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For The Want Of A Nail?

The – admittedly melodramatic – headline is designed to draw your attention to a problem which seems to be creeping up on us in the Church of England almost un-noticed. (Perhaps there is a Situation Room somewhere in the depths of Lambeth Palace discussing it, but if so, it is a well-kept secret). It may also apply elsewhere in the Anglican Communion? The consequences are readily foreseeable, relentless and reminiscent of a classical tragedy – or pantomime, depending on your viewpoint – the onlooker longs to shout out: ‘look behind you!’

Dramatic decline in clergy numbers
The number of full-time stipendiary priests in the Church of England has declined from over 14,000 in 1959 to 11,076 in 1990, 9,412 in 2000 and 8,346 in 2008. The addition of part-time, self-supporting ministers brings the 2009 figure to 11,691, but (despite strenuous efforts by the Church) the age of ordinands is still steadily rising and now the bishops who have crossed the Tiber are thought likely to take about 50 priests with them. Even were the numbers of applicants to increase in the future, the financial situation means that this steady decline is unlikely to be reversed. These figures are replicated around the world and in most Christian denominations.

Traditionally, in rural areas each church could boast its own ‘Vicar of this Parish’. However,  with every change of incumbent, parishes are now obliged to amalgamate to become benefices; and benefices are remorselessly combined and re-combined to unite up to 10 or even 12 former parishes. Full-time posts become part-time, or held by ‘house-for-duty’ priests. In many places, the incumbent is assisted by self-supporting and retired ministers, but it is a matter of luck whether there happen to be any such in any particular parish. The Revd Mark Bailey wrote to the ‘Church Times’ on 30 July 2010, correctly identifying the problem (too few clergy attempting to cover too many parish churches, which he says is leading to severe mental stress among the clergy) but his solution – ‘draw the line somewhere’- seems hardly a solution on its own.

The Decline in Services of the Word
Fifty years ago, the usual Sunday service was Morning Prayer (Matins), with Holy Communion at an early service (since one was supposed to be fasting) or on high days and holidays. One’s obligation as an Anglican was to take communion three times a year: at Christmas, Easter and one other day. In some places, the shortage of priests now means that the priest-in-charge is obliged to scurry from parish to parish in his or her benefice every Sunday in order to comply with Canon law that there shall be a communion service every Sunday in every parish church. This valiant attempt is unsustainable in a mega-benefice. In the ‘Church Times’ of 30 November 2007  is a letter from Kathleen Kinder headlined by the editors ‘Common Worship and the alienation of the liturgy from the people.

Liturgy to most people today means first and foremost the eucharist, but also any service that can be led only by a priest. I share Canon Wilkinson’s concern at the growing domination of the clergy in the worship area. In recent years, worship practice has greatly enhanced the status of Anglican clergy, while at the same time it has diminished that of Readers, lay leaders, and members of the congregation. It is a tragedy that the services of the word which have contributed so richly to the character of Anglican worship throughout the centuries no longer command the support and recognition they deserve. The Church is the poorer as a result.

The Cost of Doing Nothing
When an irresistible force meets an immoveable object, in the immortal words of Sammy Davis Jr, ‘something’s gotta give’:

C S Lewis expressed it well in ‘That Hideous Strength’:

If you dip into any college or school, or parish – anything you like – at a given point in history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren’t so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there’s even less room for indecision, and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.

If there are not enough priests to take weekly services in each parish church, churches will remain empty in the intervening weeks.
Despite episcopal injunctions to drive to the benefice church chosen for a eucharist service each Sunday, people will mostly not travel to services outside their own parish.
If there are only monthly services in each church, the size of congregations will therefore reduce.
If there are only small congregations once a month, income will fall and there will be pressure to close the churches.
If the churches close, people will have to travel miles to go to services and will not be able to be baptised, married or buried in their local churches, which may have been turned into tea-rooms or left to become ivy-covered ruins.
A central part of the fabric of our national life could simply wither away. And all for the want of a nail?

What is to be done?
What is to be done? Well, in my view there are solutions closer at hand than you may think and I will suggest some in my next blog. But meanwhile, am I seriously over-stating the size of the problem? Is ‘masterly inactivity’, so beloved of generations of Sir Humphrey Applebys, the best proposition?

