Source: The Guardian
What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky / Without church towers to recognise you by?” Even when Sir John Betjeman spoke these lines during his 1974 BBC documentary A Passion for Churches, they struck an elegiac note. Traditional religious practice in the Church of England was already in significant decline. Half a century on, Anglicans find themselves at a historic crossroads – obliged by dire financial circumstance and sparse congregations to rethink what the church is for, and where it should be.
There are growing fears that at next month’s General Synod, measures will be taken to make it easier to close hundreds of parish churches, drastically reduce numbers of “vicars on the beat” and sell off assets to raise funds. Moving away from the traditional vision of providing for “the cure of souls” in every parish – with a Sunday service at the local church its focal point – the Anglican hierarchy envisions a future mixed ecology in which a variety of venues host groups of believers, some of which will be lay-led.
According to plans drawn up in Manchester diocese, for example, a gradually reduced number of stipendiary clergy would provide support and oversight over new “mission communities”, which would absorb existing parishes.
This prospect is being fought tooth and nail by furious congregations and clergy, in a struggle which is becoming as bitter as previous battles over the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. During the summer, a Save the Parish movement was founded to oppose the mooted changes. The archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, who is seen as one of the chief architects of the new strategy, has admitted to sleepless nights as the backlash has gained momentum. The Anglican hierarchy stands accused of overseeing a soulless managerial approach to a budgetary crisis which the pandemic has made far worse.
The pain felt at a local level is real and understandable. But in the context of a 40% decline in church attendance over the past 30 years, radical action seems unavoidable. Before the pandemic struck, around 5,000 parishes needed financial help from their diocese to meet the costs of ministry. Lincoln diocese has an annual £3m operating deficit and has said that after 2025 it will no longer be able to rely on historic assets to get by. On the current model, the old ideal of a priest for every parish no longer seems affordable. And given the huge decline in traditional forms of religious observance, it seems reasonable that the Church of England should look to experiment with new forms of mission in the community, in new settings. An enhanced leadership role for lay people may turn out to be a means of renewal and reinvigoration as well as a financial imperative.
For atheists, agnostics and those of other denominations and faiths, the Church of England’s deeply uncertain future might seem very much someone else’s problem. But there is a wider pathos to the current crisis and the bitter divisions it is causing. As studies have shown, the widespread rejection of traditional churchgoing in Britain does not mean that we have become a nation of atheists. A more individualised and diffuse sense of the spiritual is still commonplace. Most people don’t go to church. But many people like the idea that these sites of hospitality and reflection are still around, especially in moments of crisis or for crucial rites of passage.
That backdrop is not one which can permit the Church of England to carry on indefinitely as it has been doing. But as well as being a reason for it to exercise great caution in navigating a fraught future, it can also be a source of what is, after all, a theological virtue – hope.