Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Where do we go from here? Towards an Unknown Church … Part One … FRAGILITY

‘O brave new world, that hath such people in’t …’

‘Our revels now are ended …’

I want to reflect on what kind of Church of England might emerge out of a time of Coronavirus. The two lines above, both from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, strike me as indicating two, simultaneous reactions to what we face: the voice of naivety, promise and innocence represented by Miranda, and the voice of experience, broken dreams and endings represented by Prospero.

Perhaps the C of E, indeed the wider Church, always lives between poles of innocence and experience, promise and cynicism. The emergent realities generated by a global pandemic have only brought them into sharper focus. In this short reflection, I want, provisionally, to speak into what I sense is the direction of travel for the Church of England in the light of pandemic. I want to set some hares coursing, in the knowledge that others will challenge, reform and add to my reflections.

At the ground of my thinking is two premises: firstly, you can’t keep a good God down. God is, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Secondly, the C of E is going to look very different in coming months and years (or, if you prefer, that which was already true of the emerging C of E is going to be foregrounded in startling ways).

Why reflect at this point? Well, in part, because that’s what I do. I think and reflect. I also want to participate in a conversation. Truth is, none of us has a working crystal ball. I fully expect most of my thoughts to end up being proven quite absurd. I also acknowledge that none of my thoughts is especially original. That’s good.That implies my thoughts are part of a discourse. I hope it’s one you want to contribute to.

Here are some of the things I hope we – in the church, both lay and ordained, senior and junior – can begin to take seriously.

The Fragility of Goodness? The Goodness of Fragility?

The church which comes out of lockdown will, I think, be digitally promising, physically smaller, more financially precarious and tentative, and potentially more flexible and interesting. (In a future post, I want to suggest we may be more restful.) Yes, there will be an uptick in bullishness – ‘Rejoice! Let’s get our programmes started! Let’s show everyone we’re open for ‘business’’ – and there will be many who, rightly, will wish to research whether there will be a ‘prayer premium’, in which those who have prayed and watched with us via digital means remain with us.

I am excited about the virtual and streamed possibilities of church and I’m fascinated to see how the virtual church continues to grow and emerge. However, the materiality of the church matters and it will be different. I also think God calls us not to be fantasists.

Anyone who imagines that – come the end of lockdown – we shall, in the short to medium term, gather en masse together once again in church buildings is (in my view) losing the plot. Lockdown will, as the Bishops indicated, be phased.

Choirs (and congregational singing) may be banned for months; huge Cathedral and parish church gatherings (traditional ordinations etc) simply aren’t going to happen; there may be strict limits on how many people can be in a building at any one time. Also, those who are older or have limiting health conditions may effectively be barred from being in church for months, perhaps years.

There will be others who may take months and years to have the confidence to be in confined spaces.

There are going to be a number of people who will not be coming back to church in the physical sense again. Yes, there may be new people, but let’s not get too excited. I’d like to see the evidence trail from past upheavals to support the belief that there will be an upsurge of religiosity (rather than spiritual engagement).

Money will, almost certainly, be much tighter, not only in poorer ‘northern’ dioceses, but across the C of E. I sense that already difficult financial decisions will need to be brought forward.

What might happen practically?

N.B.: I don’t offer these thoughts as commendations, but - from my small perspective - reasonably likely outcomes of the situation we face ...

Those churches which can integrate their digital and physical offerings are likely to have great advantages … in a world where a person can ‘see’ (from their bed or sofa) what a church offers, those churches who can speak into this ‘marketisation’ are likely to see high engagement. This may … yes *may*… lead to increased physical attendance in due course … more likely, it will finally expose the Anglican parish system – based on physical territory – as humbug. Location will still matter, but the C of E will, finally, become a 21st century institution among 21st century institutions …

Given an increasingly precarious financial situation in parishes, dioceses and the national church, it is likely that trends in the national picture will be accelerated: churches which can afford to pay for their own minister will be the only ones which will be assured a full-time minister … churches will, increasingly, be led by lay people and non-stipendiary ministers … stipendiaries will become rarer and, in time, rarities (if they are not so already) …

Huge questions will be raised about the stewardship of buildings … which buildings will be required, which will not? I suspect we shall witness an enormous church closing programme … just as the need for office space in the secular world diminishes, the need for church real estate will diminish …

Some of our finer buildings (especially those with unsustainable finances and small congregations) may need to be offered to Trusts, including the National Trust (assuming the NT, which I adore!, will be in a financial position to take them on …) ... worship will continue within them, but on different terms ...

