Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.