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By Roland W. Morant
Special to Virtueonline
July 28, 2011

There has been a spate of waffle recently in the mass media on the future of the C. of E. Will it be around at the end of the next twenty years? Or even when sixty years have elapsed? Having chosen a year well into the future, pessimists then make predictions, mostly of the dire type. They say that the average age of congregations is elderly and that those that survive over the next few years will be ministered to by fewer stipendiary clergy. And because of "natural wastage" (the modern euphemism for death) the end is nigh.

Unsurprisingly, others (the optimists) have come to the defence of the Church. They quote recent figures which come from the Archbishops' Councils' Research Unit that suggest a very different picture of what has been happening since the turn of the century, a picture that could influence the direction that the Church takes in the future. They believe that it is actually in good shape, several encouraging factors pointing to this: An unexpectedly high proportion of younger people regularly attend weekly services. The Church has grown steadily during the last ten years (said to be 4% on average per year). Attendance at cathedral services where many additional services are now put on, is noted as showing a marked growth.

It is not my purpose here to query the factual accuracy of any of the statistics which have been marshalled to support arguments one way or another. These are taken at face value and for all I know they are accurate (although we should never forget the maxim that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and that data can be massaged to support any side of an argument). Where such improvements in church attendance have occurred, I am certain that everyone, save atheists or secular humanists, will register satisfaction. Those of us who have a genuine affection for the Church want to see it thrive and prosper, even though it is paralysed by current disagreement and division, and has lost its reputation for toleration towards minority groups within its membership.

Social organisations, of which a church is a prime example, do not normally collapse like a pile of cards when the going gets tough. Because their followers struggle to resist the onset of adverse circumstances, a decline sets in which is often very protracted. For a variety of reasons, I cannot see the Church of England suddenly collapsing. It might well - many would say that it has done so already - move into a period of gradual decline. But the official statistical evidence does not suggest that this is so. On the contrary, it indicates that the general picture of the Church is one of steady if unspectacular retrenchment and evidence of advance.

Is there any reason to account for the mismatch between what the pessimists and optimists are saying? First of all, the cathedrals: It has been pointed out that apart possibly from a few large other churches e.g. Westminster Abbey, the cathedrals are the only places of Anglican worship in England today where the full range of Prayer Book services can be attended and experienced. Where else can you go, for example, to hear evensong sung in a religious setting by a choir of the highest quality? There is little doubt in this observer's mind that the cathedrals are meeting many peoples' spiritual, as well as aesthetic, needs extremely effectively, and the official statistics bear this out.

It also is the case that there is a scattering of major parish churches up and down the country which are not only attracting people - often with no church background - for regular worship, but are churches which are growing. These are predominantly churches of small country towns, churches in leafy suburbs, and above all churches teaching bible based Christianity. I suspect that the number of church attendances as a whole are skewed in a positive direction because of a relatively small number of such thriving parish churches that responding to the Great Command of Jesus, have adopted new and old ways of making their congregations grow. An afterthought suggests that such churches are those which are responding to the call for more money from the dioceses and are raising the lion's share.

But what about the large number of churches which do not fit into this mould of churches that are experiencing retrenchment and growth? In the largely rural diocese in which I live, there are a sizeable number of country churches which until recently each had its own incumbent and parsonage house. Many were able to have at least one service per Sunday, be it a choir-led matins, evensong or sung Eucharist, and not infrequently two or three services on that day. All this has gone within the last forty years.

Today the norm is seemingly for a priest in charge to be responsible for a group of six or more churches, each congregation being lucky if it gets a service once a week. The parsonage house has long been sold off and is now occupied by newcomers who have no interest in the Church. There is no choir and there is often difficulty in finding people to serve as churchwardens or organist. Congregations are typically small (half a dozen) and elderly.

I cannot speak with personal knowledge about congregations in the inner neighbourhoods of the cities and .large towns. But what appears to be happening is that their plight is little different from that of their fellow worshippers in rural areas, save that many of them have to worship in larger edifices of Victorian vintage. Moreover many of the inhabitants around such churches are of foreign extraction, non-Christian, and therefore unlikely to want to support "their" parish church.

The official statistics would suggest that the long decline has been halted (at least for the time being) and that since the start of the new millennium matters have improved. In the light of this, is it possible to identify any factors which appear to be arresting in some measure the Church's long-term decline? Yes, I think there are several which can be grouped together as human resources. The first is the admittance of women to holy orders. Leaving aside the question of whether it was right or wrong for a church claiming to be catholic to ordain women as deacons and priests, the fact remains that encouragement has been given to women to take part in the wider ministry of the Church. It is a fact that has brought many women who a few years ago would have thought it beyond their vocational aspirations, to fill the rapidly depleting ranks of the stipendiary ministry.

Secondly, moves towards a non-stipendiary ministry in England have also had a dramatic effect on both men and women wanting to find ways to serve the Church. Forty years ago, there were virtually no non-stipendiary clergy, only a large number of readers (who then were nearly all men). Today, many parishes and groups of parishes have their non-stipendiaries. Their contribution to the work of full time clergy in the parishes has unquestionably lightened their load, a development which should not be underrated.

While touching on the subject of clerical manpower, we should not forget the work of many retired clergy who, in this recent period when many parishes have been merged, have filled the gaps, a clerical resource that due to "natural wastage" will not last for much longer.

