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‘That Was The Church That Was’: Review by Richard Ashby


For those not old enough to remember, ‘That Was the Week That Was’  was a satirical television programme of the 1960s, starring David Frost, Millicent Martin, Bernard Levin and Willie Rushton who used their considerable talent and insight to comprehensively demolish the pretensions of the ‘establishment’ as part of the satire boom which also produced the still surviving magazine ‘Private Eye’. As such it was part of the movement which destroyed ‘deference’, one of the elements which has changed the Church of England over the past half century and more as identified by the authors of this entertaining book and which has contributed to its current existential crisis, where lack of direction, different visions of the future, ham-fisted leadership and illusory expectations combine both to alienate the Church from the people and offer most people nothing which will sustain them outside the material world in which most live these days.


Andrew Brown is a distinguished journalist, well known for his writings in both the Guardian and the Spectator, not the most likely of bedfellows. His press column in the Church Times is where I turn first when I get my weekly copy. Linda Woodhead joined the staff of a theological college and was so appalled by what she saw that, in order to understand what was happening, she retrained as a sociologist of religion and now spends a lot of time telling the Church things it doesn’t want to hear and getting scarce thanks for it.


One of the temptations when reading a book of joint authorship is to try and discern who has written what. Here it’s quite difficult. What unites the book is a rather racy style which may well emanate from the journalist in Andrew Brown. The exposure of the outrageous, hypocritical and mendacious behaviour of church people, both lay and ordained, alongside the cool statistical and sociological analysis makes for an entertaining romp while at the same time painting a picture of a Church in deep and probably terminal crisis. Indeed it’s really necessary to read this book twice, in order to separate out the two elements and in order to appreciate the depth to which the Church has sunk.


The book has much in common with ‘A Church at War’ by Stephen Bates, published in 2004, covering much of the same ground, in particular the disastrous Lambeth Conference of 1998. Conservative evangelicals, amply funded and prepared for by US money and manpower simply out gunned and out manoeuvred the more liberal and inclusive Anglicanism of previous generations when, with their African and third world allies, largely bankrolled by US dollars, they pushed through the notorious resolution Lambeth 1.10, which, along with ‘Issues’ has become the touchstone of ‘orthodoxy’ amongst too many Anglican leaders across the worldwide Communion. The farcical scene of the Revd Richard Kirker being exorcised of his homosexuality by an African Bishop only underlined the sense that this had been a coordinated and authorised lynching of gay people within the church.


It’s a pity though that the book seems to stop not much after the installation and the first year or so of Justin Welby’s episcopate. There is nothing about the Church’s reaction to civil partnerships or same sex marriage and the quadruple lock it engineered in parliament to save it from the embarrassment of having to itself prohibit same sex marriage. There is nothing about the disastrous ‘Valentine’s Day Statement’ or indeed the cack-handed reactions of Bishops to the fact of same sex marriage amongst the clergy and their indifference to the laity who wish for the Church’s blessing on their own marriages.


Surrounding this is much anecdote and informed gossip, which makes the book such a romp. (I would love to know what led to the first printing having to be pulped because of the threat of libel action. Just who is it who didn’t want their words or actions disclosed?) The hypocrisy of too many church people, the don’t ask don’t tell culture which gradually became an authorised intrusion into the private lives of honourable men and women, and the compromised and temporising behaviour of too many closeted gay men (and they are almost all men) both clerical and lay was and is a betrayal of all that Anglicanism and especially the Church of England is supposed to stand for.


Two Archbishops particularly get it in the neck. George Carey, chosen by Mrs Thatcher because she liked the alternative even less, presided and connived at Lambeth 1998. Having already decreed that there would never be another bishop like David Jenkins, he presided over an ineffectual so called ‘Decade of Evangelism’ which sent clergy scurrying around for good ideas to get more bums on seats and had no effect whatsoever. Rowan Williams, a good man, perhaps the most spiritual Archbishop the Church has produced for at least two generations and more, chose to put unity before truth, betrayed his friend and his principles. Having failed to prevent exactly the division he feared he retired with relief from the fray, leaving behind an even more fractured, unhappy and divided church; the sacrifice of his friends being to no avail in the end after all.


Alongside this is perhaps the more interesting though more difficult discussion of what went wrong. Church attendance has been declining for the past century and more and no one seems to know what to do about it. Linda Woodhead identifies four linked causes, all basically related to the changes in the society in which the Church is supposed to witness.


Firstly is the decline of deference or paternalism; the idea that there is someone above you who deserves your respect and to whom you instinctively defer. In a society where the individual is king and everyone’s views are equal to everyone else’s, authority figures lose their place. This can be seen in politics and other areas of civic life as well as in the Church. Moreover, against the moralising trend of much of the Church, western peoples have made up their own minds on the issues of the day such as divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, same sex relationships and abortion and the strictures of clerics have had little effect. Linda Woodhead seems to ascribe this decline to societal changes in the 1970s and the onset of Thatcherism and the politics of self-interest. I think it goes back much further, to at least the First World War and the bloody sacrifice of the working class soldiery by their political and military masters. Such attitudes also flourished after the trauma of World War 2 was abating; teenagers, teddy boys and then the satire movement all helped. Who can forget the scornful laughter when the judge asked the jury at the Lady Chatterley trial whether this was a book which their wives and servants should read? Or indeed Alan Bennett’s sermon in Beyond the Fringe, text ‘Now Esau was an hairy man but Jacob was a smooth man’ and the immortal line ‘Life is like a tin of sardines, you are always looking for the key’. This was rather too near the bone to be dismissed lightly.


Secondly, the Church has become increasingly cut off from wider society. The parson is no longer the ‘person’. The more the belief of the religious becomes separated from the society in which it finds itself the more such belief and practice is alien to the majority. Over the years much of the church has become more strident in what it demands in the way of belief. This is particularly evident in churches following the conservative evangelical line and amongst some traditional Anglo Catholics too. Holy Trinity Brompton with its enormously popular (though debatably effective in the longer term) Alpha franchise is an example where commitment and the direct debit might appeal to certain elements amongst the white middle classes and students, but which many find alienating precisely because of its requirement to sign up to its own creeds.


The third element which Linda identifies is ‘theology’ which she defines as ‘how you explain what you are doing, both to yourself and to others’. She doesn’t go into much detail, preferring to say that this is the least important of the three elements she identifies. But I think that this is crucial and I wonder why Linda relegates it to the also ran. My personal view is that it is impossible to be a conventional Christian in the 21st century and that agnosticism is the only honest approach. There is a dichotomy there which should be acknowledged. Scripture and the prayer book contain some lovely language and I believe that Choral Evensong is one of the highest art forms yet devised. But I have to ask what does it mean? Do we honestly believe what the words of the Creed mean? (I always think that it better to sing the Creed as the words take one naturally over the more difficult bits) What is salvation? Indeed what is ‘sin’ apart from a fairly obvious attempt at social control inherent in the Judeo/Christian heritage? In an age lacking deference how can God be the big man in the sky, usually angry and always judgemental? How on earth does anyone of any sensibility believe that the death of Christ on the cross is designed to avert God’s anger from us? ‘Cosmic child abuse’ said Steve Chalke, who instantly became a persona non grata amongst his fellow evangelicals. I almost fell out with a friend on Facebook recently who, attending Evensong for the first time in years, queried why the violent words of a certain psalm set for the day could be used. My attempts to explain history and context failed. Now my friend is the same age as me and has been through the same sort of educational process, but he honestly ‘doesn’t get it’, and indeed why should he?


Fourthly and perhaps as importantly as all the others, is the loss of women. Women have kept the church going, they always have. Away from the high politics of the men it was always the women who kept the show on the road, not only keeping the place clean, organising fetes and sales of work but also in working for the church as missionaries, church workers, teachers, in health care, with children and the vulnerable. They also prayed.


Two things happened. Firstly the welfare state, for which the church had argued and largely supported, removed many of these roles from church affiliation and were secularised. (The same happened with religious orders too of course.) Alongside this, as more and more women entered the workplace so the time and opportunity they might have had for extensive voluntary work became more limited.


Secondly was the battle over women priests and then bishops. The polarization this brought within the Church is difficult to underestimate. While polling showed that there were large majorities within the laity for the ordination of women, for years the activists in synod blocked any movement. While women came to participate fully in social and civic life; so the Church often cruelly and cynically kept them marginalised. The denigration of women was sometimes extreme. I remember being in a disreputable gay bar near London Bridge Station twenty years ago listening to leather clad gay clergy describe their ordained fellow women clergy with contempt and hatred. The result is that the church has lost the next generation of women. Those who remain have failed to bring their daughters and grand-daughters with them. The consequences are extremely serious.


