Since David Keen’s very pertinent post last week drawing attention to the statistical realities, I’ve been pondering a list of the big conversations the Church of England really ought to be having with itself, its friends and often the wider society.
I’m not wedded to any of these as essential or likely to provide easy answers. Nor have I signed on in blood to any particular solution. I’m more throwing out some ideas for big conversations with some illustrative points along the way. All of them have all sorts of ramifications and caveats that a more careful post on any would acknowledge and discuss.
Conversation 1 – Establishment
This is one of those questions where the time is probably never right, and the ramifications broader and deeper than they seem. However, creeping disestablishment can only get so far before what is left begins to seem strange if not absurd. Establishment was based on the never quite realised aspiration that the country was a theopolitical unity, and to be a subject of the monarch was to be an adherent to the monarch’s religion. It never quite worked, but as recent debates over the presence of bishops in the Lords have shown, it is now more delusion than aspiration. On the other hand, what seems odd at the level of national politics seems much more natural at the local level, where the same national unity gives rights of marriage and burial in the parish church by virtue of residence nor religion. It’s an exploration that needs to happen more generally, and not just the next time an apparent last ditch comes along.
Conversation 2 – Buildings
It seems to me that for many parishes everything is driven out by the costs and energies absorbed by maintaining often very beautiful and ancient buildings. Having just spent two and half years going through the processes need to demolish an unused and dangerously dilapidated chapel of rest, I’m appalled by the cumbersome mechanisms involved. I’d like to see some serious discussion about new legislation allowing church buildings to be handed over to community trusts, and the church becoming one organisation that rents the buildings as required within in some kind of statutory framework which acknowledges their history and tradition appropriately. Then, if a community didn’t want to take ownership of a building the church no longer wanted or could afford to maintain, such a refusal would become prima facie evidence of “no pastoral need” allowing redundancy to be fast-tracked.
Conversation 3 – Clergy
The declining number of stipendiary clergy was at the heart of David’s post, and it seems that for a very long time this has been a problem where nearly everyone has colluded in pretending it’s not that bad. (PS – developing lay ministries is an ongoing conversation, not one that’s being avoided, so it’s not included here.) So, with monotonous regularity, one pastoral reorganisation succeeds another. Any energy left over from dealing with buildings is dissipated in trying to concoct schemes that persuade parishes that, while they are getting less of a share in a vicar than they were before, and paying more for the privilege, they are at least getting a fair share that is possibly slightly better than the one next door. There are now so few stipendiary clergy that it might be time to ask
- whether we should plan for non-stipendiary ministry being the normal exercise of a priestly vocation and see stipendiary ministry as more strategic, focused on big churches (e.g. minsters, church-planting and mission centres and cathedrals) as area deans, as some specialist ministries and so on
- whether that means seeing stipendiary and non-stipendiary ministries alike as something people can move in and out of (often from one to the other), and change the stipend to a salary which allows either the purchase of housing, or (as appropriate) the paying of rent for church owned property.
Conversation 4 – Education
It seems to me that there simply aren’t enough Christian teachers (not all of whom wish to work in church schools) to maintain a living and dynamic Christian ethos in most of our church schools that is organic, natural and life-changing rather than another curricular structure providing boxes to be ticked. Moreover, the vast majority of church primary (or first) school pupils don’t have church secondaries to go to. Dare I suggest that despite the good intentions of so many, the system always runs the risk of suggesting God is a good story for small children, but can be left behind as you learn more about the world?
Church schools are actually quite expensive for the church. Either we need to do better with fewer schools and look more like the Roman Catholic model, or decide to rethink the church’s involvement in education well beyond school ethos. Too much of the education system is justified by economic competition rather than human development, and Ofsted tick- boxes produce a examination sausage machine instead of the nurturing of individual ability, the love of learning or the pursuit of truth. Sticking a spiritual patina on that system and then speaking of the celebration of Christian values may not commend those values too well.
Conversation 5 – Vision and communication
Whatever else our language about God is saying, it is also articulating a vision of what it means to be human. I suspect that not only is the question “what does it mean to be human?” going to become more and more important for society, it’s going to become more contested. The danger is that – as in debates over sexuality – the church will be heard only saying “no” to debates that other people have started. I think we need to be much more active in developing our own vision, and starting our own debates, rather than simply responding to a narrow field of sex, abortion and euthanasia. It is interesting, isn’t it, that no-one questions the way a magazine called the “Economist” can address every area of life, but most would laugh at the pretensions of a similar style of magazine called the “Theologian”.
Sharing a vision for being human (and what it means to live wisely) as more than either academic luxury, or in-house conversation purely with ourselves, will, I think, demand the church to take all forms of media more seriously. I’m not suggesting a proliferation of PR people, but asking whether churches need to foster vocations to screen-writing and sharp documentary work, to new media networking and inventive programme making. In most respects the media is not just the Areopagus of the age, but the only public square we still share. If we have a real vision of humanity to share, could we talk about how to do it creatively, and not wait until someone else’s story puts us defensively on the spot.
I’ve no idea how much mileage there is in any of these, or how much I will have changed my mind by next week on any of them, but I think there’re at least one or two conversation starters in that ragbag selection of opinions.