Older clergy will, I suspect, look to retire sooner than they might; indeed, from a financial and mission perspective, senior leaders are likely to be under pressure to encourage and incentivise those who can to retire, freeing up parishes for reorganisation …

Clergy, like me, in single parish benefices, will have to look hard at whether their parish can justify them; senior leaders may need to incentivise or – assuming Canon Law permits it – force us to move on, take on other parishes, or even leave parish ministry …

Given the likely shortage of money, senior leadership will probably need to work very hard to force a reordering of the Church along simpler, less geographically driven lines. Dioceses will almost certainly need to be amalgamated, as happened in the current Leeds Diocese. Liverpool and Chester might come together; Manchester, Blackburn and Carlisle might. Perhaps Liverpool and Manchester might join together with Chester …

We shall probably end up with dioceses that look much more like ancient sees, organised over large distances. Clergy will become scarcer and more scattered. Laity will take centre stage  …

From this summer, I could see a situation where leaders think is financially prudent to tell those going into training for ordained ministry that their future will not, in the medium term, likely be in stipendiary ministry. I can see a situation emerging where the assumption will be that most if not almost all will end up in mixed mode, part-time non-ministry job, part-time ministry …

I’m sure there will a range of opinions and responses to my speculations, including ‘Why speculate?’ I offer these thoughts as a kind of ‘conversation starter’. The Church may be led by bishops and governed by Synod, but we all have a stake in the future of our beloved institution. I should very much welcome your responses …

PART TWO: REST ... to follow (once I’ve had some rest ...)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Rachel, this is very thought-provoking. I'd be interested in any insights into how something already as lay-led and 'non-professionalised' as Messy Church might shape itself now for being as useful, missional and hopeful as possible for the brave new world. We fully intend to keep on with the revels!

  3. I have long felt that the future of the Church lies in sector ministry, having spent what ministry I've had as a university chaplain. But the term remains vague unless the idea is seriously examined from a thelogical, spiritual and managerial (for want of a better word) perspective. The institutional Church (ie the system/organisation) has, in my opinion, not long left to exist, given how well people seem to be managing without it. Furthermore, it has been discredited by scandals, the climate of clerical careerism and the obsession with status that goes with it. The result is that many, but not all, people feel out of touch with clergy, especially high ranking ones. We will need to return to a very simple pattern of missio dei - being sent, being leaven in the dough, being 'under cover agents'. The Church, insofar as it comprises people who are called to public ministry, ordained or not, will need to be shaped by the Spirit. To this end it must become a 'house' (fewer buildings, as you say) or a body of people who pray constantly. Nobody should think of entering public ministry who does not consciously devote at least an hour of quality time to silent prayer a day, alone with God. Their default position for the remainder of the day should be this same place. I think this pandemic is offering us a moratorium on how we wish to be for God's people in the future. The on line activity that many are engaging in on Sundays, who perhaps have never been to church, suggests a need that the Church can only begin to meet by getting into that medium , not just through technical innovation, but doing so from a place of inner spiritual strength. We could start by praying more deeply for all those caught up in social media spats and arguments, for example. These do immense harm to our internal relationships and to our individual emotional well being. All of these ideas do, of course, bring into question the nature of leadership itself. Should there be two parallel but quite separate paths? the one designed to help this new Spirit shaped Church to be a solid resource in the many contexts and life styles of the modern world ie as people who administer the sector ministry. The second parallel requires people with spiritual vision and theological imagination, so that the Church as a whole never loses sight of its Master. Responses welcomed.