Alongside this is the clericalisation of the Church and the exclusion of the laity from any sort of meaningful participation in the governance of the church by the undemocratic and unrepresentative structures of the Synod. We now have a caste of Bishops lacking vision and indeed theology, whose main aim seems to be to keep the lid on the boiling pot. They cannot act either prophetically or in any progressive way, fearful of leadership because of their fear of the strident opposition of the small minority, and who thus fail to do what they know to be right.


What is to be done? The authors describe some of the attempts made over the years, all to no avail. Carey’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’ along with what they describe as his ‘voodoo’ management changes seems only to be replicated in our current decade by the arch-managerialist Justin Welby. There is no evidence at all that importing discredited management techniques from the oil industry coupled with the development plans which every congregation and diocese is clearly under pressure to devise and implement, will have any effect whatever. The inevitable failure will only further the alienation of the faithful. Furthermore there is no evidence that plans to massively increase the number of the ordained will have anything like the effect desired either, whatever that is.


The majority of the English now have no religion. This doesn’t mean that concepts of spirituality have disappeared. The authors make the very good point that practices such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and Tai Chi are now part of everyday life. Numbers studying religion in schools have rocketed. It is organised religion to which so many are hostile and it is organised religion, as shown in our own Church of England which has lost the English people. Those who would do something about it seem to be planning to turn the Church into a sort of well managed HTB sect. In doing so they will kill it off forever.



That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead. Bloomsbury 2016

“The Church of England still seemed an essential part of Englishness, and even of the British state, when Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979. The decades which followed saw a seismic shift in the foundations of the C of E, leading to the loss of more than half its members and much of its influence. In England today religion has become a toxic brand, and Anglicanism something done by other people. How did this happen? Is there any way back?”



I am indebted to Richard Ashby for this review. He was formerly Head of Libraries and Archives in Bath and North East Somerset. He now lives outside Chichester and is active in the Cathedral there. He is a lifelong member of the Church of England but has spent much of that life clinging on by his fingertips.



The Nones are Something: Wendy Dackson


My Facebook feed recently had an interesting piece from Huffington Post’s religion blog, entitled 10 Facts about the Transforming Global Religious Landscape.  I find the facts interesting, but not surprising.  Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions throughout most of the world; Judaism is only the dominant religious affiliation in Israel, and claims a smaller percentage of world population than folk religions (although it has, arguably, the greatest cultural impact of any single religion, being the parent of both Christianity and Islam).  The majority of the world’s Hindus are geographically located in India and a few neighboring countries.  None of this is news.


What many people, especially loyal adherents of specific religious traditions, may find surprising or even upsetting is the data concerning those who do not claim affiliation with any religious tradition.  The article calls them the “nones”, and they cover a fairly wide swath of humanity.  This group includes atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious“. Probably a fair number of people who accept most of  the teachings of a particular tradition, but do not attend its worship services or submit to the authority of its temporal leadership, fall into this large category as well.  Christianity claims just under a third of the world’s population; Islam just under a quarter.  The “nones” are the world’s third largest spiritual grouping, at around 16% of people living on earth.


A religion such as Christianity, which is bound by the Great Commission (most familiar as Matthew 28:16-20), and called to spread its message of “good news” to all nations, preaching repentance from and forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:44-49) needs to take the phenomenon of the Nones much more seriously than I believe it is doing.  Especially if the final point of the HuffPost essay is correct in its claim that the Nones have spiritual convictions, we cannot fall into the trap popularized by those religious leaders who dismiss them as unformed, vacuous, self-serving, or just too lazy to go to church.  This was my biggest flash-point with Lillian Daniel’s book on the Spiritual but Not Religious, and it led to a review of her book and a set of more personal responses and reflections that have appeared here on Lay Anglicana.


The Nones believe.  We, as Christians, need to respect that, and find out what forms the content of that belief.  It might also be a good thing, while we’re at it, to learn the source of that belief.  I think it is very likely that, if the content has some component of the teachings of one of the major religions, then the person holding that belief has had substantial contact with the institutions of that religious tradition.  If s/he now identifies as unaffiliated, we must ask why. If the contact has not been direct, and a person thinks the teaching and practice of the religious tradition is good but still refrains from identifying as a member, we must also ask why.


People refuse to affiliate with, or choose to leave, institutional religion for a variety of reasons, and I believe it is a very foolish community that does not make an honest attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Nones, or the Spiritual but Not Religious.  Dismissing them as spiritually vague or lazy, while insisting they need the churches (and simply saying so more loudly when objections are raised) is not ‘evangelization’.  Evangelization means sharing good news.  Treating people like spiritual dimwits is the exact opposite, and those who reject it should have the admiration of thoughtful people of faith.


Yet, doing so has become popular.  Lillian Daniel’s book is perhaps the most egregious example, but the attitude has trickled down even to educated lay Christians.  A recent Facebook conversation yielded the following comment by someone who claims to be concerned with mission, but said the Spiritual but Not Religious are “sometimes curious but uncommitted and privileged people who may or may not have concern for the deeper things of ministry and mission”, and that they are “unwilling to see beyond their own privilege and social location.” My interlocutor in this conversation has a postgraduate degree in mission studies from a liberal denominational seminary.  If this is what is being taught as “mission”, I cannot be at all surprised that churches are failing to reach the unaffiliated.


People may leave a church for a variety of reasons–moving to a new area (and not reaffiliating once they are settled), forming relationships not sanctioned by their spiritual community, realizing that there isn’t much there for them.  There is also the possibility of having been victimized by people in power in the church who have misused their positions of authority.  The cases of this last are notorious, but overall, I think not the overwhelming reason people cease to claim religious affiliation.  But good “mission” involves understanding the reasons, and not blaming those who do not respond to our message because we have failed to deliver it authentically and convincingly.


I have a very different take on the Nones, and most specifically those who have been formed in a Christian tradition but no longer attend or self-identify with a particular church.  It is rooted in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (see my earlier blog post about the Big Bang Theory of Faith for a brief synopsis).  Churches, and the training for their ordained leadership, are geared to a Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith. When people reach a more deeply questioning Stage 4, the vast majority of Christian churches cannot accommodate their journey any further.  Rather than stunting their own growth, people leave.  It could be for a time, and there may be a return at some later point.  But the inquirer will be a different person—and the same church structures may not be able to accommodate him or her.  My suspicion is that rather than being vague, lazy, or unable to see past his or her own social location, someone who leaves is being very rigorous about their spiritual growth and broadening their view.  A boxed-in church, even a liberal one, cannot be home to this person.  And so, rather than trying to grow in a situation that does not allow it, the inquirer has little choice but to forge his or her own path.


This is not a happy situation.  People who leave often miss their communities—the ritual, the celebration, the support.  But people who have outgrown their churches often find that the community is no longer a place of support, and even feel marginalized when they attend or attempt to participate.  If they have gone to great efforts to develop gifts and offer them back to the community, they may feel their gifts are rejected (this is my particular relationship with the church at the moment).  They may feel the questions they raise are dismissed by the church.  And so, after a period (often years) of feeling rejected and devalued, they leave.


The church may have become very sad news to those who have left it.  And possibly even sadder when they try to return and find that their journeys and insights are dismissed, and that to be part of the community once more they have to regress in their spiritual growth.  As well, the churches may look very silly to those who have a vague idea of their message, but who hang back from entering.


A few years ago, I contributed an essay to a collection on the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr edited by two Church of England Bishops; my offering concerned an exploration of Niebuhr’s “outsider ecclesiology“.  I am convinced that the most important thing the church can do for its mission is to take the Nones/SBNR seriously (not just dismiss them as lazy, vague, or privileged), and attempt the difficult task of viewing the church from their vantage point. My opening quote from William Temple in a recent Lay Anglicana offering indicates this need—it is the fault of the church if it fails to preach the gospel in a way that appears to outsiders as authentically good news.  We need to develop leaders–ordained, but perhaps more usefully senior lay leaders—who can hold up a mirror to the church so the church can see itself as those who are not already convinced by the gospel do.  We need to develop theological language that respects those who stand, with good reason, outside the Christian community (and we have to really enter into dialogue, not just some cheap Christian ‘pitch’ that sounds like a telemarketing script).  We have to treat our critics as intelligent, thoughtful people of goodwill who deserve our respect—otherwise, they have no reason to respect us.  So far, what I see from ‘mission’ studies has neglected this.  We train people for ‘mission fields’ far away from home.  That is the easy route.  The more difficult is to enter into respectful conversation with the people we ride elevators with each day.  The risk is that we will be changed in the encounter, and see a bigger vision of the Gospel than we get cozily wrapped up in by our refusal to change.



In most of the world, the Nones are the second-largest spiritual grouping (and in China, the largest).  To behave toward them in condescending or dismissive ways is a betrayal of the Great Commission, and a commitment to fail in its execution.

In Sickness and in Health: Wendy Dackson



Someone with two healthy legs is able to stand, walk, run and jump. But if your leg is broken, your doctor won’t tell you to act like it’s healthy. Treating a broken leg as though it’s healthy will hurt it, not help it. If the medical issue is serious enough, the patient is put in an Intensive Care Unit, where they can receive closer attention. The same goes for churches – no matter what size they are.


