My most memorable brushes with genuine danger have involved fire. Several times when I lived in South Africa I had to drive through areas of bush where both sides of the road were alight after a lightening strike. Another time we had to flee from a guesthouse we were staying in when the whole mountainside caught fire, to return in the morning to find the whole street bar one house destroyed.
So I listen to fire alarms! I also tend, because I am pretty laidback and optimistic, to ignore or downplay other kinds of alarm, especially ‘we’re all going to die’ predictions about the country, the world or the church.
When I started in full-time Christian ministry 20 years ago, there was a stock phrase used by evangelical ordinands that we clung onto through the discernment and training process; The C of E was ‘the best boat to fish from.’ What we understood by this was that despite its faults, the Church of England, with its doctrinal foundations, parish system, sense of obligation for the whole community, and level of respectability that opened doors locally, was the best place for a young leader who wanted, under God, to get things done in the Kingdom.
I think this was right at the time, and I am tremendously grateful to the individuals who have mentored me and given me spade loads of opportunities for service, mission and worship.
But is it still true? What would I say to someone at St. Mary’s who was considering training as a future leader in the Church of England? Does ‘the best boat to fish from’ still ring true?
I am genuinely unsure.
There are several very compelling reasons for us to be sounding a real warning alarm for the Church of England. It’s not that the alarm bells haven’t been ringing – they have. But we’ve tuned them out and learnt to ignore them. There are many growing, lively, entrepeneurial and fantastic churches in our towns and cities. Some of them are Church of England. Many are not. And for much of the time leading a larger Anglican Church feels like being sent into the ring with one arm tied behind your back. Less ‘best boast to fish from’, more ‘this boat is sinking!’
These are the reasons why I think we should be sounding the alarm.
1] Structural defensiveness and inertia
At most levels, with some exceptions, it is extremely hard to argue for, let alone push through, meaningful, innovative, God-honouring change. Much of the change that is talked about is defensive and administrative, and keeping the fears of a tiny minority at the forefront. ‘Parish boundaries’ are a painful irrelevance.
2] Loss of confidence and joy
There are lots of long faces and hunched shoulders. Confidence in the fundamentals of our faith and our responsibility to share it in love, practical service and dirty hands is ebbing. Internal dialogue is often about ‘do we have to fish at all?’ rather than ‘is this a good boat to fish from?’
3] Finance, staffing and buildings are all more difficult for us
Outside the Diocese of London it is very expensive to run a growing church, due to all the in-built tax on growth and extra support required for some churches who show great reluctance to be a tangible Christian witess in their own communities (very different to those working in the most challenging areas which we are delighted to support).
Long vacancies between vicars and uncertainty about curates give us staffing headaches that make our brothers and sisters in other churches scratch their heads.
And we have the duty to maintain and upgrade very expensive buildings. We can reclaim VAT on some of this, but that’s it in terms of public subsidy. Yes, they’re lovely to look at, well most of them anyway. But let’s not kid ourselves that people come to church because the building is pretty. Congregations are very generous but there comes a time when you feel it’s better to buy a new boat rather than patch the old, leaky one.
4] The grip of nostalgia
We’re not naive enough to want to ban nostalgia. But we’re not ready to make it a top priority. Younger leaders, lay and ordained, yearn to be creative, innovative, to experiment. It’s not as though the received model of church is doing a grand job; it’s been failing for years and it is too easy for older congregations to ask for the time and the space to dwindle into nothingness, keeping things they way they like them, rather than look up and look out.
For me, I don’t think it’s really true to say the Church of England ‘is the best boat to fish from.’ Quite a few of the crew are looking sea-sick or have packed away their nets. There should be alarm.
There are some lovely signs of hope. We truly thank God for Justin Welby’s leadership, clarity of vision and honesty. We thank God for bishops and senior leaders who push against inertia and nostalgia and open doors for new churches to have a chance. We look with admiration (and some jealousy) at what has grown in the Diocese of London over the last 20 years.
But we do so with more campaigning zeal and urgency than we used to. We do so with love for God and love for neighbour as our priorities, not institutional loyalty to one brand of church that might be running out of steam.
The boat needs major overhaul in dry dock if it’s to sail and offer a safe refuge on the high seas.