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.

Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

James Somerville-Meikle: Religious services are essential for many people; the Government must not stop them again.

9 Nov

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

To ban religious services once could be seen as unfortunate. To ban them twice in a year looks like carelessness.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, this is sadly not a comedy.

The Government has once again prohibited religious services in England as part of its second national lockdown. While places of worship can still open for private prayer, religious services are banned until December 2.

Something that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the year has now happened twice. We must not allow it to happen again.

While closing places of worship in the first lockdown was extremely painful, it was understood that we faced an unknown virus and the priority was to protect the NHS and save lives. We now know significantly more about this virus and how to control it.

If you’ve been into any church since the summer, you will have probably encountered an army of masked cleaners with disinfectant spray, one-way systems, and people collecting contact details for NHS Test and Trace. The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country have made churches, and other places of worship, examples of how to make public buildings Covid-secure.

This has given faith leaders confidence to speak out against the ban. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, spoke of the “deep anguish” felt by Catholics at seeing churches closed for services. A feeling shared by many other people of faith.

The decision was also criticised by many MPs and peers during the limited time for debate on the regulations in Parliament. Edward Leigh MP, the Catholic Union President, described “outlawing religious services” as a “disproportionate response to the pandemic”.

Outlawing religious services – taking away a basic pillar of religious freedom – is a grave intrusion into our fundamental human rights. It should never become an acceptable response to the challenges we face, particularly not for a Conservative government.

Talk of “outlawing” religious services is no exaggeration. The Government is not simply asking Christians to stop attending church, or suggesting to Jewish people that they should stay away from synagogues, or encouraging Hindus and Sikhs to give up Diwali celebrations. It is forcing them to do this by using the law.

Of course, it’s not just faith groups who are affected by these restrictions. Daily life has become harder for almost every person in England and had consequences for people across the United Kingdom. Millions are worried about their jobs or businesses. There are a growing number of people in need as a result of this pandemic, and faith groups are often on the frontline in providing help.

People of faith are not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing. It’s an important test of whether we understand the importance of faith to people’s lives and whether we’re prepared to reflect that in policy.

The new restrictions are significantly different to the full lockdown earlier in the year, in many ways for the better. More institutions are considered to be providing essential services, including schools and universities. A greater number of shops have been given essential status, including garden centres. And there will be far more essential journeys, with people encouraged to go to work if they cannot work from home.

The decision to label more aspects of life as “essential” under the new restrictions may help to avoid the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown. But it has also led to the Government straying into difficult territory by determining what is and isn’t essential in our lives – something which is generally best left to people to decide.

Excluding religious services from this list sends a message to faith groups that collective worship is deemed unnecessary.

This was not helped by the Prime Minister failing to mention places of worship in his speech on October 31. People were left to check on the Government’s website to see how the new restrictions would impact their churches, synagogues, and mosques. For the millions of people for whom prayer and worship is the rhythm of their lives, this omission will have been noted.

It shows that once again the “religious literacy” of those making decisions needs to be improved. A good start would be giving more clout to the Faith Taskforce, which was set up by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, to advise on reopening places of worship after the last lockdown.

The ban on religious services is particularly frustrating given the lack of evidence for the decision. Are people really more at risk of catching the virus in a socially distanced church service than they are in a garden centre or lecture theatre? Or for that matter is a church used for praying more of a public health risk than a church used for worship?

When pushed for evidence on the spread of the virus in places of worship, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Had any evidence existed, the response from faith leaders would have been very different. People of faith have shown they are just as prepared as anyone to make sacrifices in the national interest. Closing places of worship was accepted earlier this year, while energy was focused on maintaining the services they run – such as food banks and bereavement support groups. Given the lack of evidence for the current ban, faith leaders have every right to complain.

Controlling the second wave of the virus was perhaps always going to be harder than the first. If there’s one thing worse than not having evidence, it’s being faced with a huge body of evidence and needing to make tough decisions.

Increasingly it seems that policy priorities are shaping the Government’s response to the pandemic, just as much as science and evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we need to get our priorities right. Policies that allow people to go to a garden centre on a Sunday morning, but not church, suggests that a rethink is required.

Over the next few weeks, difficult decisions will need to be made once again about the way out of lockdown. Above all, this will be a test of what we value. The Government should listen to our country’s faith leaders who have called for places of worship to reopen fully in light of their essential nature.

Banning religious services must not become part of the “new normal.”

Chris Whitehouse: Faith leaders have a moral duty to be better prepared for the next pandemic

27 Jun

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.

Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.

Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.

]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.

No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.

All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.

Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.

But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.

For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.

For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.

That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?

That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.

This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.

Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?

For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.

Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.

Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.