This is a key paragraph in a blog post I read a few days ago, which can be found here .  I am in complete agreement with the premise that a sick church cannot be treated as a healthy church, cannot be expected to do and be the things that a well-functioning spiritual community is and does, until it has recovered from whatever is wrong. However, I think there are some missing pieces in the original article that need to be explored. I was a part of some lively discussions on two or three different Facebook pages in which I made some observations and suggestions; this little essay is an attempt to distill some of that and share it more widely.


The two missing pieces are diagnosis and treatment.  Not all unhealthy churches are unhealthy in the same way.  From this, it follows that appropriate treatment is dependent on an accurate diagnosis–you don’t treat cancer the way you treat a broken bone, and you don’t treat deep-seated infighting and power struggles the way you treat an unexpected traumatic event.  There may be some overlap:  while I have been recovering from a fairly bad orthopaedic injury, some of the medications I have taken are ones cancer patients take to reduce the nausea from chemotherapy.  But I could not have made a good recovery if my fractured and dislocated patella had been mistaken for, and treated as, a bone tumor.  A similar principle, I think, applies to treating unhealthy churches.  Accurate diagnosis is the foundation of the journey to wellness.


I think the ways in which a church can become unhealthy (maybe even start its life in poor health) are very similar to the ways a person can be unwell.  I think the very good blog post needs a bit of exploration on this point, and I offer a few suggestions.  Three main ways (probably not exhaustive, however) for a person to become unhealthy are (1) injury, (2) disease, and (3) lifestyle choices.


Injury is often sudden, and beyond the control of the person who suffers it; I think churches can be injured from things that are not their fault as well.  I took a freakish fall on a rainy day in South Buffalo during our annual January thaw, and ended up turning a once-whole kneecap into two pieces (note to self:  more is not better when it comes to how many pieces of bone you have).  In like fashion, I wonder how many once-well churches were hit very hard by events beyond their control, such as the economic meltdown a few years ago, or natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy last October.  It would be interesting to see how institutionalized religion was affected—the impact on worshipping communities themselves, the wider economic/social consequences resulting from interruptions to the benefits they bring to their civic contexts, and the ways in which they have recovered (or not, as the case may be).  Injury, to an individual or church, is traumatic, and it may take a long time to recover.  2013 has been my ‘year of learning to walk again’.  The good news about injury is that it probably happened at a time of reasonable health.  This means that a state of well-being and good functioning is in relatively recent memory, and the injured person or institution is determined to return to that state.  A recognition that there will be scars—I will never be completely the same after my fracture—is healthy.  But I have learned much in my own process of healing, and this makes me stronger and more able to deal with future injuries.  I also lost about 10% of my body weight, which needed to happen for overall health.  I will work to keep that excess off, for the sake of what was injured, and for the sake of heart, lungs and blood vessels—those things that are vital to well-being.  An injured church also has a good possibility of being more healthy than it was before it was hurt. There is learning in the process toward being well, and sometimes shedding the excess helps an organization be better at what is really important.


Another way for a person to become unwell is through disease, and this is also true of churches.  Disease can arise in at least two ways, possibly more—but I think the main two are through outside infection, and through something going wrong internally.  Infection coming in from the outside is what most people and churches guard against.  Look at the sales of things like Airborne, and hand sanitizing gels, and even the prohibition against sharing the Peace and receiving wine at communion issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York during the 2010 swine flu outbreak.  In like manner to avoiding bacterial and viral infection, churches are often vigilant about external influences that may compromise their health—the current (annoying) debates about same-sex marriage are often cited as something that is going to end Christianity as we know it by more conservative churches; more progressive churches also guard against ‘wrong ways of being Christian’ with equal zeal, excluding those who are not adequately ‘inclusive’.


But it is not the external infection, I think, that is likely to be the cause of most disease in unhealthy churches.  It is the disease that is more analagous to those ailments arising from malfunction within the individual human body—organ failure, overgrowth of some cells and tissues at the expense of others—that are problematic.  In a human body, unregulated cell growth tends toward cancer, and compromises the whole; a previously well-functioning organ may either over- or under-function, throwing the whole system out of balance.  In a church, unregulated activity by one group (or domination by a particular activity or outloook) compromises the purpose of the church.  This can come from a long-time member (even the pastor), especially if s/he is a founding donor or leader of the congregation, or an over-emphasis on one good thing to the expense of others.  A congregation that focuses too heavily on children and youth (admirable as that focus is), may put inadequate resources into ministry to elders or outreach to the wider community.  While it may seem difficult to put too much emphasis on outreach, it is still necessary to budget for adequate infrastructure (including physical plant and core staff) if that outreach is to be well supported.  But if that infrastructure becomes all-consuming,again, the system is out of balance and unhealthy.


Disease in churches, I am afraid, does not arise from programs or buildings, or often even differences in theological outlook.  It arises from people who decide that their priority (and often not much more than a preference) is the only one that counts.  I visited a church a few years ago where a couple who were relatively new to the community had taken on (almost by force) significant leadership in the church, much of which was at odds with the pastor and longer-standing members of the congregation.  Their emphasis was on more modern, evangelical worship; the church was a moderately high catholic style Anglican one, with a locally important historic building.  A fair amount of coalition-building against the pastor ensued, mainly from newer members of the congregation; many of the more settled members felt resentment, and the church was largely riven into factions.  The energy could have been better spent in developing ways to work together.  My own experience and observation is that it is never healthy when a person or group (including the pastor) tries to make the church over in their own image.


A third way in which both individual humans and congregations can become unwell is through lifestyle choices.  We are bombarded with messages every day concerning how, by making choices about diet, exercise, smoking, etc., we can reduce our risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some cancers.  Lifestyle doesn’t protect us from every illness, but it prevents many, and the right choices can help us cope with, and make better recoveries from, sickness when it does occur.  We can’t control every environmental factor, or genetic predisposition, or just freak accident.  But we do have control over whether we eat a balanced diet, smoke, use alcohol to excess or take recreational drugs, spend a reasonable amount of time in physical activity each day, and how we cope with stress.


A balance of work, rest, play, fueled by good nutrition, does make the life of the individual human body better.  Why should this not also apply to faith communities as well?  Lifestyle-related illness is not the same as internally-generated disease—I think they are easier to correct, because they could be more like chiropractic adjustments than major surgery.  What does a congregation need more of, and what does it need less of?  Again, I am all for churches doing as much ministry in their civic communities as possible (however defined, and sometimes well beyond the immediate geographic area)—but if the congregation does not take time for worship, spiritual nurture and learning, and occasionally just some basic fun together, something is wrong.  But on the other side, if the only emphasis is glorious worship (again, however you choose to define that) which doesn’t lead to care for something more than the self (whether individual or corporate), that is an imbalance that needs to be addressed.  An expectation that the ordained leader does absolutely everything considered ‘ministry’ is problematic (and it can be fed by both the laity and ordained minister); when a few lay leaders are at the helm of almost all the church’s activities, this is also a problem.


How do we begin to figure out what kind of sickness a church has, so we can develop appropriate ways to get better?  A wise friend, who is a professor of general surgery, once said of his medical practice, that you can learn more from taking a complete history than you can by probing and proddingMy guess is that this is as true of sick churches as it is of the unhealthy GI tracts on which my friend operates.  Asking the right questions of a church (and asking them from as many members as you can manage) is probably going to aid in the diagnosis, and help develop a treatment plan with the best chance of achieving the goal of getting back to health.  What are some questions we might be asking?  Here are a few of my thoughts.


How do you spend most of your time as a congregation?  I think there needs to be a balance of stuff that is internal to the assembly (worship, administration, Christian learning) with things that are directed more outwardly, such as outreach ministries, ecumenical cooperation, civic witness.  But in an unhealthy congregation, the balance may be more inwardly directed.  A struggling church may have to spend more time together dealing with its problems, and less on its public presence.


Who are the ‘leaders’?  I would expect the ordained ministers to head the list, but I also want to know what lay people are doing which tasks.  If the same five names in a congregation of 100 or more are in charge of the Sunday school, altar guild, the church’s turn at the local soup kitchen, the healing ministry, visitation to the sick, all of the major fundraising events, hospitality, etc.—and they all sing in the choir and sit on the governing body as well, this is something to watch.


How long have your leaders held their positions?  Long standing membership/leadership of a particular group within the church may mean that one person, or a small group, holds a lot of power (altar guilds are notorious for this); sometimes a denomination’s canons require that people serve limited terms (often a vestry member of an Episcopal church cannot serve more than 3 years without taking at least a year break between terms).  But it is also a red flag if a very new member suddenly is at the helm of four or five ministries in the congregation.  It is not that there isn’t a good reason.  If a new hire to the faculty of a local theological seminary joins your congregation, it makes sense for him/her to be an important part of adult education, or to take a place on a preaching rota; a new accountant or attorney in the church may be particularly useful to the governing board or on the finance committee.  But reasons for the meteoric rise to leadership of a new member need to be clear and reasonable.


