THE Church of England is about to embark on a radical reform. Facing financial ruin as congregations dwindle, and inspired by the relative success of evangelical church planting led by Holy Trinity Brompton in recent years, the plan is to plant a whopping 10,000 ‘lay-led’ new churches over the next ten years.
Critics fear that this is a covert means of bringing to an end of the parish system by the back door. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson writes with her customary eloquence and passion about the need to save the Church from the people who should be its custodians, whereas the Archbishop Cranmer blog bemoans the overtones of barren meeting-house Puritanism.
However, in one very important way this decided tilt towards the Reformed, evangelical tradition does not go far enough. At the root of the Church’s problem is lack of accountability, or rather, accountability to the wrong people. Time and again, the decisions, behaviour and remarks of its senior leadership embarrass the laity and alienate those segments of the population most likely to go to church. They have come thick and fast of late: Joanna Pemberton, Bishop of St David’s, tweeted ‘Never Trust a Tory’ (True, Bish, but not something you should have said, and should be sacked for – although needless to say you remain in post). Outraged? The Church can always go one better – it transpires that the now ‘stepped back’ Bishop of Winchester may never have actually been ordained a priest!
To cap it all, the Bishop of Manchester recently described Matt Hancock’s adultery as ‘a bit of a fling’, adding for good measure that he was more worried by Hancock’s breach of his own Covid-19 regulations.
Of course, it should not come as any surprise that Anglican bishops have replaced the Seventh Commandment with ‘Thou shalt socially distance’. After all, as the whole Covid crisis unfolded, at the very moment that a scared people desperately needed assurance and particularly the churches to be open, Archbishop Wimpy unilaterally acquiesced in their closure, cutting the legs from under not just his own parishes but those of all other denominations in the process. Although many vicars and local churches have responded brilliantly to the crisis, the actions of the senior leadership were nothing short of catastrophic.
Not only did the Church do a grave disservice to itself, but also to the nation. At a critical time, people were denied the comfort of the Christian message. Failure to allay fears of mortality – something the Church has a unique capability to do – has ushered in a very nasty secular puritanism, with substantial numbers wanting the current suspensions of our freedoms never to end.
It’s a very old trend of missed opportunity and stupidity of which the Covid-19 debacle is simply the worst example. For instance, the now-forgotten lawlessness of the 2011 riots deeply shocked the nation at the time, bringing into sharp focus the societal decay liberalism had brought about. What was needed from the Church was a firm and judgmental message, and it would have certainly resonated with the public. What we got, of course, was the usual kind of woolly nonsense. Well-meaning but utterly ineffective.
Finally, we have had the rise of a new rival religion: the Church of Woke. Not only is it deeply unpopular, but its premise of the primacy of collective identity is profoundly unscriptural, going against the very foundations of Christian concepts of the primacy of individual equality before God. On this the Bible could hardly be clearer:
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Galatians 3:28
And what do we get? Archbishop Wimpy, a supposed Evangelical, blathering on about his white privilege. Yet again, a golden opportunity has been lost to explain to the public just how much Western concepts of freedom of the individual rely on Christian thought.
A major reason for such consistently hopeless leadership must be that the Church’s senior leaders are neither elected by nor properly accountable to those they are supposed to serve: bishops and archbishops are appointed by an opaque process via the Crown Nominations Commission. Nor can they be easily removed.
Such lack of direct accountability is doomed to result in elite cultural capture. Senior leaders in any large organisation spend a great deal of their life dealing with people in similar positions, particularly in the case of the Church with those within the State. Small wonder, then, that so many of the pronouncements of bishops come to mimic the statist, Left-liberal priorities of the elite secular world. There may be other factors, too: perhaps, to adapt Shaw’s famous quotation, those who can preach, do, those who can’t become bishops: priests who are unsuccessful at local evangelism may see a bishopric as more congenial. Then there is the decidedly worldly vice of ambition: climbing the greasy pole is often motivated by a desire to separate oneself from the hoi polloi whose culture and beliefs you despise. Finally, there is the sinister political angle: too much is probably made of the conspiratorial Left’s long march through the institutions, but if you have a political agenda to transform society, being a bishop is a good place to be.
A solution would be to allow bishops and archbishops to be elected, and subsequently removed if necessary, directly by a combination of both the laity and the local parish priesthood. In itself, this may help increase the participation and attendance which will be needed for these 10,000 new churches to happen, as people are far more likely to get involved in organisations for which they feel a sense of ownership. They are certainly unlikely to do so if they feel their own leaders have contempt for everything they believe in. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Church’s radical new proposals, a new lay-led ministry makes no sense with senior leadership that remains unaccountable to the same.
No doubt this kind of bottom-up, quasi-Presbyterian style would be met with substantial resistance. The liberals at senior levels in the hierarchy would be expected to fight it tooth and nail. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church would no doubt see it as a further tilt towards the more Protestant and Reformed tradition and away from an Apostolic one. However, giving not just the laity but local priests within a diocese a say on election of bishops could allow a ‘via media’ to be found to the current proposals and help stem the future erosion of the parish system which concerns both Anglo-Catholics and traditionally minded Anglicans. In any case the ‘Ps’ and the ‘Cs’ fighting each other over doctrine are rather like two bald men fighting over a comb: the Church is dying, and the real theological enemy of both is the secularisation brought about by the Church’s liberal wing who currently wield power wholly disproportionate to their numbers.
Obviously, such reforms would not solve all the Church’s problems – far from it: Christianity is in crisis throughout the entire Western world owing to huge social forces it finds difficult to combat. However, courageous decisions made during retreat can often plant the seeds of victory, and it is the Church’s duty at the very least to survive until the wheel of history turns in its favour once again. Reconnection via accountability to both the local priest and the common churchgoing man or woman would be a start.