Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Church of England doomed in 20 years - discuss

Today's C of E - related spat relates to the Telegraph's provocative Ageing Church of England will be dead in 20 years. This is a write-up of what would otherwise have been a footnote to one of the most uncontroversial General Synod meetings for some years.  I'm not sure which debate this took place in, probably the one on Mission Action Planning, but the Revd. Patrick Richmond assured the Synod that unless things change, "some extrapolations" show that the church "will not be functionally extant" by 2030.  Despite the obvious fact that "some extrapolations" translates as "my personal opinion", this is worth considering, as bloggers will.  Stuart at eChurch Blog takes it as a statement of the bleeding obvious.  Meanwhile, my blogging friend David at The Vernacular Curate is on good table-thumping form as he castigates Mr Richmond for his whingeing pessimism.

So, we're all doomed, or just a bit of old-fashioned doom and gloom?   The Telegraph's report isn't the best place to go for an answer.  It is, of course, inaccurate.  Despite its passing resemblance to the WI, the church doesn't do "recruitment drives".  But in addition, the paper has for some time adopted a crusading attitude and seems to be single-handedly trying to reverse the English Reformation by bigging up Roman Catholicism and dissing the Church of England at every possible opportunity.  Why they should be doing this is anyone's guess, but it is an agenda that Stuart, despite being a fine blogger, is always going to endorse.  This stuff about "the Church of England is dying" is a classic case of assertion without proof.

But this doesn't mean we should dismiss the question out of hand.  It's all very well Father David telling us not to be negative, but there's a difference between pessimism and realism.  For example, Andreas Whittam Smith's comment about the Church being "like a company impeccably managing itself into failure" is not a value-driven statement, it's just an observation, and one that is difficult to argue with. The national structures of the C of E are modelled like an old-fashioned business, or perhaps the civil service of a few decades ago.  And, despite their obvious professionalism, they seem to make little impact on the mission of the churches, except perhaps to hinder it.  Many Dioceses run on the same lines (except without the professionalism in some cases), to similar effect.  Only where the church has embraced more modern entrepreneurial and flexible thinking, for example in the fresh expressions movement, does it show more signs of doing what it ought to.  You may not like the Church modelling itself on a business, but if it must, then it would be preferable to model itself on a successful one rather than a failing one.

So if the business is failing, perhaps the church really is going down the pan? My considered answer is "no", especially if we bring God into the equation. Yes, I know, but I am a vicar.  What is God doing in this branch of his church?  Three things spring to mind:

1 - the pattern of decline isn't uniform.  Extrapolations don't work here because there are intense pockets of growth which are masked by overall statistical decline at present.  What we are seeing is the withering of an old church culture accompanied by the birth of a new one.
2 - there is such a thing as evangelism.  As Father DC points out, the average age of 61 is not a good indication of decline because the church doesn't depend on the population pyramid for its growth.  We are in the business of reaching people for the Kingdom. Although it isn't the main aim, that process often results in more people coming to church in the long term. Call that a recruitment drive if you like.
3 - it is very easy to foresee a future in which, although the Church of England continues as a presence in the nation, the institution as we know it today does indeed fail and collapse.  Would this be a bad thing?  I couldn't possibly comment, but I do know that I'm preaching on resurrection this Sunday.

UPDATE: link fixed. Thanks Gurdur.

8 comments:

Fr David Cloake said...

You are always so wonderfully balanced and erudite - and I didn't ever regard myself as a Gladstonian table-thumper. Quite like it though!

A nice post; helpful too. Thank you old friend.

Incidentally, I tried to invite you to Bp Google, but I couldn't find you :)

Claire said...

I think things will change for the better.

Phoebs said...

Hi I'm just a pew sitter, who is swimming the Tiber for varying reasons. Yet after reading your post, it does seem as if in the end you actually agree with Revd Richmond. I think we all know and agree that sadly the CofE cannot sustain herself in her present form. I've read stats on echurchblog suggesting that in twenty years the average age will be 81.

I don't really want to blame the liberals, but to be honest I do think that they have been shafting us Traddy Anglo Catholics and the Evangelicals for far too long. :(

Charlie said...

hello Phoebs, thank you for your comment. I have some sympathy with Mr Richmond, as I think he is trying to energise us, not just spreading gloom.

Just one thing - the projection that the average age will rise to 81 is wrong, since it assumes that nobody at all will join the church in the next 20 years. This is just daft, to all but the most cynical observers.That's what I meant when I said that extrapolations don't work.

Chelliah Laity said...

It does seem sad that we cannot rely on the younger generation who attend CoE schools now to be our future pew sitters. If the projection of attendance is based on the current average of adult ages then thank goodness for the ageing population.

Steve Day (therevsteve) said...

I think "pew-sitters" is possibly the key phrase here. If all people want to be is "pew-sitters", or if all the church wants is "pew-sitters" then that's our problem right there. What we _need_ is Jesus-followers 24/7
It's the churches' job to make them, and church-goers' job to _be_ them. Otherwise, yes, the CofE is doomed.

gurdur said...

1) your first link to the DT story is a dud link, broken/miscoded.

2) Much of the tone at the Daily Telegraph is set by Damian Thompson, who hates liberals and CofE liberals most of all; he represents his own individual conservative/reactionary Roman Catholic prejudices.

3) It may be right to decry alarmism - since I am an outsider, I won't comment (much). Burt alarms do serve purposes: to isdentify problems, the reasons for the problems, and to kickstart discussion and activity to tackle those pronblems.

David said...

Whenever I read about the decline of the Church (or just the CofE), I tend to end up really quite glad and excited. As you say, 'what we are seeing is the withering of an old church culture accompanied by the birth of a new one', and I get excited because in some peculiar way we don't know what that 'new one' might be, but it genuinely does appear that God is alive and 'doing a new thing'.

Which is why your mentioning the resurrection makes me so happy: if all our job consists of is to postpone the death of a denomination for another generation, then I think I'll shrug my shoulders and move on. But if what the Kingdom of God needs is a few of these old seeds to fall to the ground and die, then HALLELUJAH - this is the day/age/era that the Lord has made etcetc.

I've tried really hard to write something without quoting Chesterton, but it's not working, so here goes:
'On five occasions in history the Church has gone to the dogs, but on each occasion, it was the dogs that died.'

Maybe again.