My own experience shows that the choir is often a good place to look for people who have very extensive ministry obligations in the congregation.  I have rarely been in, or observed, a church where the choir did not have significant overlap with other activities in the church.  A church’s choir often has members of its vestry, finance committee, liturgy guild, outreach groups, building committee, etc.  It is probably the hub for a lot of activity, and a place where new members first get a toe in to deeper involvement, and make connections to those who have other ministry responsibilities.  See how many hours a week your choir members are obligated to the church—it may reveal some surprises, and suggest some ways toward a healthier congregation.


Why have people left doing particular jobs in the church?  Again, sometimes there are perfectly benign reasons—birth of a child or an increase in other family or work obligations, or a term has expired.  But if an architect in your congregation has left the building committee, it may be wise to ask a few gentle questions.


This is a starter-list of questions, and I am sure that I will think of more as soon as this is posted to the blog.  A final consideration is who is the right person to work with a sick congregation?  I wish to say something which some people may consider alarming.  I think the work of helping sick churches back to health would best be supervised by a lay person without strong ties to the congregation(s) in question.  A person who is also the ordained pastoral/liturgical leader has a role more of the supportive home-care nurse rather than the specialist or consultant.  The work of diagnosis, prescribing and monitoring the treatment is, I think, best done by someone whose relationship to the congregation is more detached; the reasons for this are the same as the medical ethics principles that advise against a physician treating his or her own critically ill relative.  As well, a lay consultant will not be expected to step in on a day by day basis to fix things that the congregation must work on for itself.  Finally, the ordained leader in a congregation is (like it or not) a part of the unhealthy state, and it is important to have some outside advice concerning whether the ordained leader and congregation can move forward together in healthy ways, or if there needs to be a surgical excision that allows them to move toward health separately.


As well, it a congregational health-check could be developed, and each church work with a consultant to do a biennial (at least) self-assessment.  This could help identify problems before they became insurmountable, damaging the vitality of congregations and the well-being of their ordained leaders.  A lay person, with good theological qualifications, on the senior staff of every diocese or other denominational adjudicatory, to do this kind of work, would be a good investment in helping to keep churches healthy and move unhealthy churches to a place of greater well-being.


Note by editor: The illustration (courtesy of Wikimedia) depicts a very literally sick church in that it is closed and kept locked. But I thought the row of chairs in the congregation, each isolated from the others, was also a good metaphor for another problem of church sickness.

‘God’s Brilliant Idea’: Gerard Kelly


‘Framing Collioure’

When I visited Collioure in 2008, I was deeply struck by the ‘Chemin du Fauvisme’ exhibition. Like thousands of tourists before, I stood looking at a grey church through an empty golden frame and was convicted of my own lack of vision and imagination. What would it take, I wondered, for me to see the colours a great artist might see? What courage would I need to celebrate what I saw, even as others around me, more rationally defined and fearing excess, named me wild?

A student more of mission than of art, more familiar with churches than galleries, I accepted this rebuke at the very heart of my faith…this has become a vital metaphor to me in recent years as I have wrestled with the loss of colour that so many people describe in their experience of the Christian faith…in the century since Derain and Matisse first painted in Collioure, tens of millions of people have walked away from commitment to the Christian churches of the West…And those walking away from faith often experience their journey as a kind of liberation. Looking back over their shoulder to see what they have left behind, they see grey. Old buildings; empty creeds; bland faith. What they do not see is colour and life.

And yet the church is, in its origins, God’s brilliant idea…It is a sparkling idea, a concept radiant with light and joy. Words like ‘brilliant’, ‘bright’ and ‘beautiful’ can legitimately be used to describe it…What happened to the fountain of colour God switched on at Pentecost? Where did the explosion of joy go? How did a movement of life and exuberance become, for so many, a source of greyness in our world?

…Can we break out of the greyness of our church experience to discover the riot of colour God intended? Is there a route back to the brilliance of God’s plan? Like Mark Figueres with his empty frames, I want to ask you, ‘What do you see?’ and challenge you, perhaps, to see more.


God’s brilliant idea #1: ‘Shine through them’

The church exists because God has committed himself to work through people. This is the fulfilment of the Creator’s long-held intention to shine wisdom through his human creatures into the world he has made. We will explore this as a prismatic plan: the many colours of God’s wisdom displayed through redeemed human lives…What does it take to shine God’s light into every corner of our culture?

God’s brilliant idea #2: ‘Give them power’

A second biblical metaphor for the church is… a human community indwelt by the Holy Spirit…What is God doing in us that will empower and resource what he plans to do through us?

God’s brilliant idea #3: ‘Help them love’

The third brilliant idea, perhaps the New Testament’s most dramatic metaphor for the church is ‘the body of Christ‘…We will ask whether the recovery of servant love as the very mark of the church might not lead to a renewal of its life and mission, asserting that God’s kingdom runs on meekonomics – the subverting of power and wealth that brings the margins to the centre. How might a tidal wave of small acts of love change the direction of our over-consuming culture? What does it mean for us to incarnate anew the very life of Christ?

God’s brilliant idea #4: ‘Make them one’

Lastly, we will discover the New Testament’s future-focused vision of the church as ‘the bride of Christ‘, a body resplendent with beauty reflecting the colours and contributions of every culture on the planet. ..What does it mean to truly celebrate diversity?


I want to suggest that in our quest for [a truly missional church] there are colours we will need to recover; wavelengths of God’s mission to which we have perhaps become blind.
It is significant that science, and not aesthetics alone, played a part in shaping the work of the Fauvists and the colour-revolution they gladly joined. Their work was, in part, a response to changes in their cultural landscape.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, two areas of research were moving ahead at such a pace as to make new experiments in art not only possible but inevitable. The first was the development of photography and the associated experimentation in the behaviour of light. Early discoveries in photographic processing showed as never before the relationship between sight and light and revealed much that had never before been so fully understood. This led to discoveries about refraction and the nature of colour that gave avant-garde artists new confidence in their experimentation. They were freed to ‘see’ more than they had ever seen before, understanding that the light pouring into their eyes carried many more colours than their rational minds had previously acknowledge.

In parallel to this, developments in the manufacture and import of pigments were offering to the painter unprecedented power to reproduce the colours he was seeing. Year by year new pigments became available or affordable, and each one added to the artist’s armoury. The Impressionists, most notably Monet, were the first to take advantage of these developments and break into new areas of experimentation with colour. The journey was taken further by the Post-Impressionists and by Seurat and the Pointillists – who painted by applying thousands of tiny dots of disparate colours – until the baton was passed by the Fauvists and beyond.

All in all, the art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a carnival of  colour, a global celebration of polychromatic light. As representatives of this period, Matisse and Derain, honoured to this day in the town of Collioure, stand as ambassadors of colour – prophets of a technicolour future. The wildness of their paintings should not be dismissed as naive and over-imaginative playfulness: it is underpinned by a deep and essentially scientific interaction with colour. The Fauves are not Surrealists. They are not trying to tell us what they have dreamed or imagined. They are trying to tell us what they see. Colour, for them, is reality. It is our paler, more monochrome view that is imagined, imposed on our vision by a cold rationalism that insists on informing us that stone ‘is’ grey. Derain and Matisse want to break open the limited and limiting exceptions that dull our senses. They are artists engaging with a changing world. They want to free us to see all the colours light has for us.

Can you hear the Holy Spirit, through them, calling you to a fuller vision of the church?

This is an abbreviated version of the introduction to ‘Church Actually: Rediscovering the brilliance of God’s plan’ by Gerard Kelly, published in 2011.

The author acknowledges Bishop Pete Broadbent as the source of the phrase ‘God’s brilliant idea’: Bishop Pete in turn says about this book: ‘Gerard helps us re-own our puzzling, sometimes frustrating, church and see it in all its glorious technicolour. Enjoy!’

1930s Advice for the 21st Century Church: Dr Wendy Dackson


[ After our late summer ‘skeleton editions’, we resume the publication today of Wendy Dackson’s thoughts on the ‘spiritual but not religious‘ – how did you get on at Back to Church Sunday on 29th September? Ed.]



The Church exists, first and foremost, to be the fellowship of those who worship God in Christ.  It is, therefore, in this earth, the representation of the life of Heaven.  Of course, it is easy for anyone who stands outside to look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven.”  Well, that is our own fault and not the fault of the call which the Church has received.