  4. Thank you Rachel for this great reflection. I would very much agree with you that I don't think there's going to be any sort of sudden return of congregations en masse to worship or buildings....I sense the first step will be to open churches up for private prayer and smaller things before any sort of congregational worship takes place. Whilst it's daunting and scary, it is also quite exciting. Your thoughts and musings are much appreciated here.

    1. Opening churches up for private prayer is the crucial first building block towards sensing the shape of any church of the future. Yes, it means more cleaning and sanitizing, though I doubt people will be turning up in droves for private prayer and might even think to bring their own surface to sit on. But it's important that we think of a way to do this as the transition we are going to need between the bubble mentality which virtual and online inevitably gives rise to. We are together but desperately isolated. We easily hurt one another online. So physical shared space will always be important because being in the same space makes it easier to read body language and make eye contact, all vital for healthy relatedness. The emphasis, in terms of the public side of worship, will change though. We are all learning to be hermits. We may be re-learning how to pray. That is what the church is doing right now and it is good. Let's hope something creative will come out of it post-lockdown.

  5. This is thought-provoking and stimulating. I think some older, retired clergy who could adapt to this new world, might have something to contribute.
    Chich Hewitt

  6. I have long been wondering how we might find an alternative funding model. Many communities, especially rural ones, value their churches and get very upset when they are informed they may lose them. We need a much more open conversation about how stipends are funded. The idea that only the better off parishes could afford a vicar is a terrible route for the Church to travel although I see it is already on the way.

  7. Thank you, Rachel for your reflections. I am a non-stipendiary minister, an incumbent (down the road from you) for the last 2 years, after spending 22 years' NSM ministry as a "supply teacher." I see great possibilities if the financial decline pushes the church to embrace a creative re-thinking of ministry and how we share leadership together - I dare to imagine that distinctions between who gets paid for what and ordained vs lay (can we ditch that word?) may become secondary to how we work together?

    1. Yes, let's please ditch 'lay' as a sort of blanket term for 'you're really not quite as important as ordained folk but we need you to do those things the clergy don't want to do /don't have time to do /don't like doing. Clergy often have a sense of themselves as being absolutely crucial to any church functioning. I preach, teach, offer spiritual direction, and do and say just about everything liturgical except the you form absolutions and blessings, or the formal eucharistic prayers, and the people I minister to would be happy with me fully presiding at a eucharistic celebration. I get paid nothing except the pleasure of being able to serve God and thought useful and competent at what I do. The institutional church really does need to look at the vast untapped talents and abilities of those who have chosen not to go down the ordination route, or who have done so and been rejected.

    2. I fully agree with the other anonymous contributor and I regret that the current climate is indeed such that we have to write anonymously. Unfortunately any criticism of the clergy-laity dichotomy still tends to be misread as criticism of the clergy themselves. But I think the clergy have as much to lose as the laity by continuing to use those categories, which are not even biblical. More than ever, we are going to need various ministries, together forming the body of Christ, where one member does not look down upon the other or considers the other as a threat.

  8. These thoughts are a terrible reflection on today's church, where many, (admittedly, not all), vicars want an easy life where they rely on the virtual world in a vain effort to achieve their aims. Any vicar that subscribes to this ideal is, in my opinion not fit for office, and should step aside, so they can be replaced by a committed and caring vicar, who is truly committed to serving the community in this very special role.

  9. The danger of a retreat into a virtual world is the loss of a sense of place and community. A massive strength of the church is its work in its community. Local people supporting local people. Worship and fellowship are part of creating and growing church. This doesn’t negate the need to discuss and address the reform of parishes and stipendiary ministry but we must be wary of celebrating something because it’s shiny and new at the expense of what we have. Interestingly if you have a small congregation you may actually be able to function more ‘normally’ as we come out of lockdown. Much to think and reflect on.

  10. #1 Many thanks for this most interesting post. Here are some tentative suggestions based (it must be admitted) on incomplete research:

    1. Reduce the National Minimum Stipend to something like 20k.

    2. Make the CEFPS contributory.

    3. Change the CEFPS from being defined benefit to defined contribution.

    4. Pass a Measure to give existing beneficiaries a haircut on the entitlements (which were non-contributory) in the order of about 50%, since they will mostly also get the state pension as well.

    5. Reduce the number of stipendiaries to no more than about 30 per diocese.

    6. Abolish all the administrative and financial functions of the dioceses and consolidate them in the Commissioners (to generate economies of scale).

    7. Consolidate all diocesan assets in the Commissioners, and write off the debts owed by the dioceses to the Commissioners.

    8. Institute a fund-raiser to make up the shortfall in subventions (i.e., parish share) that has occurred because of the lockdown. This will not be plausible if the clergy are as well paid as they are (I don't just mean in terms of stipend but in the aggregate) compared to clergy in, say, France.

    9. Abolish theological colleges and other unnecessary overheads (move to distance learning and establish an e-library of theological texts, a sort of clerical JSTOR).

    10. Abolish capitular clergy or else make them, bishops and archdeacons serve in parochial cures. Ensure that all pay differentials are also scrapped (as in the Church of France).

  11. #2 Whilst I have some sympathy with the notion that there is an excess supply of churches, it should be noted that most churches have been paid for out of past taxation. To privatise them in order to keep the existing generation of clergy in the style to which they have been accustomed is morally problematic (as well as barbarous, in the sense that they are the most vital part of the national built patrimony). The example of the Church of Scotland's Radical Action Plan for mass closures is singularly unhappy. The move towards private trusts is also problematic, since they will lack the economies of scale to be viable, frequently once the generation of 'founders' passes from the scene, and then what? The National Trust will be unwilling to come to the aid of parish churches because the overhead is so enormous (though they do have a few, such as Calke in Derbyshire, Staunton Harrold in Leicestershire and the chapel on Great Farne, as well as chapels in country houses that are still used for worship, such as Cotehele in Cornwall). The CCT has disclaimed interest in taking on a significant part of the national stock (perhaps because it is funded by the Commissioners and DDMCS). The FFC is at the limits of what it can do and must concentrate on Wales where the crisis is arguably even more acute. Local trusts, such as the NCT, are also at the outer limit of their carrying capacity (hence the new NDCT), but there are other counties such as Lincolnshire or the East Riding where the patrimony is often of high quality yet acutely vulnerable to crisis demographics.

    I had suggested a bulk transfer to the state (along French lines) financed by substantive disendowment of the Commissioners. This is not now plausible since HMG's debts have increased, and will continue to increase alarmingly, whilst I suspect the Commissioners' 8.3bn asset base (as at last year), will have dropped dramatically as a result of diminished valuations in all asset classes (especially commercial property) and the need to underwrite the dioceses as parish share contributions have vanished. There is no chance that local government, which has long been in distress, will be able to step into the breach. It should be noted that the lack of state provision is relatively unusual by western European standards, and will probably not come to pass here because of the strength of the NSS and its allies.

    I think that there needs to be a sharp turn to wealthy local individuals, and that much of the money saved from reducing the primary cost base (the stipendiaries, whose value added is often uneven) should be transferred to the establishment of some sort of reserve fund managed by the Commissioners. Whilst this could prove regressive, it should be noted that in any contest between church buildings and paid clergy the former will invariably prevail as far as public sentiment is concerned, and that the parish is the quintessence of the Church, whilst its relatively comprehensive national reach is its crucial (and sole?) differentiator from other denominations - its USP, if you like.

    We must also ask what is the point of paid clergy, when so many SSMs, OLMs, NSMs, readers, pastoral assistants and other layfolk provide value added that is equivalent, and sometimes superior, to that of their stipendiary colleagues (my taxonomy of the clergy, based upon experience of about a third of the national stock, is that about a third are brilliant, a third are average, and a third are worse than useless, yet they all get roughly the same).

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