In the July 2019 General Synod group of sessions I spoke in the debate on Fresh Expressions. I was glad to vote in favour of a continued endorsement and support for the Fresh Expressions movement twenty years on. It is true that I expressed some reservations, particularly in regard to sacramentality (or more specifically the Sacrament of the Eucharist), in relation to the Fresh Expressions movement, but I did vote in favour of continued support for the ongoing development of a mixed economy (or is it ecology).
I voted in favour because I believed, and continue to believe, that a mono culture isn’t the best way forward. I also believe that New Congregations and New Churches have an important role to play. If we consider cities such as Milton Keynes, my closest city, it is clear that New Churches need to be established. It is, as they say, a no- brainer. But, this time around, unless some considerable concessions are made, I won’t be speaking in favour of, or endorsing, the Vision and Strategy Report.
For me this is a no brainer because what is being put before General Synod is nothing other than a complete redesign of the Church of England, not just structurally, but ecclesiologically and doctrinally. We are being asked to move beyond an essentially complementarian approach in favour of a complete rebuild. To endorse the report is akin to giving planning permission to a whole series of low cost rebuilds without undertaking structural surveys. And I am not prepared to do that.
I think I am right in saying that there are currently something like 12,000 parish churches in the Church of England. The vision and strategy paper suggests that over the next nine years 10,000 New Christian Communities / Churches (what is the essential difference between a distinctively Christian community and a church? ) are established; so, approximately speaking, a 1:1 ratio. These new churches / Christian Communities are apparently going to be predominantly lay led.
The Church of England has always insisted, for good foundational reasons, that those charged with leading churches (Christian Communities) are appropriately trained. In fact, historically, we have also always insisted that church leadership is a vocation that should be tested by an external body, advising the bishop. There are good foundational reasons why the church has always sought to discern vocation.
The way the model works at present, where church leadership remains an essentially clergy responsibility, is that vocations are raised in a local context and tested / discerned by an independent body. There is, therefore, a clear separation between the ‘architect’ and the ‘surveyor.’ Candidates, if ‘successful,’ must then undergo training and formation through a course or a college. The course or college is analogous to the ‘builder.’ This level of separation between church, assessment panel, and training institution (or between architect, surveyor, and builder) is designed to ensure the strength and stability of the structure, or in church language, the body.
The building process is for sure slow, painfully slow at times, but on the whole it gives the best chance of a good outcome. Fast tracking, building in a hurry, building on the cheap, will, I suspect, lead to cracks, underpinning, and perhaps even demolition. If we are to build new churches, lay led churches, we need to make sure that we do so well.
But identifying, training, forming, and equipping 10,000 new church / congregational / community leaders, through a simplified and hurried process, isn’t my biggest structural (ecclesiological) concern.
Just imagine for a second or two that we manage to build or establish 10,000 shiny new lay led churches (I know its difficult!), we will probably need to start off by seeking to build many more, say 40,000 (One for the Mouse, One for the Crow, One to Rot, and One to Grow, or Matthew 13, 1-23). That’s an awful lot of lay leaders who we will have led to fail. We could, of course, be even more pessimistic and draw on the story of the Healing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17, 12-19). So how are we going to equip those hurriedly trained leaders when the likelihood is that they will fail; that their chances of ‘success’ are somewhere between one in four and one in ten? I am only asking based on ‘biblical numbers.’
It doesn’t look like a very humane strategy, does it? As a church could it be that we are going to have to spend an awful lot of time ‘underpinning’ the faith of those who, because we have tried to build things in a hurry, we have led down the garden path?
But, how we ‘underpin’ the faith of those who we may well be leading to fail isn’t my biggest structural concern. My biggest structural concern is simply this, that if we are successful (which I find really hard to imagine) in establishing 10,000 New Churches / Christian Communities, they will be under a completely new set of building regs. What we end up building will, in fact, bear literally no resemblance to the Church of England as inherited.
The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition. This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the laity aren’t valued, honoured, and necessary. Nor does it mitigate against lay leadership in the Church of England. But it does mean that if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life then then whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed; in my view for the worse and, to the detriment of mission and evangelism. I don’t think we are free to jettison Holy Communion or the Eucharist as one of the defining characteristics of week-by-week communal (community) life; not if we are serious about remaining a church both reformed and catholic.
The liturgy – ‘it is our duty and our joy….’ makes the centrality of the sacrament clear, as do the Canons of the Church of England: Canon B14 mandates that ‘the Holy Communion shall be celebrated in every parish church at least on Sundays and principal Feast Days, and on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.’ for sure the canon also provides for dispensations, but what it does is embed (in law!) is that celebration of, and participation in, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a defining and normative feature of Anglicanism, as embodied through the Church of England, at the local ecclesial and communal level.
Unless, as part of the vision and strategy, lay presidency (which I would strongly resist) is also on the table what we are being asked to support at General Synod is not a vision, or even a strategy, but a complete and utter rebuild of the Church of England. My plea to all General Synod members is to view the debate in these terms. If an ecclesiological and doctrinal rebuild is what you want then, of course, argue in favour of the report, but if it isn’t then please argue against. But, let’s not pretend that this debate is primarily about Vision and Strategy.
My concern is that we are being asked to endorse a way ahead without having undertaken any real form of structural survey and having appointed firms of local builders, who have little or no sensitivity to the ecclesial landscape on which they are building. I have no wish to give planning permission to such a scheme.
I would like to endorse a mixed economy (or ecology) but the nature of the existing planning application means I can’t. If the planning application is revised, or amended, in the light of a thorough and painstaking surveyor’s report, a report that regards the retention of our reformed catholic heritage as sacrosanct, then maybe, in the future, I can.