1. The illustration is ‘Dead Empty Church’ by David Coleman, courtesy 12 Baskets.
2. The statistics up to 2008 were taken from a previous Church of England website page which is no longer there. The 2009 statistics are from the current website page – on hyperlink.
3. This blog is based on an article by me in ‘Conference and Common Room’ Vol 48 #2, Summer 2011 called ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls’; grateful thanks to Alex Sharratt of John Catt Educational Ltd for copyright permission.

10 comments on this post:

Erika Baker said...

I don't think you're overstating the size of the problem. But what is the cause of it? Fewer people going to church, fewer congregations and interested villagers to raise the funds needed to keep our churches in good repair. Every village church I've ever belonged to had a "loo-fund" because unless we could put a toilet in it we wouldn't be able to use it for other functions that might raise the money to help our congregaqtion of 60 largely pensioners on a fixed income to finance the parish share.
Ever toilet plan was was made hugely costly adn ultimately frustrated by English Heritage and the Diocesan bodies who treat our churches as nothing but listed buildings of historic interest.

Another cause of the problem: united benefices in which a large group of parishioners refuse to go to church when the main Sunday Service isn't in their own church, where it's been for as long as they've been Christians and although they feel terribly sorry for the pressure on the priest, that's no reason not to have our own 10 o'clock.

Ultimately, it's down to the well worn question of why the majority of people no longer goes to church.

I look forward to your solution in your next blog post!

22 May 2011 11:11
UKViewer said...

This is a timely post. I've just attended a meeting at one of the rural benefice. The church has been in a steady decline for some years and the few active leaders, particularly the church wardens had written to all parishioners and the local community, expressing their doubts about the church's continuing viability.

Surprisingly, quite a few attended the meeting, including some new faces and some old faces, returning. All seemed concerned about the continuation of the church and eager to know what they might be able to do to help.

The situation is quite straight forward. The daughter, church plant of 100 years ago, is doing very well and is attracting the majority of younger people in the area. Even families within the Parish boundaries go to the daughter church for modern services, while the older church is viewed by some as quite insular, unwelcoming and too traditional.

Falling attendance, mainly as older parishioners die and are not replaced by new members is the key issue. Less money coming in, with large repair bills to face and not being able to meet its quota or routine maintenance, will soon exhaust its reserves and make if financially unviable.

The discussion led by the Church wardens, supported by the Vicar and Curate was open and friendly, some suggestions came forward, some practical and some probably unworkable. Removing pews, would it seem, detract from the overall ambience of the church. Revitalising and updating its worship from traditional to contemporary, surprisingly proved unpopular, even among the new comers. It seems that traditional worship is valued and seen as a continuity factor in the face of change very fast in other areas of the church.

The biggest problem discerned was perhaps communication, both inward and outward. The daughter church had its services listed in the local press and on the internet, the older church didn't. The daughter church holds family services, which attract younger people and families, the older one, doesn't . There is no link between church and parish council, which is extremely active and vibrant, despite the Parish Council providing funds to the church for churchyard maintenance? But the failure is to reach out to new families in new housing developments close by seemed to be the chief concern.

In fact, older parishioners did not seem to know the names of the newer members, who actually introduced themselves. They said that the welcome they received had not been what they expected on first coming, which had put them off coming back. I was interested to observe that when I first attended this particular church, I was met and welcomed. But I had the advantage of knowing the Vicar and some of the people at other churches in the benefice, so I did not feel out of place.

In the end, it was agreed that a focus group made up of the PCC and some new, co-opted members would continue the discussions and try to move things forward where practicable. There is also an investigation to be held into forming a 'Friends Group' which could involve the wider community and perhaps investigating a partnership with the Parish Council to promote joint activities within the community. Evangelism! Wow.

I came away from the meeting quite thoughtful. This is the only one among our five churches experiencing these problems. The church has a unique character and tradition of worship, which it could very well use to build a wider congregation in the area, for those who seek traditional worship, and I know that there are many of those, including myself, who like to vary their worship between contemporary and traditional.