(William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today, the William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, December 17-19, 1935, boldface my own)




If people who are seeking a deeper connection to what is divine and eternal, and do not see a reflection of higher values in the Church, who is to blame?  William Temple, Archbishop of York at the time this lecture was delivered (and thus a senior figure in an established church that still had some reason to believe that it had a moral and spiritual authority over the nation), hit the nail on the had–not just for his own time, but for decades into the future.  The Christian message is still excellent, it was in 1935, and it remains so now (although I do think that people engage it differently, emphasizing different aspects than we did almost 80 years ago).  But if it is not presented well, or by the life of the assembly, most importantly in their interactions with each other and the world outside of the time set aside for communal worship, then those outside the church have every right to say this is not where they will find the spiritual nurture and community they seek.


And who is to blame?  Not God, not Jesus Christ.  Those who are in the fellowship of the church who are representing the life of Heaven in ways that people outside the fellowship reject–they may be more responsible for giving the church a repuation that the church doesn’t want.  Too often, church “insiders”, whether clergy, lay leadership, or the “average” person in the pew, create problems for the church’s image.  It isn’t just the major scandals, like sexual abuse or financial dishonesty, either; nor can it all be blamed on the historic wrongs ascribed (rightly and wrongly) to the church.  It can have more to do with a member of a church’s governing body, who regales his or her co-workers with stories of the bitter arguments that happened during the last  meeting. Or the new member of the altar guild who feels bossed and belittled by the guild president–because she–and altar guilds have historically been, and remain, over 90% female–who vents to a non-churchgoing neighbor about how impossible it is to please some people, and all the new member really wants to do is serve God and the worshipping community.  It can be the architect on his congregation’s building committee, whose expertise is over-ridden to accommodate the whim of the biggest donor.  It can be the gossip about the young, single, female pastor who is seen holding hands in the cinema with a man from outside the congregation (clergy ethics almost always forbid single ministers from dating within the congregation).  Most of all, it can be about the smugness some Christians demonstrate when they speak to non-churchgoers about the superiority of pursuing a spiritual path within the church, rather than going it alone.  So much of what happens in the holy community looks hellish to those who would never enter its doors.


If Archbishop Temple were writing today, what might he have said?  I imagine that the quote above could stand almost unchanged, but I will add a bit to it.


The Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are not your problem.  They did not cause your church to decline in its membership or giving.  They are not why your vestry, consistory, or whatever your governing body is called, is fighting.  They are not why members of your congregation do not get along with one another. They are not why your building needs paint, your choir needs new robes, your organ is out of tune, your altar flowers are wilting, or your youth group is not much more than a clique with ugly t-shirts that say “WWJD”. They are not why your pastor is burned out, and taking it out on the congregation.


And that is far from saying that they are looking for a perfect church, with completely godly people who are free from human pettiness, who are always going to be able to conduct their lives together in perfect perfect harmony and flawless grace.  People are realistic in their expectations about what human groups are like. If the SBNR, in all their glorious spiritual diversity, are looking for a faith community at all (some are, others are not), they are looking for a place to grow in godliness, amongst people who are also trying to do so, who lovingly help each other to come to some kind of appreciation of the classic philosophical goods of beauty, truth, and goodness than any one individual or group can appreciate.  And yet, they want to do it in ways, and amongst people, who appreciate and honor the individuality and gifts they will bring to the community.  They want to ask the tough questions about life in a rapidly-changing world, but they also ask the tough questions about why there need to be four churches at the corner of Main and Maple Streets, selling five different versions of Christianity, all hoping to convince people that their way is the best (or even only) way.


The SBNR are also not the solution to your problems.  An influx of unchurched people is not going to help you be a better church quickly.  Even a wealthy new member is not going to drop a huge pledge on you the second time they attend and solve all your financial woes.  If people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they will be looking to feel their way into the community’s life, and find the places where they can participate most authentically, for their own benefit and that of the church.  Rejoice at finding them, yes–but everyone (God included) will be better served if you treat them more like lost sheep than lost coins.


However, I would also want to say the following:  The Spiritual But Not Religious are not your problem, but they are your concern.  Listen carefully to their objections to the church, and for those things that can be changed without compromising the integrity of Christianity, work on them.  We are told to “preach the gospel to every living creature.”  But we preach an anti-gospel if our churches are places of in-fighting, power struggles, and blame-games where we claim that our problems have causes that don’t make any sense.  If we look bad to those outside the church, that is our fault, not theirs.


Not all Spiritual but Not Religious people are looking for a church, and some are not even looking at the church.  But if the church wants to reach them, and is not doing so, perhaps it is time to look inward and put some energy into making the life of the Christian community into the representation of heaven which it is meant to be.


‘Jesus and Life in the Hoodie’: Miriam Oliver aka Mimsie

Rabadashass from the Narnia books by C S Lewis

Rabadashass from the Narnia books by C S Lewis

If you do not already know her,  I would like to introduce you to Mimsie. She blogs as Rabadash The Ridiculous and, though she is clearly unwilling to take herself too seriously, she takes the Church very seriously indeed and has written a thought provoking piece on young people and the Church. I reproduce, with her permission, the first of the half of the post below, and urge you to follow the link to read the whole piece here: She tweets as @midiclorian

Young people and church

How often do we see young people in our rural churches?  Has anyone asked the question – where are our young people on a Sunday morning?  While we’re engaging with children in our family services, our adults and seniors in the standard Eucharist services, there is a very definite gap in our congregations that is left by the absence of teenagers.  This is probably an age-old conundrum but I’d like to raise the question again and perhaps make some suggestions (again – this may not be news to us but it’s always worth revisiting).  You may have seen a few of the youth group members during Eucharist services on previous occasions.  When we’re asked to help it normally involves us doing something that would ordinarily involve an adult such as a reading, leading the intercessions.  I would like to ask a question.  By including the young people in a traditional service whose structure and content many of them aren’t familiar with, singing hymns written a hundred years ago or more and generally conforming to a liturgy that is somewhat alien to the teenage newcomer, do we genuinely believe that we are actually catering to their spiritual needs?  The proof may be seen in the fact that, aside from the odd occasion when we are invited to participate in a service, teenagers are generally absent from our churches.

My leaders and I decided to address this at Youth one week.  We did an activity where they were asked how they perceive the church.  This involved having a list of 9 descriptions and a blank piece of paper where they could add to the list.  The following were the descriptors:

  1. A beacon for the community – demonstrating people who are salt and light of the world
  2. The Sacraments – the altar, the bread, the wine, liturgy and hymns
  3. A refuge – shelter in the storm of change where like-minded people feel safe
  4. A heritage site – a place where historic and significant virtues of a past culture can be celebrated and preserved
  5. A health centre – where people go to stay healthy and where they gain what they need to continue to live productive lives in the community
  6. A nursing home – a place to which people turn to see out their days, or for respite in an atmosphere of love and care
  7. A place of education – to learn about God, the Gospel and how to live a life that Jesus would want
  8. A gathering of people – a fellowship of mutual care and encouragement: an open place that welcomes people of all ages, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
  9. The means by which a group of people can meet the needs of communities near and far through fundraising and social action.

Next to each description was a saucer.  They were then given 10 marbles of the same colour and had to vote on which descriptions most accurately reflected their perception of the church as it is today.  They could put all marbles in one or distribute them around several, or put one in each saucer.  Most of them saw church as a refuge (3), a heritage site (4) and a place where you learn about God (7).  We asked if it appealed to them as it stands.  They indicated that they liked parts of it but not all of it.  So we asked them to suggest how they would like church to be – and using a different coloured set of marbles each had to vote with their 10 again.  At the end of the exercise the marbles were counted.  The overwhelming response was for it to be a gathering of people of all ages, backgrounds, gender, race and sexuality (8).  Furthermore they said they wanted a safe space where they could explore their doubts without fear, and a quiet place where they could reflect on the week (a combination of 3 and some of their own ideas).  The fact of the matter is that they do not perceive the church today to be a place they want to attend.  Many even stated that they believe that what we do at Youth is their “church” because it is their safe space where they can just ‘be’.  It was quite flattering for us leaders, but we were anxious for them to experience something a little closer to what they wanted church to be; for them to create it, lead it and participate in.

Youth vote using marbles on what church is

Youth vote using marbles on what church is

Something I discussed during my Authorised Lay Ministry training was about noise and ‘visual’ noise and how this affects the way young people approach the world.  In this world we are surrounded by noise, images and ‘stuff’ all day, every day, and young people in particular experience this perhaps more than most.  They also live with a lot of expectation from school, peers, parents, and tv etc.  And so my question is: do we, as a church, also put on them expectations of conformity to a way of doing things and ‘being’ that may not appeal?  Is it any wonder that the kind of church that appeals to them is one that gives them the freedom to explore things on their terms without fear of rejection?  Is it any wonder that amid a busy, noisy world they crave a sacred space that gives them time to reflect?  The experiment was fascinating to observe, and was very thought-provoking for us as youth leaders, as was the open mic night that occurred as a result of the experiment.  I know that Church as a refuge already exists, and one clergy, in a sermon recently, used the metaphor of an oasis in the wilderness – but how much of what we do meets the needs of a select group of people rather than appealing to a generation whose need for a sacred space often takes them elsewhere rather than the one established place they should be able to find it – i.e. our Sunday morning services?

