I am a cradle Anglican – actually being BORN in the vicarage of my father. He was of the conservative Evangelical party – I still have his copy of anti-Anglo Catholic diatribe questioning why clergy should wear clothing suggesting they believe things that the Church of England’s foundation occurred to reject. Over the years ‘Evangelical’ has been, as in the early days of last century, stretched to include far more than those who take seriously doctrines of the Reformers; watching as yet another parish gets fooled by its diocese into appointing someone who’s being passed off as ‘Evangelical’ serves to demonstrate the point.
Yet it is important to realise that the Evangelicals are not the only worthwhile part of the Church of England; the Charismatic movement helped me see the treasures hidden within the Catholic tradition. I have far less sympathy for the liberal establishment; although at its best it has forced us to address real questions, on the whole it has turned to the traditions of the church with the mindset of the world, and then found itself cutting off the branch on which it is sitting. Sadly however, rather than have the honesty to admit that they have ceased to be Christians in any meaningful sense and go off and do the social work job for which they might be suitable, they’ve spent the subsequent years of their career crossing their fingers when the creed is said and confusing their parishioners. And in a desperate effort to prove that they are ‘with it’, they endorse the latest worthy left wing political campaign – but never actually see anyone become a Christian.
Whilst historically this was sustainable, the present situation of the CofE renders its functioning ever less so, whilst its centralising tendencies make us all complicit in its failures. Once upon a time – until about 50 years ago – each parish had its own endowment from which its priest’s stipend was paid. Whilst this was deeply inequitable, it reflected the fact that the different parts of the CofE didn’t really trust each other; they got on with their own ministry, merely resorting to the bishops to ordain their party’s candidate when presented by the party’s patrons, having raised him in a church of their party and educated him at their own theological college. Noone had to work hard to raise money for the church – but we could all get along…
With the nationalisation of the endowments and their loss of value as a result of the inflation of the 70s and 80s, this stable situation was destroyed. More and more the dioceses had to get parishes to pay for their own ministry, and as the shekels rolled into the centre, the temptation to provide finance for the latest fashion, be it the ‘Board of Social Responsibility’, ‘Industrial Chaplaincy’ or even ‘Missioners’ grew. Meanwhile the declining congregations, and, thankfully, vocations,1 meant that the diocese did need to re-establish its strategic role. Add in the growing perception that clergy are employees of the diocese – they never were, they were self employed by the parish – you have a recipe for dioceses taking a far more active role.
On the whole dioceses have muffed it. Because the average diocesan officer is a priest whose own ministry was going nowhere in their parish – so they chose to avoid the persistent reminders of their failure by doing something else – their expectation is that all parishes would be like that, and their job should be to manage the decline gracefully. Refusing to accept that it is only clearly partisan parishes that actually go anywhere, they’ve stuck contrasting parishes together under one priest, producing a lowest common denominator to the detriment of all. Failing to think strategically, they’ve demanded ever more ‘tax’ from parishes doing well – to enable the failures to limp on for a few more decades – as well as preventing those growing parishes to invest towards the future. They’ve spread clergy thinly – into parishes which do offer no hope – and then are surprised when they report being depressed, whilst the parishes where growth could be enabled by additional clergy are allocated ever less. Of course the bishops responsible for this feel no shame – the outcome is what they were expecting, so it’s obviously not their fault. That one or two dioceses are doing better is put down to special circumstances…
So – what is the answer?
Giving parishes need to decide whether they should be continuing to support the system. If the value of your parish share, which IS voluntary, is more than the value of the clergy you are provided with, then you need to determine whether this is the right thing for your church to be giving to. It’s part of your church’s giving – is it justified compared with the other things you give to?
Receiving parishes should have the subsidy they are receiving spelt out. Instead of the nice thank you from the diocese for their contribution, the response should be: ‘You are presently receiving a subsidy of £14,000; thank you that you have not forced other parishes to give more this year by paying your contribution in full.’ Or ‘We note with concern that you have forced the diocese to seek a further increase the parish share on other parishes because you have not made up the amount required to ensure your subsidy of £14,000 is not further increased. Do you believe you deserve further subsidies as compared with the other calls on the finances of the church?’
The point of course is that many of the gatherings that occur on Sundays in consecrated buildings owned by the CofE up and down the country are worse than useless; creating an impression that the body of Christ is decrepit and confused, or at best harmless, it’s no surprise that ordinary people are staying away in droves. Unfortunately most bishops don’t want to be remembered as the one who closed lots of churches, so the show, threadbare and repellent, carries on, and on, and on, until noone can pretend any more. And this deprives the growing churches, both here and around the world, of the resources they need to make a positive difference.
Crucially, synodical government means that parishes have the power to do something about the situation, and are therefore complicit when they fail to do so. Whilst a total return to more disengaged dioceses may be impossible – congregational decline does need to be managed – the abolition of ALL central ministry posts other than part time Archdeacons (who should also be parish priests so they are reminded of the realities) would be a good start. Similarly bishops should be drawn from healthy parishes, ideally being priests who’ve turned around a dying church, or at least seen steady growth. On designation they should attend the diocesan synod and be questioned by members, after which a secret ballot should occur as to their acceptability; failure to gain 2/3 support should be seen as a reason to withdraw their candidacy unless EXPLICITLY supported by the archbishop of the province, for reasons that they must give publicly.
Can I carry on in the church of England? This diatribe is probably irrelevant to that debate. Will I put another penny into the collection in the present circumstances? Not a chance…
1The present crisis in the CofE would be far worse if we had sustained the level of vocations of the past.