I have hope that this initiative will bear fruit, and I know that the Vicar was pleased to seem new people being involved and enthused by the discussions.

I'm not sure what this does for this particular commentary, but it shows that there is still life, sometimes it just needs to be shaken to stir it back into action.

22 May 2011 14:42
Lay Anglicana said...

Good evening Erika!
Thank-you for your heartfelt post – we obviously find ourselves in very similar situations. In particular, we are in the third year of our very own loo project! Problems with the architectural conservation bodies, who seem perfectly happy for us to instal a loo inside the church by the west door (??) but nor for us to build on in any way to the existing 12th century building.
Like you, our congregation are mostly of pensionable age, and our stalwart 'flower girls' are in their eighties!

22 May 2011 19:59
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you UKViewer for this interesting background – lots of food for thought here. Some of the problems you highlight sound as if they ought to be fairly easy to solve, such as the communication one (but maybe there are some dinosaurs blocking the way?!) Others, such as the question of liturgy, may be more difficult. The suggestion that you make of varying between contemporary and traditional sounds eminently sensible – is it again a problem of dragons (the same ones?) in your path? If so, the Friends Group and the engagement with the Parish Council sound to me, as an outsider, as the best way of encircling the said dragons.
Of course you may be coming up against one of the biggest problems of the lot, how to manage change. People are afraid of the unknown, aren't they, and we are a fundamentally conservative (with a small 'c' of course) people, aren't we?
If I were you, remembering this, I would concentrate on leaving them feeling stirred but not too shaken (not that you need my advice!)

22 May 2011 20:09
UKViewer said...

Thankfully, I will not be the one to manage the change, albeit, I might be involved in helping them to get themselves a website. I have suggested that they get onto facebook and twitter for communication and outreach. And in fact as a Benefice we are working on using social media in a wider range of functions, particularly for outreach and to just have somewhere someone can go to put up events and to ask questions. One public facing page and on as an inner group for the actual church leadership etc to work through.

The Vicar with the actual Parish PCC and the new focus group will be looking to manage change and peoples expectations.

It was an interesting experience, and one of the conversations that will be logged separately for my portfolio for the discernment process.

22 May 2011 20:48
Lay Anglicana said...

I think they are lucky to have you to guide them on social media – maybe as they get involved in this their ideas will broaden (as indeed mine have)just from exposure to the outside world?
I appreciate it is not your responsibility to manage the change, but I am sure you will find yourself becoming part of the solution to the interesting problems you raise (which are probably widely shared beyond your benefice, don't you think?)

22 May 2011 20:56
about said...

As always you say exactly what needs to be said and ask what needs to be asked. My initial reflections are here:

(Is there a Google Login Bug Today?)

24 May 2011 09:10
Lay Anglicana said...

Synchronicity reigns! I am in the middle of replying to your post, EG, but thank you for your kind words.
In particular, I hear and cannot but agree with what you say about the prime importance of the Eucharist. Any of the 'solutions' I can offer is of course a very poor second-best to the Lord's Supper in the Lord's house every week.

24 May 2011 09:35
Charlie said...

On the subject of the Eucharist,Canon law only requires Priests on charge of a Benefice to celebrate once a Sunday within the benefice. The charging from church to church that you describe is quite unnecessary. There are solutions, but generally people aren't courageous enough to try them. The most obvious one is that weekly worship does not necessarily have to be eucharistic.

29 May 2011 07:10
Lay Anglicana said...

Am I right in thinking that canon law provides for the parochial church council(s) in each benefice to decide that this requirement can be met by ensuring that there is a communion service somewhere in the benefice, but not in each church, each Sunday? So legally as you say it is quite unnecessary to charge from church to church (and in fact we don't do it in my benefice). The practical problem though seems to be that people are markedly reluctant to 'worship amid the alien corn' as I have heard it expressed at another church in the benefice!

If we indulge this general prejudice, I agree with you that the obvious answer is for lay people to take services of the word in the intervening weeks between eucharistic services.

I have put some thoughts on this into my next blog post 'The Best is the Enemy of the Good'.

The only problem then remaining is to identify and train the lay worship leaders…

29 May 2011 08:22

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