Underneath the hoodie lurks a passionate, loving soul who wants to be loved and appreciated for who they are and where they’re at in the journey.  So stop trying to bring them into the framework of a traditional church setup that is often alien and uninviting to them and let them discover a loving God through building a bridge to them.  This may mean rethinking what we believe “church” is – when it happens, what it looks like, how we play a part in it.  Let’s start with reminding ourselves that Christ calls it His “Bride” and go from there.  It begins with love and compassion.

Are Non-Church-going Anglicans the Key to the Church’s Future?


Professor Linda Woodhead is from the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University. Last week’s Church Times contains an article by her beginning:

THE Church of England’s mission strategies and investment of energy assume that churches and churchgoers are its main resources. But a significant new survey offers a broader answer. It suggests that non-churchgoing Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future than the dismissive word “nominals” implies.

This has been the subject of a lively debate on Facebook, which raises several interesting threads for future debate. I have therefore taken the unusual step of reproducing the conversation here, chiefly for archival purposes. However, if anything strikes a chord, please feel free to re-start the comments 🙂

Linda Woodhead: “To me at least, [The Church of England] seems to have abandoned its sense of itself as a lay Church governed by monarch and Parliament, and responsible to the people, and has become both more clerical and more congregationally based. This is bound up with a dismissal of “nominal” Anglicans.
One consequence is that it is hard for lay people, particularly non-churchgoers, to be taken seriously. Despite their prominence at all levels of society, they are not encouraged to think of themselves as real Anglicans. They do not become spokespeople for their Church, or play an active part in its governance.”

Updated Saturday evening Yesterday’s Church Times has an article by Linda Woodhead about a survey that “suggests that non-churchgoing Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future than the dismissive word “nominals” implies.” The article is…

  • You, Bex Lewis and 10 others like this.
  • Robin Ward That is a very tendentious reading of the Church of England’s self-understanding indeed.
  • Edward Martin Perhaps we now need to differentiate between ‘Anglicans’ and ‘Anglican Christians’?
  • Alan Wilson For me it does raise questions of “who is a member?” that have long historical pedigree. Simply saying “The baptised” may well be thought too open (however theologically correct) but then saying “Weekly churchgoers” or “Electoral Roll Members” has to be too narrow, doesn’t it? And, finally, what is the relationship of the (largely clerical) “Management” to the plebs sancta dei? What should it be?
  • Steve Walters It appears that for most churches (the hierarchy at least) it’s members vary depending on what is involved. Most of the time church members are those who come to services regularly, up until there is some cash to be made, such as weddings or funerals and then having once had a cousin who sang in the choir is enough. This sweeping generalisation doesn’t apply to a good number of the clergy, but it does to those concerned with church finances
  • Robin Ward But this is all actually completely to do with internal political rows between different sorts of enthusiasts – jittery liberals shocked by the inability of the synodical process to deliver their objectives, calling in aid a Baldwinesque myth of Anglican England. The rampant Erastianism about Parliamentary sovereignty since the women bishops vote has been truly astounding, would Linda Woodhead have wanted it when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister?
  • Alan Wilson It could be, indeed, Robin. But beyond the narrow politics I do wonder about what is going on in the outfield — the plebs sancta dei zone? All I think prof Woodhead is trying to do is describe the constituency of the C of E; which is broader than its activists on all sides, surely.
  • Tony Eccleston Seen from Andalucía, just before setting off for the annual meeting of a C of E chaplaincy which is both wholly dependent on its own fund-raising and the employer of its priests, the definitions of Anglican and member seem relatively straightforward. Perhaps we carry our historical baggage more lightly.
  • Jonathan Jennings I always used to say that the Church of England doesn’t have a concept of membership; the basic answers to the question ‘who are the C of E’s members?’ are theologically, ‘the baptised’, and legally, ‘anyone who wants to be, whether the clergy or congregation like it or not.’ Establishment’s real function is not at the level of Bishops in Parliament or the role of the Crown, but in the legal underpinning of the wedging open the door of the parish church. When people come in, they have as much right to be there as anyone and that’s sometimes a necessary corrective to a sense of ownership. The only way of truly disestablishing the England would be to extinguish the current legal rights of residentially-qualified parishioners.
  • Alan Wilson I agree, Jonathan. It’s one of the reasons a narrow response by the Church to Marriage legislation is so dangerous, in a way that some of my colleagues just don’t understand.
  • Matthew Caminer Your mention of plebs, +Alan, makes me reflect again on the otherwise brilliant Oxford Diocese leaflet on parish share. It did leave me with a strong sense of an implicit money-based expectation that the CofE of the future will be ‘managed’ by a compact group of ‘professional’ clergy supported by a much larger group of ‘amateur’ self-supporting priests and lay ministers…. which increasingly smacks of ‘officers and other ranks’, before you even start thinking of the people in the pews. And I have to say that many of the structures and attitudes, training, funding, pastoral care etc from theological college stage through into ministerial life, seem to support that perspective. At times it has a rather nasty feeling of ‘proper priests’ and ‘plebs’
  • Alan Wilson Thanks, Matthew for articulating something that rather worries me, not only about our diocese but the whole Church of England. When, for example, will we have a Ministry Division that is as concerned with the 98% (perhaps) of the Church’s ministry delivered by unordained people as it is about the 2% (perhaps) delivered by clergy?
  • Matthew Caminer Indeed. I am reminded of a Scottish Episcopal Church years ago which went to the Bishop of Edinburgh (good old +Richard!) during a vacancy and said “we have decided we don’t need a stipendiary priest after all, because we have everything, internally and externally, under control. All we need is someone to be a shepherd and lead services.” So enlightened, but so rare…
  • Pete Ward I think Linda has a point. Deep in the Anglican Church is the sense that it is in someway there for everyone in a parish. The fact that a large number of these people don’t attend but still see themselves as Anglican is a challenge to ‘intensive’ forms of Church – what I call solid Church. The real issue is how should the CoE ‘minister’ beyond its gatherings. We have some clues with chaplaincy and relationships to schools and other community bodies but what else. How can we see a more Liquid Church emerge? ‘Getting them in’ seems myopic or at least one dimensional – whatever the church tradition it emerges from. Rather we need to ask what is the Holy Spirit already doing beyond our buildings and our gatherings in people’s lives and how should we be catching up with this? Linked to this I think the idea that we might also invite financial support across a wider group is very interesting. In other words a more ‘centrifugal’ rather than centripetal movement might if well conceived offer a ways of support.
  • Alan Wilson Thanks, Pete. I strongly agree. I think Cole Moreton‘s “God is no longer an Englishman” indicates that there are very rich places for ministry for “village holy people.” And I know a few good examples of Churches who asked “Where’s the Fire?” and discovered energy in surprising places in communities they serve and have kindled new life in doing this.
  • Anthony Clavier Michael Ramsey, who championed the “Parish Communion” movement, prophesied that the abandonment of Matins would drive from the church, those who wished to participate as Anglicans but were not totally committed to its teachings.
  • Alan Wilson A few years ago I helped with a pre-retirement group of clergy in the Durham diocese who were reviewing their careers — fascinating able interesting people, but many reflected on one of two career patterns in which they had basically done the same job four times over (1) High — get rid of 11.00 high Mass and replace with Parish Communion (2) Low get rid of Mattins and replace with Family Service and/or Parish Communion. The PC movement was so right theologically, but humanly fortified the tendency Linda identifies powerfully.
  • Ernie Feasey We have a couple of Matins and Evensong services per month in our parishes, which get a different congregation than the HC, Sung Eucharist or Family Services. The preferred format is BCP Traditional language. We’ve also run some compline services, which are also well attended. It seems to be that we need to get the mix right to reach those who are not comfortable with modern or Common Worship services. We also make other opportunities to meet people where they are and there was a very succesfull carol service in a village pub last Christmas. It needs more imagination and wider interaction iwht people at our School and in the other community events – and not all people want to be involved every week, some are comfortable with occasional or even seasonal attendance. It’s still their Parish Church and they identify with it, just can’t or won’t commit to regular attendance.
  • Richard Haggis It’s sweetly navel-gazing of clergy to think that the solution to problems is to fiddle with liturgy. It’s like bishops thinking that problems can be solved by clever forms of words. It’s what they’re good at, but, alas, useful only in very particular (or even peculiar) and limited circumstances.
  • Alan Wilson Thanks for broadening the subject out, Richard. I think people are turned onto or off from their local Church far more by the kind of community it is than the details of the liturgy on offer there. The “management” did go through many years in the past of defining everyone by their liturgical preferences, but this was only a small part of what was going on.
  • Bradley Upham I have to agree with Richard Haggis on this one. It is the (often) constant tinkering and fiddling with liturgy (this includes music) that is a turn-off than most would care to think. Anglicans have an special affection for the ascetic, whether they realize it or not, and to change it can be quite disturbing. Parishes that have changed this, might have a rebirth, but it comes usually after a long period of decline, only after the parish attending population has turned over.
  • Matthew Caminer I’m all for trying things that will engage and retain the congregations of the future, but if Messy Church and all the other forms of Fresh Expressions give a feeling of exclusion and disenfranchisement for those who worship in ‘old’ ways with sincerity and stabillity over time, then it is not universally successful… a case of both and rather than either or?
  • Richard Haggis It always amuses me when a parson welcomes “especially the newcomers”, and I look at the oldcomers, and think “poor buggers, they’ve been paying for this show for years, and no one even notices them, in the quest for novelty – even in people”.
  • Matthew Caminer As regards the original proposition of this thread, the growth of massive benefices with fewer clergy to serve them should in theory be a heaven-sent opportunity to engage the laity more, rather than less, in leadership. The fact is, though, that many congregations have something approaching a child to parent dependency on the clergy, and for them nothing less than a priest will do. In other words, it is not just about what the establishment does top down, but also about bottom up expectations
  • Richard Haggis That’s true, Matthew, but it also suits the clergy very well to infantilise the laity, in exchange for being idolised, and then burning out because there’s no one confident enough to delegate to! It would have to be said that precisely none of this is healthy.
  • Alan Wilson back in 2005 Donald Spaeth published a really interesting Cambridge thesis studying the Archdeaconry of Wiltshire and asking when people stopped going to Church en masse. The answer was that successive waves of clergy enforcing their latest notion of how to be a proper Church came along after 1660 — Evangelical, Arminian, Calvinist, Tractarian, the lot. Each time this happened some people went with the new thing and slightly more peeled off leaving a rump in the middle. The result was continuous salami slicing over 300 years. The biggest slice of all came off when residence was enforced in 1805, and clergy started enforcing gentlemanly behaviour on their parishioners. It’s a salutary lesson.

