Is the Church of England in Terminal Decline?

Some time ago the C of E published a report on the threats facing the church. It publishes many reports. 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 Apologetics).  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

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction