The fight for the future of the Church of England

The fight for the future of the Church of England

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

When the Church of England talks of trying new things, I prick up my ears. Back in 2004 it announced the need for ‘fresh expressions’ — new ventures alongside the normal parish system. Maybe some vibrant arty experimentation would ensue, I felt. But the main result was lots of nimble little evangelical pop-up churches, mostly lay-led. The idea of innovation seems to energise the evangelicals, although their version of innovation doesn’t always energise me.

On Easter Day this year I dragged my kids to church, but there was no room at the socially distanced inn. The evangelicals round the corner let us in, so I had a glimpse of a style of Anglicanism that I normally avoid. And I quickly remembered why I avoid it: I don’t enjoy being treated like a five-year-old. To express our penitence, we were invited to perform hand gestures, copy-ing some emojis projected on to the huge screen: a fist for anger, a hand covering the mouth for bad words. My teenagers were giggling. I was minded to perform hand gestures of a different sort. We left as soon as it was seemly. The evangelicals dislike mystery. They feel that it should be banished by extreme accessibility.

Recently the C of E has renewed its call for innovation, with the emphasis on post-Covid, belt-tightened streamlining. ‘A vision for the Church of England in the 2020s’, unveiled by the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, calls for a church of ‘networks as well as neighbourhoods’ that is ‘younger and more diverse’, and that is ‘humbler, simpler and bolder’.

It’s basically the same rhetoric of 17 years ago. In January, an internal C of E document wondered if this ‘is the moment to embark on radical changes to reshape existing resource patterns and ministry structures’. Then, in July, there was a row over one detail of the vision; the suggestion that 10,000 new church communities might emerge over the next decade.

So, in the face of a looming financial crisis, the church’s leadership is plotting to defund the crumbly old parish in favour of pop-up churches that need little more than emoji-projecting equipment, or a website. Really? No, not at all, replied Cottrell when the grumbles started. The aim, he said, ‘is a parish system revitalised for mission. I’m dismayed that anyone would think that this work — work, by the way, that is still work in progress — is aimed at anything else’. On the other hand he has admitted that the church faces ‘difficult decisions’ about resources, and confirmed that an era of bracing change was indeed coming.

This did not quite reassure everyone. Writing in these pages in July, the Revd Marcus Walker called for a new movement to ‘Save the Parish’. At the launch event, Walker and another priest issued grim warnings of imminent subversion. A third speaker, the Revd Dr Alison Milbank, struck a more positive note, and it’s Milbank who best explains the difficulty facing the C of E.

She is Anglican Oxbridge in female form: erudite, posh-ish, mumsy. I met her in the 1990s after a church service in Cambridge; her husband was one of my theology teachers. I put it to her now that this is a new round in the old ding-dong of high and low church-styles, evangelicals vs Anglo-Catholics competing to dictate the future of the C of E.

‘No, not at all, if you present it like that I will certainly complain,’ she says. Oh. ‘This is really a lay movement, a revolt of the rank and file who feel they’re not being valued, that they’re excluded by this idea of mission that the leadership has. They’re angry that resources are being diverted to bureaucrats, highly paid media officers for the diocese and so on, instead of safeguarding the survival of the actual parish church. I’m not against new initiatives, but it’s actually from within the parish that the most successful “fresh expressions” have emerged.’ One example Milbank gives is ‘Messy Church’, a fun new version of Sunday school that many parishes now run.

But what is the sudden new threat that Save the Parish is responding to? Surely the new ‘Vision’ document is just warm rhetoric about being a more Jesus-shaped church? ‘Well, the real practical issue right now is a measure currently before General Synod that would enable the closure of parishes, and the redundancy of priests, with far less consultation,’ says Milbank. ‘This is a cause that every sort of parish can get behind, not just Anglo-Catholic ones. In fact there is a low-church feel to the revolt, because it emphasises the primacy of the congregation and questions the role of the hierarchy, so it couldn’t be more grass-roots. It’s about subsidiarity. We want to see some reversal of the central seizure of local assets since the 1970s.’ In 1976, she explained, parish assets including highly desirable vicarages became centrally managed — sold off — leaving parishes at the financial mercy of the leadership.

I want to return to the big picture, and my notion that an optimistic national vision for the church is nowadays owned by the evangelicals. Why can’t the Anglo-Catholics ever sound upbeat about national renewal? ‘That’s unfair!’ replies Milbank. They certainly can enthuse the nation, look at the Oxford Movement…’ That’s going back a bit, I point out (to about 1850). ‘There was also a very strong national movement in the 1920s…’ Also going back a bit.

In recent decades they don’t seem to know how to set out a vision of renewal, I say to Milbank. ‘That’s because they’re split,’ she replies — a reference to the fact that a sector of Anglo-Catholics oppose the ordination of women. But I wonder if that split can fully explain the difficulty that non-evangelical Anglicans have in sounding like they have any fresh ideas.

The underlying message of the Save the Parish is that the leadership cannot be trusted. Though Milbank and co. don’t want to talk about the high-low split, this alone explains the strength of the distrust. If parish priests felt that the leadership had a notion of mission that was in keeping with Anglican tradition, they would not be so suspicious of resources being devoted to new schemes. If, for example, the archbishops were planning a new Corpus Christi event in the streets of London, or a mystery play in every cathedral grounds, would they be so hostile?

It’s time for us Anglo-Catholics to stop complaining and start plotting our own new vision for the 2020s.

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