    This book explores popular support for the Church of England during a critical period, from the Stuart Restoration to the mid-eighteenth century, when Churchmen perceived themselves to be under attack from all sides. In many provincial parishes, the clergy also found themselves in dispute with their…
  • Steve Walters It’s wonderful to look at new ways of making worship acceptable, and accessible, however it’s the Church’s role in wider society that needs looking at, increasing the relevance to people’s lives. So often the busiest churches have outreach work, even if its the Priest popping into the local pub for a pint or a coke, and chatting about the football. Our role so often isolates us, we have the largest (and often most run down inside) houses in the area, up a long drive separating us from our parishioners. Not many vicarages, or manses, or presbytery are on the 12th floor of a block of flats. We need to live and take part in our communities for the Church if whatever denomination to thrive
  • Clare Amos If I am ruthlessly honest I suspect that the importance given to the Anglican Communion in recent years has not been helpful in this respect. I love the Communion – and indeed working for the Communion office, but it is fairly apparent that in many Provinces of the Communion the delicate balance between the episcopal and the synodical governance of the church that (ideally at least) is part of the tradition of English church life does not really exist – instead the bishops are far more powerful. I think that has affected in turn the dynamics in England as well. (It is of course interesting that it is a church where the synodical element is very powerful – TEC – which is out of favour with many other Anglican Provinces)
  • Katherine J. Kaye At the risk of sounding even MORE heretical, the change in the liturgy which decommissioned Morning Prayer and put the eurcharist as front-center-and-the-whole-point of a Sunday service also marginalised non-communicants and made the whole process into a club of insiders. It isn’t sharing in communion that really makes us brothers and sisters, it is baptism, faith, and grace. My poor noncommunicant husband is Outsidered every time he goes to church. It’s excluding and far too “priesty”.
  • Keeley Cavendish Very true, Linda. The C of E is governed at local, regional and national level by cliques of unwelcoming people, with inexplicably high opinions of themselves. Quite often, anyone who finds that they do not share the left-of-centre, PC views of many within the church hierarchy, finds him/herself excluded quite ruthlessly.
  • Alan Wilson Clare, thanks for describing something I’ve noticed to be the case in various overseas settings. The good news is that when people actually encounter others in different churches the result is usually joy. The bad communion news is a lot of the office politics and manipulation at another level. My thought, Katherine is I’ve met Episcopal Church theologians who put great stress on Baptism as the basis for the Church, and working out the implications…
  • Pippa Soundy Is Anglicanism too self-conscious? Preaching on the lectionary this morning, if struck me that the hallmarks of Jesus people are their love for each other and their reception of the gift of the Spirit. Having belonged to some very different kinds of churches where these hallmarks were present, I tend to think of everything else as secondary.
  • Alan Wilson Thanks, Pippa. Is that how we rebuild the ruins from the streets up?
  • Pippa Soundy Hope so – very much!
  • Robert Dimmick Just come back from the AGM of our Local Ecumenical Partnership. One member complaining because he’d noticed we hadn’t complied 100% with the Church Representation Rules and also pointing out that we were probably not compliant with the canon on LEPs. Others complaining that they had been asked to sign forms for the Anglican Electoral Roll which we are treating as a common membership roll – they don’t want even to say that they are “also a member of the Church of England”, they just want to be Christians worshipping in the Christian church which serves this area (at least for non-RCs). Some of us wanting to say, damn the rules, let’s just act like a church of people who love God and each other and who want to work together for the Kingdom. A frustrating situation.
  • T.J. Tracey Jones Love God, Build the church, Reach out to the lost… Simples!
  • June Butler From my view across the pond outside the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dual role as Primate of all England and primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion seems to constrain the governance and policies of the Church of England. The more I look at the position of the ABC, the more difficult it appears to have one person exercise leadership in the two roles.
  • Chris Fewings A few thoughts from a peripheral church member in the Church of England, possibly off-topic and ill-informed:

    1) How much longer can the model of Victorian churches (and other frowsty barns), with 20% of the pews filled for an hour or two a week, served by an increasingly thinly stretched ‘professional’ clergy survive? Twenty years?

    2) As a ritualist (baptised in the Brethren as a teenager), I can envisage many groups of future anglicans meeting in small spaces, perhaps in homes, to celebrate a eucharist which may be highly elaborate, with proper regard to holy orders. But this is antithetical (or at best parallel) to the parish church as a sign of the other (a sacrament in itself) in the community.

    3) A few churches have become or been built as flexible multipurpose buildings for worship *and* community use. This often seems to require massive capital investment, and one or more rare local visionaries. But I sometimes look at a church and think ‘Chancel: worship. Aisles: offices to let. Nave: dances, music, markets, after-school clubs, adult education classes; occasional services with large congregations’. Can some of that be achieved in some places without ambitious building projects?

    4) Is parish communion about dispensing sacerdotally controlled sacraments or about the life-giving mystery of the body of christ meeting, raising its voice, recognising the holy, sharing, eating, becoming? I rarely ‘take communion’ but I regard the handshake of peace as a sacrament. I regard the words of scripture and the liturgy as sacramental too, but to have at the centre of our weekly liturgy a service without the sensuality of taste and swallowing the fruit of the earth and work of human hands in a re-membering of the central paradox of the Christian story? It would be like going to the theatre to listen to a radio play.

    5) St Paul was the apostle to the gentiles in a rather extraordinary way: he insisted on bringing their sacrilegious uncircumcised ways into the Jewish church.

    Do we need an apostle to the secular, the agnostic, the atheist – one who will embrace their godlessness as a hymn to the unknowable in whom we live and move and have our being, and hammer out theology on the hoof?

    6) So many dead lie round. The church probably has a better grasp on death (and on failure) than the secular culture; can we hold the dead, and the memory of the dead, for the wider community?
  • June Butler Katherine, I agree that the move away from regular services of Morning Prayer was perhaps a mistake. A service in which everyone who walks in the church door can participate fully seems a lovely thing now that it’s mostly disappeared.
  • Chris Fewings It’s not true that someone who walks in off the streets can fully participate in matins or evensong. Will the whole atmosphere put them off? Will they want to say the responses? If they say them will they feel their heart is in them? Will they want to sing? All these apply to someone who’s never been to church, or only goes occasionally, or went as a child or a long time ago, and comes back and finds things have changed, or they have changed.
  • June Butler As fully as they care to participate, Chris. If a person wishes to sit quietly, that’s fine, too. The point is that no one is excluded from any part of the service.
  • T.J. Tracey Jones In 1 Cor 1 Paul challenges the people’s thinking of themselves as following this leader or that one etc.. At the end of the day, are we putting Jesus at the centre of our worship or are we following this leader or that one?
    Each one (bishop, priest, pastor, whatever) would be mortifies if they thought people were following and trusting them when really they are trying to point the way to Jesus.
    What kind of man was Jesus? Traditionalist, radical, progressive, conservative? …. ALL of them! No one can say that the church should only be one type of thing… They automatically alienate the other 3/4 of the church.
    We need to put Jesus at the centre… Above all other gods… Lord of lords… King of kings…
    Thanx Malcolm Duncan great sermon this am.
  • Jonathan Jennings I think it’s amazing that we constantly analyse the ways in which church attendance has changed as though everything else hasn’t. It is not the church’s failure that it doesn’t command the support it used to command a hundred years ago. I once read a partly constructed thesis somewhere which sought to chart the decline of evensong by doing statistical analysis of attendance in the 1960s. it confirmed quite neatly the anecdotal stories about the Forsyte Saga’s effect on mainstream churchgoing. We haven’t properly factored in the effect of changes in daily life, including the necessity of both partners holding down jobs in order to sustain a family, and the consequent growth in the importance of Sunday trading and expansion in Sunday as a social and shopping space, none of which was true even twenty years ago. Congregations who constantly feel guilty that they’re not as large or busy as they were a generation ago should relax and remember that exactly the same is true of trade unions and political parties.
  • Phil Hemsley To be honest, I haven’t read all the comments above, but since my friend Pippa commented I saw the headline, and being controversial I’ll offer

