A.) and A.C.N.A. Parishes. See http://www.dailyaudiobible.org for an example of modern communication technology being used to spread the unchanging Gospel. The Rev. Brian Hardin who runs the site is an Anglican priest.

  4. Thank you for this, Roland. It is true that there is a good deal of church decline in England:

    • Church attendance has been declining since the 1950s

    • White churches are declining to the lowest figures for 200 years.

    • An estimated 1 million people gave up regular churchgoing in the 1990s

    • 500,000 less people attend church regularly than in 1998

    • Church attendance has fallen from over 4.7 million in 1989 to almost 3.1 million in 2005. That is a fall from 9.9% of the population to 6.3%. (It was 11.7% in 1979).

    • By 2015 the attendance will be below 2.5 million – 4.7% of the population.

    • 50% of churches are declining.

    • Declining churches are losing more than growing churches are gaining.

    However, that is not the whole picture. There is also a good deal of church growth too:

    • Between 1998 and 2011 more than 500 new churches have been established.

    • 34% of churches are growing, especially predominantly black congregations compared with 20% in 1998. 16% are stable – a slight increase on 1998.

    • 25% of churches which were declining in the 1990s are now growing.

    • Pentecostal and Black churches are growing and by 2015 25% of UK churchgoers will be non-white.

    I have already said what I believe facilitates church growth, by the grace of God. I certainly agree that we must “emphasise a more personal and vital Faith” as you put it. But I think the church also has a prophetic voice in society, which will include comment on political issues where they raise moral or spiritual issues. I’m all in favour of a prayerful use of modern communication technology.

  5. Dr Timothy Norris on March 31, 2013 at 10:41 pm said:

    I read the report above and reflect upon underlying factors for church attendance decline. I believe the two principal factors are personal mobility and electronic media (including Internet and computing devices). When people had little mobility, they attended worship at their local church and also received their teaching therefrom and social interaction thereat. A contemporary problem is that people seek their entertainment and recreation remotely from their place of dwelling, and use electronic media for their information supply and home entertainment. It is hard for an average parish church with wheezy organ and standard traditional form of service to compete with the quality of entertainment and recreation now available to people via modern electronic media. It thus becomes a poorly-rewarding chore for people to go to their small rural local church these days, and people simply vote with their feet to stay home or travel elsewhere. The way the church needs to deal with this is to do a “Beeching” as applied to the railways. There is a great need to concentrate church activities at various regional centres which have the critical mass to provide top-class professional presentation, inspiration and teaching. To support this assessment, cathedral attendances have been on the increase recently as cultural and religious centres to which people are prepared to drive in vehicles to participate. The success, for example, of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral (Suffolk, UK) is just an example of such a successful cultural and religious focal point which is richly provided with talent and presentation resources. We will thus experience a relentless decline in small rural parish churches ( with modest resources and lacking critical mass) over the coming years. Beeching closed the small rural railways lines as being non-viable, to concentrate on the major rail links. There is clearly an analogy here witht he Church of England. The Church of England desperately needs to be rationalized in its manner of operation, to use its available financial resources in an optimally effective manner. There is simply too much waste of resources and talent in the way the Church of England is presently configured. This is the simple reality, however uncomfortable it may be for those that want to preserve our mediaeval church building heritage. Is it not time to “wheel in” the redundant churches commission in a big way?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, which I find interesting. I do think the hierarchy are not facing up to the decline. However, I wouldn’t give up on the small local church (rural or not). In our experience prayer changes things. The problem is that many churches don’t really pray, other than briefly and formally in the services. In our own local church we have seen God answer prayer – and we give him all the credit. I am technically retired but de facto the priest in our village. We came here three years ago and we have seen numerical growth and (equally important) spiritual growth, including people coming to faith. The services are modern. We have seen a mid-week Bible discussion group come into being which also spends an extensive time in corporate prayer. Hardly any of the participants had any experience of praying out loud but now they all do so, and we have seen answers to prayer about healing. There is a strong mutually-supportive fellowship. We have a new monthly cafe church which is drawing in those who have not and do not come to the normal services. As I say, we give all the glory to God. We are an ordinary bunch but God answers prayer. The numbers aren’t large but the growth has been significant.

