What is needed, to bring hope, life and growth to the Church of England? General Synod last month sounded a note of realism and hope. A number of reports were debated and approved, which offer some radical answers to the very real crisis that faces us. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written about it in a paper called GS 1976, which you might like to read at www.churchofengland.org
The crisis: The Archbishops say that attendance at C of E services has declined by 1% every year over recent decades, while the average age of the membership has gone up and up. Of course, reducing numbers means less giving. In addition, the age profile of the clergy is increasing, and their numbers going down (40% are due to retire in the next decade). Church buildings continue to be a heavy drain on time and resources. The church has struggled to maintain its presence in some of the poorer areas of the country, and some of our more northern dioceses in particular are seriously under-resourced. All that adds up to a situation of crisis.
The proposals: But, praise God, an attempt is being made to do something about it. One report is about discipleship, emphasizing the need for us all to know Christ, to follow him, serve him, and make more disciples. Without a renewed commitment to real discipleship across the Church of England, we are truly lost. Another is about ministerial education, looking at how we should select and train more lay and ordained ministers for the future in a way that is both effective and cost-effective. Another is on simplification, which plans to do away with bits of church legislation which can clog up our administration and prevent mission and growth. Another is on discerning and nurturing senior leaders, and proposes new ways of spotting those with potential to be bishops, and helping them prepare for that and other leadership roles. And there are other reports about directing money to poorer areas, and to places that are showing ‘good growth’. But how will it all be financed? The proposal is that the Church Commissioners should put in a massive dollop of one-off funding – probably several hundreds of millions of pounds – to prime the pump for growth. This is invested money, which can only be used once, and must not be used except for emergencies … but we are all now recognizing that we are living in an emergency.
These are radical proposals, from which I take heart. And I was particularly encouraged that there was much talk of following Jesus, sharing the good news, growing in prayer, working for growth, nurturing the gifts of lay people, and seeking the glory of God. There are tough times ahead, steady nerves will be needed, and there are still big divisions over human sexuality and other matters. But we must pray for our Archbishops who have stepped forwards in faith to promote a programme for change. God has blessed us in Yeovil with good and lively church life which means we are sheltered in many ways from the effects of the wider crisis. But we must still pray for our churches to grow. We must pray for ourselves and our own growth in discipleship. And we must pray for God to have mercy on his church, and grant us a future we do not deserve.
While I was at Synod, someone drew my attention to Psalm 106:44-45: ‘But God took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.’ May the Lord hear our cry in our own generation also.
With my best wishes – James.