    The church in recent decades has not been successful in the UK. The results show…See more
  • Alan Wilson Thank you very much, Phil. The underwear story brings home the point very well. I often find that when Jesus’ teaching and character, and its concrete content is named, interest follows. When, on the other hand people attempt the Supernatural / doesn’t actually do stuff paradox, or posit a God zone apart from another, secular zone, privileging one over the other, people are genuinely foxed as to what is going on. Really grateful for your help on this.
  • Erika Baker If only 5% of people attend church we can be fairly sure that most of the 95% have no idea at all what goes on inside one. They have no idea what the liturgy might be, what kind of hymns people sing or don’t sing, what they say about God or Jesus. They know as much about what goes inside their local church as I know about what goes on inside the local mosque – the things you see on television, the self portrayals of the organisation in the news and in some of its more PR savvy members.
  • Alan Wilson +Dominic Walker used to send curates in training into a betting shop to experience what church felt like to outsiders…
  • Matthew Caminer When people prioritise numbers above all else, I am reminded of the person who pointed out that during the Stalinist times, the church in Russia was kept going by (harmless?) old ladies in black, and not too many of them. I rather suspect that the numbers in churches these days are probably a far fairer reflection of ‘believing’ people than in the days when there was a social cachet to going to church, nothing to do with needing to believe anything! Jane Austen: “How would you have liked making sermons, Mr Wyckham?” had no connection with whether he had a faith: just something that second sons did. So BAPS wouldn’t have been much use!

    On which score, and thinking back to earlier parts of this thread, I am left wondering whether the move towards ever-larger benefices led by stipendiaries, supported by much larger numbers of SSMs and LLMs was the result of a strategic vision or simply a pragmatic response to financial necessity. I would like to imagine the former, but I suspect the latter.
  • Katherine J. Kaye I don’t think there’s any doubt that the move away from stipes towards SSM/LLMs was financial and coincided with women moving into the priesthood and congregations changing with demography.
  • Matthew Caminer Yes, Katherine… the statistics support that…. 67% (and increasing) of females offering for ordination are SSMs, as opposed to only 25% (and static) of men. Not suggesting reasons or causality, but those are published CofE statistics.
  • Katherine J. Kaye In the history of women’s paid work in essentially middle-class occupations (excluding the vast numbers of working lower-class women in factories, mining, and agriculture) every time women are recruited in any number into an employment category, wages, and prestige as defined by ‘traditionally male’ norms, go down. This has been true in science (where it was a growth field for women and middle-class men, because ‘gentlemen’ did Classics and thence went into law and politics, up to WW1, then becamse male-only, and since circa 1980 has had more integration with women and correspondingly lower pay rates, especially in academia); in medicine (excluding surgery); in both the Bar and in legal practice generally; and in management and the boardroom, where even in major companies, women on the board are *still* paid less than their male counterparts. Women are universally STILL regarded as a source of cheap labour and men are STILL regarded as somehow more worthy of more money. My more-irate reaction phase tells me that men just down tools andrefuse to work unless their egos are massaged by sufficient recognition, but I compeletly acknowledge that this is a quondam and biased reaction!
  • Richard Haggis A largely non-stipendiary clergy is going to be quite a boot up the arse for bishops and laity alike, as they start to hear the word “no” expressed to their faces in the terms it’s been phrased only in the bathroom mirror until now. It could all be rather fun – people HATE it when they HAVE to co-operate.
  • Matthew Caminer Seriously, however much the church may claim that it is not seeking a ‘one size fits all’ solution, the fact is that that is an almost inevitable consequence of an IME regime that is based on streamlined delivery, a lot of box-ticking, and little to nurture individual gifts and callings, let alone educate or change expectations of host congregations. Hence endless advertisements in CT for “energetic” applicants – meaning presumably people prepared to work 70+ hour weeks, and prepared to sacrifice their personal and spiritual integrity to accept demands that are simply not a good fit for who they are? All such a long way from the Ordinal… “Priests are people who pray”…. In all that they do, do, do, where is the space for the rich contribution of, say, contemplatives… people with busy day to day occupations…. people with families…. ? Maybe dioceses, IME Officers and Training Incumbants could do more, but congregations must equally share responsibility to support and preserve the physical, mental and spiritual health of clergy AND their families.
    Ever-growing benefices should in theory present the wonderful opportunity for a rich mix of Ordained and non-Ordained ministry, and, within the Ordained, a rich mix of spirituality, time-commitment, involvement and so on… so room for anything from workaholic Marthas to “contemplative-in-the-world” Marys. I suspect, though, that the latter are seen largely as misfits and oddballs, when they should arguably be treasured most of all.

‘Vaguely Practising’ Anglicans

Poor old David Cameron got into trouble in the twittersphere and elsewhere for saying that he was a ‘vaguely practising’ Church of England Christian. And I suggested in his defence that his position was shared by many others who consider themselves members of the Church of England (and very probably other Anglican churches throughout the Communion). Attendance at events in our village church over Advent and Christmas would seem to support that theory. Though I don’t have the exact figures, a rough headcount indicates:

  • Advent study course (3 sessions):     15 participants
  • Advent Sundays:     25-35  participants
  • Christmas Eve Midnight Mass:     80 participants
  • Christmas Day Family Communion:    130 participants

It would be interesting to know whether other churches saw congregations in roughly the same ratio. If so, how would you describe the people who swell the ranks on major festivals? ‘Vaguely practising Anglicans’ perhaps? Is the Church of England now so exclusive  that it would ban these people from its ‘hallowed’ portals? I do hope it has not come to that. As C S Lewis exclaimed:

“If God were a Kantian, who would not have us till we came to Him from the purest and best motives, who could then be saved?”

Although it was a Frenchman (Talleyrand), who advised against too much zeal (‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle‘), this is a very English, indeed traditionally Anglican, attitude. It is at least arguable that it was an overdose of zeal which led to the Crusades, Irish ‘troubles’ and other religious wars. You will have seen reports of yesterday’s scuffle between Greek and Armenian priests at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem (dubbed ‘Affray in a Manger ‘) over ‘ territory’ in the church.


Do you know (or remember – it dates from the 1960s) Tom Lehrer’s song ‘National Brotherhood Week’ in which he ‘is grateful that it doesn’t last all year’. Too true to be funny? In that context, it may be understandable that a politician, above all, with responsibilities for the community as a whole, would be careful to describe his faith in terms which would not lead people to describe him as a zealot. Lest you think I am making a party political point here, I suggest that this was also what was in Alastair Campbell’s mind when he said, of New Labour, ‘we don’t do religion’. I doubt he was presuming to tell Tony Blair what he might or might not believe as a private individual: he was surely simply nervous of creating division.


If you are a committed Christian, you may think ‘vaguely practising’ is an insulting cop-out to the rest of us. But I am not so sure. I would like to belong to a church which contains everyone from potential saints about to be beatified down to everyday sinners and backsliders. With the churches in crisis, it is no time to be making enemies of those who admit they are not perfect. Or would you rather be the one to cast the first stone?




‘Vic the Vicar’ has also posted today on the proportions of the congregation who are full ‘members’ of the Church:

“I find the 40-40-20 representation of the population quite helpful:


40% being ‘unchurched’, that is having no understanding or experience of Church.


20% being ‘dechurched’ (which means may have had churchgoing in the family, usually Grandparents, been to wedding, baptism, funeral or Christmas/Easter and not warm towards the Church to the point of being negative and antagonistic towards it.


20% being ‘dechurched’ (like thise above) but are generally warm (or at least not negative) towards the Church.


10% attend but are perhaps not committed or understanding what Church is (come because they have always come perhaps?).


10% attend and have an understanding and are engaged with Church (also known as ‘members’ and are the troops in this campaign of making Christ known).”




The illustration is by Abramova Kseniya, via Shutterstock

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