  6. Dr Timothy Norris on June 9, 2013 at 9:23 am said:

    In Victorian times, we had, at least in rural areas, an agrarian feudal system. If one were in the employ of the local “Lord of the Manor”, it would be expected that one would attend the local church where the Lord of the Manor paid his tithe and had a special resevred pew. Not to attend church every Sunday might be detrimental to one’s employment with the Lord of the Manor, so there was plenty of pressure to confirm. In Mediaeval times, women were forced to church for fear of being accused as being witches, wherein an accusation of being a witch had very servere consequences. Thus, the economic system of previous centuries forced people into churches. Such coersion was also used earlier by the British Empire to force Opium on the Chinese, and has also been used, alleged by some people on the basis of evidence from financial transactions on stck exchanges, in more recent times by sending troops to Afghanistan to control opium production so that herion supplies to Russia, Iran, Pakistan and similar places can be controlled by the “British Empire” to undermine regimes in these countries.
    The Church of England was established on flimsy foundation of a poltiicalfeud between the Pope and Kind Henry VIII regarding King Henry VIII’s marital problems. With such a flimsy foundation, i is not surprizing that the Church of England as an establishment is falling to pieces. Only when one gets to grass roots level, for example in small parishes, were a genuine sincere group of people come together, does one get the shoots of genuine Christian growth developing as commented by other commentators here. The Church of England, with its heavy burden of diocesan contributions demanded from struglling rural churches for example, is sucking out the lifeblood of true Christian growth and, in the process, helping to make the UK a secular state wherein having a religious affiliation is regarded as a social problem, namely some form of mental handicap. This is the true reality of the situation.

    • Thank you for your comment, Timothy. I am well aware that some of the history of the church, especially when too closely aligned with political power, is not consistent with Christianity. Any coercion over Christian belief and practice is wrong.

      However, your description of the origin of the establishment of the C of E is only part of the story. In actual fact, it happened in the context of a great movement of the Holy Spirit, namely the Reformation, which liberated the church from domination by a corrupt period in the Roman Catholic Church and, most important, ensured that the Bible was available in English and that the crucial doctrine of Justification by grace through faith was revived. Many people lost their lives in order to further this move of the Spirit. These were the founders of the Church of England. In other words, it was founded to some degree on the blood of Anglican martyrs and not “on the flimsy foundation of a political feud between the Pope and … Henry”, as you put it. It was a useful coincidence that Henry VIII had a dispute with the Pope because in those days the “Protestant, Reformed Faith” of the Church of England required political protection from Rome.

      I also have to point out that the dioceses have tried to cut back their expenditure as much as possible and we must remember that the contributions made by parishes to the diocese are largely to cover the stipends of the clergy who serve those parishes.

      The causes of secularisation of British society are more complex than you imply. It cannot simply be put down to any failings in the C of E. Having said that, I am critical of the current C of E (and was very publicly so for 15 years on the General Synod from 1985). The church has seriously failed the country particularly by lack of corporate prayer, not effectively preaching the Gospel which was restored by the Reformation and not properly running local congregations on biblical principles in the power of the Spirit. For my current criticisms, see, for example, my new article “Current Events June 2013” which is at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/blog/?p=374.

  7. Dr Tim on July 18, 2016 at 11:20 pm said:

    Hello Tony

    The C of E is totally out of touch with the present situation. Many C of E clergy, particularly older ones that I have met, seem to have an attitude “… the present arrangement does not need reforming because it will see my time out (to retirement) … I am not concerned about the plight of the next generation to come …”.

