“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches.” Justin Welby, July 2021
There are some forms of Christianity that exist only in order to reproduce. Christians are here to make new Christians who, in turn, are called to go out there and make even more new ones. The purpose of church life is to beget more church life. Randy for converts, these good shepherds admire the sheep in the pews principally for their reproductive qualities. And you can tell it’s these sorts of Christians that are now running the show in the Church of England, because those of us who are deemed to be infertile or firing evangelistic blanks are being slated for the knacker’s yard. The latest group to be targeted for a cull are the clergy themselves. In more senses than one, we are being directed to Genesis chapter nine, verse seven: “Go forth and multiply!”
The new growth strategy from head office is code named Myriad, Greek for ten thousand. The idea is to have 10,000 new churches by 2030, creating a million new disciples. Don’t worry about the figures too much, they are nothing more than fantasy numbers plucked from the sky. As a general rule, church growth is inversely proportional to the big talk coming from head office. Of course, we are all supposed to nod along, as if this is some fabulous, exciting initiative. As Martyn Percy, the Dean of the Cathedral in Oxford, explained, it’s becoming a bit like one of those Stalinist 10-year plans, something we are all obliged to cheer, yet one that is totally disconnected to reality.
The latest Great Leap Forward for the C of E looks like this. Get rid of all those crumbling churches. Get rid of the clergy. Do away with all that expensive theological education. These are all “limiting factors”. Instead, focus relentlessly on young people. Growth, Young People, Forwards. Purge the church of all those clapped-out clergy pottering about in their parishes. Forget the Eucharist, or at least, put those who administer it on some sort of zero hours contract. Sell their vicarages. This is what our new shepherds want in their prize sheep: to be young, dumb, and full of evangelistic… zeal.
You think I am over-stating the matter? This is how Canon John McGinley recently explained the thinking behind Myriad:
“Lay-led churches release the church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church … then we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church planting, there are no passengers.”
Project Myriad, or something like it, has been in the wings for several decades. When I was first a priest it was called The Decade of Evangelism. It was an embarrassing disaster. And throughout my time, there is always another tiresomely new initiative on the go with some enthusiastic sounding name like Springboard. Most of my clergy friends inwardly groan when they hear of yet another exciting new strategy.
But Covid has finally given its proponents the opportunity they need. When the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to celebrate and broadcast the Eucharist on Easter Day 2020 from his kitchen, rather than popping down a few stairs to Lambeth Palace’s fine 13th-century chapel, he was clearly making a point: all those old stones are holding us back, they are unnecessary. It’s called “a new way of being church”. Our new churches will meet in people’s homes, not in churches. Around 20-30 will gather in the living rooms of the wealthiest people in the parish — who else has a living room that can sit this many people?
Of course, the shepherds know that many of the sheep don’t like the direction in which they are being led. The recent revolt of the Diocese of Winchester against their Bishop is a case in point. They threatened a vote of no confidence and he has stepped back from ministry. As Jeremy Clarkson has recently discovered, sheep can be remarkably bolshy creatures with a mind of their own. So, inevitably, the shepherds are trying to calm their flock with soothing words. We want a mixed economy church, they say. We are not seeking to send unreproductive clergy to the knacker’s yard. We are not wanting to sell off your medieval church to be converted into yuppie flats. This isn’t about replacing the organ with the overhead projector or clearing out the books from the Vicar’s Study and replacing them with office equipment. Let many flowers bloom, they say.
But that is not how it works in practice. Follow the money. Parish churches are being stripped of their clergy. The Diocese of Chelmsford is culling 61 posts by 2021 with a further 49 under threat by 2026. Others are following suit. But as these “limiting factor” clergy are being culled, central funds are being directed towards new evangelistic initiatives through what is called Strategic Development Funding from the £9 billion piggy bank held by the fabulously wealthy Church Commissioners. Dioceses can now apply for money from a £45-million pot set aside to support this new look C of E. And many of the new jobs that are being funded are not for parish-based clergy, but for a whole new level of managers with new-fangled titles like assistant archdeacon and mission enablers. This is the mechanism by which the church is being transformed. Even those Bishops that want to resist this dismantling of traditional structures are being out manoeuvred.
Perhaps the most sinister phrase in Canon McGinley’s lecture is the disparagement of “passengers”. If you go to church to sit at the back, say your prayers, listen to the sermon and receive the Eucharist, or if you are bruised and just looking for a place of healing, that means you. If you are not a part of the great push forward, you are just so much baggage. Little wonder there is now a white-hot anger within the rank and file of the priesthood. Consider this from the former Dear of Exeter Cathedral, Jonathan Draper.
“It is ironic, of course, that these proposals are being pushed by those who have both presided over the church’s decline and had the long and expensive theological education which they would jettison. There is nothing from the leadership of the church that reflects on their own part in decline, their own ineptitude, bullying, sense of entitlement, and in the failure to connect with the very people they would like to see fill the houses of the sufficiently wealthy in this brave new ecclesial world.”
I have never seen this level of fury from within the church during my 25 years as a priest.
So, what is the answer? After all, the proponents of evangelism first do have a point – the Church of England is dying fast. First, I would say that all efforts to put evangelism first are self-defeating. The Church feels like a gauche teenage boy going out to the pub deliberately to find a girlfriend, covering himself with cheap aftershave and rehearsing his unconvincing chat-up lines. It’s all so cringeworthy and needy. The way you make yourself attractive to others is by being fully yourself, and having confidence in what you are – even if that is a little strange and different. It’s when you stop obsessing about attracting others that you become more attractive to them.
But also, the church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.
Secularisation is indeed a catastrophe for the churches. But we won’t outlast this period of history by being more business-like or by adopting slicker models of evangelistic marketing. We won’t be saved by panicky spread-sheet evangelists, Indeed, we must be more of what we have been called to be – more thoughtful, more prayerful, less fearful, more obedient to God’s call. We are resurrection people after all. Institutional death should hold out no terror for the faithful. And it will only be this lack of fear that can make us attractive once again.