So having touched on the manpower factors that have had a major bearing on the survival of the Church in recent years, factors that may well have stabilised and indeed strengthened the Church's general standing, we are now in a position to suggest and discuss those changes that are bound to affect its progress in the next few years, changes that I think are inevitable come what may.

The dioceses and bishops: Considering how the Church has shrunk in active membership since World War II, the Church is overloaded with bishops (1900:31 diocesans, 26 suffragans, 24,000 clergy; 2007: 44 diocesans, 69 suffragans, 9,000 clergy), there being an urgent need to reduce the number of bishops and cull several dioceses. It is reported that several English dioceses are having difficulty in meeting their financial commitments. By coincidence, today The Times gives brief details of an interim report published by the Church that action is finally to be taken. Three dioceses in the north of England are to be combined into a "super diocese" So far so good. But why do half a job? Why keep three cathedrals when one would do? Why not revert two of them back into parish churches which they used to be before being made into cathedrals? If the leaders of the Church are serious about making proper savings, they must not balk at making serious cuts. A smaller Church does not want or need super dioceses..

The parishes: The process in the countryside of parochial consolidation (another convenient euphemism.) is likely to continue. But what form will it take? How large can the grouping of parishes get before the parochial system ceases to exist in any meaningful way? The Church cannot afford, as it has done for many years, to maintain rural churches which provide only occasional services or to pay clergy to minster to single figure congregations. Rural church buildings will have to be closed, mainly because the Church has now arrived at a point at which it is unable to continue subsidising uneconomic real ecclesiastical estate. The notion that the Church can persist with having a church building in every village or even town is an ideal that can no longer be adhered to. When many such rural churches close (and it is not going to be the odd one here or there, but many), it is unlikely that the procedure used heretofore of merging underused churches into even larger groupings (eight? ten? twelve?) of parishes will be possible. It may well become a frequent occurrence that if church people living in rural areas wish to attend Sunday worship, it is more likely than not that a church down the road in their village will not be available. They will either have to travel a considerable distance or they will have to belong to a house church near where they live.

It looks that many churches in the centre of large towns and cities will also have to close on account of minimal use. The one clear advantage their parishioners will have (compared with their rural fellow church people) is that they will probably not have long distances to travel in order to get to church.

Surviving church worshipping communities and buildings: Looking forward, it seems that we will see the survival of a number of "successful" churches which are capable of maintaining a range of activities that are squarely biblical and therefore Gospel based, maybe not more than twenty or thirty in a diocese. Around them will be all the redundant church buildings that were hopelessly uneconomical to maintain, be they in rural or urban areas. Will there be any new churches? The answer must be in the affirmative if the Church is to have any lasting future, with such churches planted from one or other of the "successful" churches, under whose wing they would shelter until such time as they could go it alone.

This picture of the future where the Church of England survives, be it in a far more reduced condition than now, with a relatively small number of Gospel based congregations and church buildings, calls into question several other issues. Will the hitherto fiercely defended division of geographical areas parish by parish and deanery by deanery and even diocese by diocese survive? I very much doubt it. If church planting by Gospel based and Gospel led churches is to be meaningful, then "the wind bloweth where it listeth", that is, the founding of such new churches should not be held back by the ecclesiastical monopolistic constraints that have inhibited much of the Church's witness in recent times. If there are great swathes of land up and down the country from which the church has retreated through closing churches, then every encouragement should be given to the formation of new church groups wherever they may be wanted or needed, meeting in homes, redundant churches or any other kind of suitable premises.

The Established Church: The picture we have painted above leaves no room for the Church of England "by law established" to survive in any form. that we can recognise. The closure of a large number, almost certainly a majority, of existing parish churches which I believe is inevitable, will render such former churches - quite apart from other considerations - unavailable for baptisms, weddings and funerals. It would no longer be possible for people of any faith or none, as they are able now, to call upon the occasional services of an Established Church (The ramifications of disestablishment would of course go much further than this, but this is not the place to consider them).

With limited funding available to the Church, it is right and proper that its financial resources should be applied where they can do most good, that is in those churches which are growing, spreading the Gospel and where they are planting new churches.

Gospel led or Gospel Impaired? The 64,000 dollar question that has to be asked is this, "Can the Church of England survive in the foreseeable future if it does not hold fast to and proclaim the Gospel as brought to this country by the saints of old?

Realistically, at the present time we can see two visions of the Church. In both, a reduction in size is inevitable because of the closure of a large number of parish churches and the impending non-availability of existing services. In the first vision this slow decline will continue and last probably for many years to come. If the Church continues to dabble with and adopt secularist standards, any present short term growth will cease and the long-term decline will reassert itself. Preaching and teaching an impaired Gospel will not take the Church forward. In the second vision in which a relatively small number of vigorously led churches survive, hopefully Gospel based and Gospel led, cautious optimism would suggest that the decline can be halted and reversed with the emergence of new church plantings. Come what may, the Church of the future will be much smaller. But having had to strip off all the parochial accretions of previous centuries, will the C. of E. be prepared and ready once again, to preach the Gospel delivered to the saints? Only time will tell.

----Roland W. Morant is a cradle Anglican who has spent his professional life as a teacher, and latterly as a principal lecturer in education in a college of higher education, training students as teachers and running in-service degree courses

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