Saving the Church of England

Photo via Wylio, copyright: Bengin Ahmad

Someone wise once said to me ‘don’t go into the Church of England trying to save it, because you will die trying’. At the time I was quite taken aback as actually I think that is part of my calling, well, not to save the CofE single handedly of course, but certainly to make a difference, to be part of the future, to definitely see change happen. Not just for the sake of change, but in order to see the church grow into the future rather than wither away. Every now and then when I get really wound up by the CofE (which let’s face it for those of us working in it can be a regular occurrence) I remember that phrase and I remember how it made me feel: it made me think ‘well so be it, that’s no reason not to try’. (And I should say it is not my life’s work to save the CofE, my life’s work is to tell people about Jesus).

Over the last few decades (well probably longer) there has been continual talk of the decline of the Church. Every now and then it wanes a bit and then it builds up again, usually based on someone, somewhere mouthing off about the church. Either way, it is true, the CofE as we know it, is in decline and if we want to see it in our future then we need to act. This is not a surprise of course, people have been saying it for years, but in recent times the pressure has certainly been on. 

Right now there is a lot of hope in the CofE. Certainly the appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury has pleased many both in and outside the church. There are lots of exciting things going on and people in high places talking of the future. However… in the last 20 years or so there has been a lot of talk, but not enough action, and not enough money put where the mouth is. And there has been a lot of people sticking their heads in the sand. There have been some fantastic ideas but no backing. Pioneer Ministry is a prime example – fantastic idea, training people to actively get out there and do new things, thinking of new forms of church – exactly what we need if we want to survive – and yet there are not enough funded places for Pioneer Ministers, hardly any in fact.

Of course it is not just about pioneering new things, a recent (and excellent) report, ‘From Anecdote to Evidence‘ highlighted the fact that growing churches are not necessarily new ones, although they did feature a lot, but they are places that are committed to what they do and know exactly what their style is.

This week Bishop Julian Henderson said outright that we need radical change. Archbishop Cranmer’s blog commented on this: 

“Bishop Julian is right to focus on the young, but the real job is to convince churches that they seriously need to take a long hard look at what church is and should be. Unless a church fully understands the need for mission to be part of its culture and is actually willing to do something about it, then the battle has already been lost.”

He also goes on to talk about how obsessed we are with Sunday services and how we need to get beyond that. It is an excellent post so do go over and read it. 

I really hope that this increase of talk about the future is the start of something new and not just talk. We have seen enough of that with not enough action. The danger is though, that we are essentially still a democratic church. We saw with the vote for women Bishops, that initially it was scuppered by the ‘lay’ vote – i.e: the people in the pews. The media speculated with “quotes” from Justin Welby apparently saying if need be he would force it through or even change the way Synod worked. Whether they were accurate or not remains to be seen but thankfully it wasn’t necessary and we are well on the way to seeing women in mitres in this country. But it does go to show that if we want to see change we need to get the wider congregation on side. I can think of countless conversations I’ve had with people frustrated by traditionalists digging in their heels and refusing to make change, even in some cases at the detriment or demise of their own churches.

And I would like to say, as I have said countless times before, I am not anti-tradition, in fact I’m all for difference, after all God made us all differently and it makes sense that we would meet with him or want to worship him in different ways. I’m not saying we need to turn every church into an all singing all dancing ‘show’, not at all. But we do need to be open to change, open to trying some different things to reach people who are not being reached.  
Today on the way home from church I had to pop to the supermarket (Lord, forgive me!). As I drove in, I was amazed at how busy the car park was – busier than at any other time I have been in. Sunday morning and Tesco was heaving, all tills open, even the self serve checkouts (an invention I’m sure put into place to drive us all round the twist) had big queues. That says it all really. We are no longer a nation where Sundays are sacred. They are just another day. Tesco is more popular than church. So what does that tell us? Well it says to me that if we want to see people meeting Jesus, it we want to see the church continuing to play a part in our society, then we have to think differently about what that means. We cannot sit comfortably in our pews (or less comfortably on plastic stackable chairs) on a Sunday morning and be happy with what we are doing. We have to do something different…

As always, I’d love to know others thoughts so do comment below…

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  • Reply
    October 27, 2014 at 9:54 am

    We're taking mission as the centre of our efforts over the next couple of years. The PCC has had two away days this year already focused on mission and the no 1 item on the agenda is always mission.

    Some simple initiatives are already bearing fruit. New people coming to non-church activities, and than moving into church. Our lunch club, just two months old, has got off to a flying start with the 2nd event attracting 15 new people, who are alone, aged or vulnerable.

    Our 8am BCP service has seen a 30% increase in those coming, even several young families, who value the traditional, quiet form of service. And our main Sunday services we've had a full house for the past few months, each week. Even our mid-week service is picking up.

    This is down to real efforts by people to talk to people about their faith, personal invitations and an excellent welcome and hosting by all in church. Mission isn't jut the Vicar and PCC, it's the ministry of all of the baptized and if we can enable and empower them as many of ours are now, we will continue to see growth and not decline.

    We now have a curate and an ordinand and two training for LLM (including myself) and even new Adults coming forward to join the Choir.

    Our vision has been stated and restated to everyone, including our Ecumenical partners in baptist, methodist and Icthus Churches locally and we all share a common vision to be Ambassadors for Christ in our Community.

    Local initiative, local people, motivated and enthused. Makes mission vital and viable for all. Our Pilgrim course is full and we have two more scheduled in the next couple of months.

    We confirmed 12 adults and 6 children this year. I do believe that God has a real hand in it, but we need to just trust him as we try new things and seize the Godtunities that he puts in our way.

  • Reply
    Shelly Miller
    October 28, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    I'm learning from you as we make our way to London. I think this is a problem for the worldwide church not just the CofE. And I agree, church as we've always known it and always done it, is no longer relevant to a world hungry for hope. It all starts with relationship and Jesus is our example. We must live our faith not compartmentalize it to one day a week, yes? Love your heart Jules.

  • Reply
    October 30, 2014 at 10:48 am

    sounds great Ernie 🙂
    Hows your course going?

  • Reply
    October 30, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Course is going well. Halfway through first term. Two modules. Ministry in Context and Mission and Ministry.

    Knee deep in preparing assignments due in in new year, but meeting Vicar regularly and she is being inspirational in giving gentle guidance.

    Doing my first homily on 9th November and will be doing more as the course progresses. Projects no doubt as we move on.

    Really enjoying it and making me thing, making me make connections and keeping God central in it all. Head bursting sometimes, but that's all to the good.

  • Reply
    November 2, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Shelly, thanks 🙂 Yes that's true, it's not just the Anglican church, and I think that's why it's so important for us to work together in partnership too. It is all about relationship, yes, and encouraging those in the church to get out and share that relationship with others (yes every day as you say!) but I guess one of the challenges for the Church is how we encourage people to do that without freaking them out! I'd love to see it 'normal' to offer to pray for someone in need or to be compassionate rather than it being something special or something to take note of…!
    Challenge is good though I think it inspires people to try things!
    Jules x

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