So the Church Times mini-series on the ‘State of the Church’ has come to an end. Like many, I suspect, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there have been some fascinating insights, and it has been good to focus on something other than the latest bust-up in the Church. On the other, I have been left with the kind of feeling that you have after a headache or migraine has subsided—the sort of dull ache that reminds you of something unpleasant. Alongside the interesting and profound, I have also been disturbed by some of thinking that is clearly influential in the Church.
In the concluding part, there was a fascinating diversity of views expressed on the future of the Church and the issues raised. Martyn Percy, Principal of Cuddesdon, warned against a single obsession with numbers:
We may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than the singular objective of numerical church growth currently allows for…Having a knack for imaginative, reflective, and refractive public theology and spirituality does indeed intrigue and draw people in.
I wouldn’t disagree with the second half of his observation, but to borrow an earlier epithet, the chief failing of the Church of England is not an over-obsessive preoccupation with numerical growth.
The different visions for what the Church might look like in 20 years were great. Maggi Dawn wants us to be generous and hopeful. Peter Ould painted a hilariously detailed scenario, even naming the future Archbishop of Canterbury. Susie Leafe probably appears to some to be painting the future of the Church as being rather like Reform writ large. However you react to that, she includes some statistics that we must take seriously:
The 350 or so churches represented by Reform have bucked many of the trends of the past 20 years. One third of their average congregation is under the age of 30. One third of churches have experienced sufficient growth to require them to start a new congregation in the last ten years. Their average weekly attendance is three times that of the average C of E church. They produce three times the average number of ordinands.
Given that the theological tradition of the Church is largely determined by those traditions that are generating future leaders, this is significant. And it is a reminder too that evangelicals have consistently been under-represented in the C of E. With larger congregations than other traditions, and less interest in committees and structures, the further you go ‘up’ the organisational chart, the fewer evangelicals you will find.
Graham Tomlin offers an interesting and, in many ways, compelling vision. There needs to be more flexibility in church planting; we need younger leaders; academic training needs to be dovetailed with curacy; apologetics and the use of overt evangelism strategies, like Alpha, need to feature strongly. It reminded me of the approach of a relative newcomer to the scene in theological education…now what is its name…?
Out of all the pieces, the one I found most compelling was by that old lag (and former archdeacon) Bob Jackson [it's ok—we are friends!] and David Goodhew. The key feature of this piece was the most overt statement of two, often diametrically opposite truths. On the one hand:
God wants his church to grow numerically. Only God grows the church; our job is to collaborate with him…The New Testament is full of positive examples of numerical church growth…The most important reason why there is hope for numerical church growth is that God wants his church to grow.
Here we find the most explicit, most confident and most theological expression of confident conviction about numerical church growth. On the other hand:
Empirical research show that there is significant church growth happening across England…Research over the past 15 years has given us a much better understanding…
So hand in hand with theological conviction is a real commitment to research and giving attention to empirical evidence.
This was rather a contrast to the ‘lead’ article in this section by Linda Woodhead. Here, we find what I can only describe as expressions of paranoia: ‘A neo-puritan takeover is in process…its leaders [have a] devotion to unity at almost any cost…bought a the price of historic breadth and variety.’ All this says more about Woodhead’s own beliefs than her analysis. She does then move into a helpful and clear description of the different strands in the Church, and quite rightly, even astutely, identifies six key sectors: the cathedral group; those with community focus; the charismatic; the conservative evangelical; those concerned with justice; and the ‘open’ church. But what she then does with these is odd—she imagines them as distinct ‘franchises.’ Of course, this is only a ‘fantasy’, and exercise of the imagination, but it is one that seems to lack any theological insight. The vital thing about these traditions, or strands, or ‘franchises’, is that they need each other. The cathedral group needs the charismatic if it is to avoid religious formalism; the charismatic needs the cathedral if is it to avoid becoming banal. Both need the conservative evangelical if they are not to be loosed from their moorings in Scripture. And the evangelicals needs the justice group to remind it of the biblical vision for the welfare of the world. And so on. We do need to hold together.
So amongst these diverse visions of the church, what kind of unity should we seek?I think it is the kind of unity that was found at another period of history, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 during the controversy about the two natures of Christ as human and divine. What the Chalcedonian Definition did, in effect, was to draw some boundaries; in the one person, these two natures were:
…without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…
Rather than try and pin down, positively, who or what Christ was, the vital thing this definition does it describe boundaries around what Christ wasn’t. It is a paradoxical feature of ‘negative’ rules (you can’t do this, you can’t do that…) that, like the lines around a football pitch, they actually create a space for play, rather than pinning down (as ‘positive’ rules do, ‘You must do this, you must to that…’) and prescribing action. It creates a bounded space for a variety of theological understandings, and that is just what we need.
We need both variety and boundaries. The recognition of the need for variety will, of course, frustrate those influenced by a more modernist understanding of truth, who would like to see everything pinned down, theology expressed as a single point or proposition of truth. And the need for boundaries will frustrate those who are more influenced by the postmodern paradigm, who see all boundary-drawing as an attempt at coercive control. But spaces are only created by boundaries, and the myth of the Church of England as an infinitely extendable broad church needs to be killed off.
The roots of this idea of bounded diversity don’t just go back to Chalcedon. They are found in the gospels themselves. There are four gospels—or, rather, the one gospels told in four different ways. (The gospels are ‘according to…’ not ‘of…’) But there are other accounts which are not gospels, ones which lie outside the boundary of the truth-telling, authoritative testimony to Jesus that we have in the four.
It is only as we inhabit such a diverse, bounded space that we will be able to trust one another, learn from each other, and act with the generous confidence we need.