    In many rural parishes, PCC’s are often over occupied with trivia, whereas congregation numbers continue to dwindle. A local vicar has recently said to me that unless the C of W gets to grips with the situation, the C of E will have faded into oblivion within one to two generations.

    The C of E seems to be hung up on issues such as gay and lesbian marriage, for example. I note in Holland that polygamic civil marriage is now possible. I therefore recently posed the question to a C of E vicar, namely when will the C of E allow, gay, lesbian, polygamic and polyandric marriages. After all, Abraham from the Old Testament had multiple wives, so there is Biblical precedent basis.

    The C of E has recently appoint women bishops, so there is change going on.

    The issue is whether such changes will merely accelerate the decline and eventual demise of the C of E. Sadly, the C of E is fading fast, and with it disappears a quaint form of British identity. Prince Charles is “protector of the faiths”, so already the C of E is thereby marginalized in favour of other religions.

    Kind regards

    Tim

    • Tony Higton on July 23, 2016 at 5:26 pm said:

      Thanks for your message. Like many people, you concentrate on the decline side of the C of E and that decline is certainly a cause of deep concern but I have also spoken of the encouraging side of the situation in comments I have written above.

      My diocese (Carlisle) is really trying very hard to work out different ways of doing church in the future. It is certainly not accepting the status quo. And this is involving numerous rural parishes.

      Although sexual issues are not the main issues facing the church, they are important. I firmly believe the church should remain committed to biblical teaching on sexuality, but it should do so compassionately.

      However there are more important considerations. I do not believe that God will allow his church to die. But with that thought in mind we should be earnestly praying and preparing for Revival. We need a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as has happened in the past and is happening elsewhere today.

  8. Dr Timothy Norris on June 11, 2017 at 5:01 pm said:

    Now the Church of Scotland allows gay/lesbian marriage in churches, in contradiction to teachings in the Bible. Moreover, the younger generation tattoos itself for fashion reasons and gratification, likewise scarification, directly against the teachings of Leviticus. Modern society has sacrificed itself at the altar of the present financial system: “The love of money is the root of many kinds of evil !”. Judas sold Jesus to the Romans for a few gold coins, likewise Japan has had a few brief years of financial prosperity from electrical power generated by Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power facility, only to leave a ghastly radioactive legacy for future generations. There is presently a massive mainstream media coverup of this Fukushima Dai’ichi issue; see http://www.enenews.com to read about the sinful destruction that human beings are inflicting upon God’s creation. When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Good and Evil, they came to cognitive awareness that had with it a responsibility to think in a responsible manner. However, contemporary minds have not lived up to such responsibility, and the destruction of World ecology continues. Eventually, the World will react back and will kill the human race. Fermi’s paradox sums it up: “we have not been able to communicate with lifeforms elsewhere in the Universe because, as soon as a given civilization discovers fission nuclear power, it promptly blows itself up”.

    Thus, in the C of E, the clergy I meet are focused on trivia, are inflexible in their manner of thinking, are detached from the mindset of the general population and are largely ineffective. What does one expect from a church/institution founded on King Henry VIII’s nuptual problems and his subsequent tiff with the Pope. There is therefore sadly little future hope for the C of E. That is the reality.

    • Tony Higton on July 4, 2017 at 9:11 am said:

      I sympathise with much of what you say,Timothy. However, your description of the origin of the establishment of the C of E is only part of the story. In actual fact, it happened in the context of a great movement of the Holy Spirit, namely the Reformation, which liberated the church from domination by a corrupt period in the Roman Catholic Church and, most important, ensured that the Bible was available in English and that the crucial doctrine of Justification by grace through faith was revived. Many people lost their lives in order to further this move of the Spirit. These were the founders of the Church of England. In other words, it was founded to some degree on the blood of Anglican martyrs. It was a useful coincidence that Henry VIII had a dispute with the Pope because in those days the “Protestant, Reformed Faith” of the Church of England required political protection from Rome.

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