Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Church Dead in Two Decades?

Some say that it partly forms the Body of Christ on earth, and others that it will be dead in twenty years. All we know, is it it called

The blessed Telegraph suggests, in its headline, that the "Ageing Church of England 'will be dead in 20 years'". Before you climb out of your prams, it was not the blessed Telegraph that says it, no - a cleric from the Eastern Flat-lands of England. 

Well, Reverend Doctor Patrick Richmond, let us examine this hypothesis of yours. 

  • Dr Richmond suggests that because our congregations are on average 61 years old, that it is reasonable to suggest they may all be dead in the ground in twenty years. That may be true, but that implies that his view of modern evangelism is less than favourable. The thing is, Doc, that the average age of Christian congregations has always erred towards the ancient - it is just that people start returning to church in their fifties once families and their immediate needs abate. Unless there is a virus that Doc knows about that will wipe us nearly-forties out in the next twenty years too, then I would suggest that congregations are gently self regenerative.
  • He cites the drop in stipendiary clergy as another part of his 'perfect storm'. None of the Disciples were paid after all, and while it is true that the church has to become less dependent on its dog-collars, there are still many thousands of people in accredited ministries whom he seems to overlook. Add to this that all Christians have a role in ministry, we can put it another way - the 'perfect storm' exists in his Norfolk teacup. The priesthood may well be dead in the Church of England in twenty years time (actually, no it won't, I still have thirty to serve), but if the Church was ever dependent solely on its priests and not, say, God - then it was always lost. 
  • That all said, I must congratulate him for his play on words: "2020 apparently is when our congregations start falling through the floor because of natural wastage, that is people dying" - there's a pun in there somewhere. And a grotesque pessimism. 
Now this is where I have a problem - and those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you), will know that I become gusset-rotated. I can cope with people of no faith deriding our church. I can even cope with the side-swipes of our press who love to dance on our perceived grave. Where I have a problem is when clerics make statements like this, or other clergy who make statements about being bored at Synod, because they gift to our many detractors the very stuff that they need to undermine us more. Comments in the stories mentioned here have become the playgrounds of the 'all churches should be pulled down' brigade and those who express the 'all believers in gods are nutter and bombers' sentiments (inferred if not in fact stated). Clerics seem to want to do it in the public gaze, and neither aging congregations, declining clergy numbers or the next meteorite could do more damage. 

You will also know that I have firm views about churches behaving more as businesses in their business affairs. An aspect of the article that caught my eye was the statement:
The Church was compared to a company “impeccably” managing itself into failure, during exchanges at the General Synod in York.

Whilst I hold the views that I do, I am also clear that the Church is not a business and very often diametrically opposed to one. It typically exists on the good will and efforts of a vast number of un-trained volunteers as a percentage when compared to paid staff, that our 'product' is a fruit of faith and broadly intangible and that every single Head Office Directive falls into the category that would, in the commercial world, see us closed and picked over by venture capitalists in mere weeks. The Church is, by very definition, a sort of anti-business, and despite all else, has survived far worse than this. 

Self-criticism is good and it is healthy. Dr Richmond exceeded that. Self-criticism is good and it is healthy, but self-proclaimed self-destruction exceeds that. The Church of England will not be dead in twenty years. Despite the views of the youthful Vicar of Eaton, there are still many of us who expect to be around in thirty and forty years time (God willing). His words are, of course, one of the fashionable sneers we have heard about recently, and to my mind, unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. 

I do not apologise one iota for my loyalty to my Church and to my Archbishop. I am, though, desperately sorry that so many seem to consistently seek to climb aboard the bandwagon of church-bashing, synod-bashing, and the old favourite Rowan-bashing. I doubt that God called anyone to that particular ministry. 


  1. Well, I hope you're right, but I have my doubts. Ultimately only time will tell now.

    The CofE may well survive, but not in the same form as we see it now.

    Here is a quote to lift the spirits and I hope is relevant:

    To refuse consumerism’s dictates in this respect, the church needs to remember both its eternal ordination and its historical situation. For the former, this is simply the recognition that Jesus Christ himself has ordained the church’s existence, and God has secured its future. If the church were ever to pass away, then onlookers might rightly conclude that the story it had told was all wrong. Fortunately, the church’s continued existence does not depend on us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be good stewards. But it does mean that we should back off from acting as if the patriarch is dead and we are the inheritors of the family business. No, the head of the church is very much alive.

  2. I think Your Vernacularness is a little astray on this one. If time permits I will expand on my blog, but in short -
    Loyalty to the C of E need not prevent us from recognising its shortcomings and hoping to reduce them. I think this would be Richmond's point. If he cannot air his concerns at General Synod, where can he air them? Or are we all to keep schtum and pretend, at all costs, that everything in the garden is lovely?

  3. Stuart - response over at yours, and thank you.

    Carlos - yes to express is good, though I see no benefit in what the man said. Was there a piece of business brought to fruition by him comments? To keen schtum is the worst of things - but he has taken an ill-informed, sensationalised approach to his point of view which bears little resemblance to the world either you or I exist in. My number have gone up, and I sense that your will have too. Everyone at church seemed to be 80 years old when I 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 39 years of age, - not just now! If we are going to be self-critical (a good thing, and a healthy thing), then we need to attend that with accuracy and a little more media nouse.

  4. You've touched on a subject close to my heart. I have thought for a while now that the church relying on people 'coming back' to it in their later years is asking for disaster. To come back to something, you have to have been involved in the first place, and looking at our current congregation I can count the children on one hand, they won't fill the gaps.

    We have a pretty close relationship with our church school, but for a family service, with the school heavily involved, and pushed hard by the school we only managed to get about 5% of the school children to the service. It's clear that however highly the parents think of the vicar (or church as we're in interregnum), they don't want to come to church on a Sunday morning, even just once a year…

    There are times a church needs to understand business, or at least business principles and management. Our church has suddenly found itself not quite meeting quota. The response to this is that every event has to make money, and that people that should know better, seemingly consider fundraising more important than what the church actually is about, God. As these fundraisers are largely supported by church-goers, there's a huge risk of bleeding the congregation dry, but more troubling is the upset and alienation being caused…

    Thank you for giving me a space to let that out, sorry if it became a rant!

  5. The fate of the CofE doesn't really concern me although I have spent most of my life connected with it and now working in it. If our Diocesan HQ fell into a black hole today, the church community would still exist here in the wilds of this part of the flat-lands of East Anglia. The living faith is not dependent on the presence of the organisation.

  6. The story goes that a Russian Patriach was confronted by a senior communist official in the 1970's:

    "Your church is dying - it is full of little old ladies who will all be dead in 20 years"

    The Patriarch looked the party member in the eye and replied.

    "Ah but in 20 years there will be new generation of little old ladies".

    Although I dislike the term 'little old ladies' there is a certain ring of truth to the story.

  7. Peter, you are very welcome, and no - not a rant at all. I think that relying on a return is, as you suggest, a recipe for a disaster. That people do return in later life is a happy accident (or part of the Grand Design, who knows) but not a thing that should dissuade us from working hard to meet people in their lives with a hope of discipleship somewhere on that process. You describe a parish situation that has a ring of the familiar to me, by the way! As Saintly says (hello to you too), God is not, thankfully, dependent on an organisation. I shudder at the prospect if He were.

    My own experience is that, statistically, people move to a church-life commitment when the church has eloquently touched their lives. I need more hands to count the individuals who will claim membership here because of a funeral that touched them, a baptism or indeed marriage. What the church does well is meet people at these salient moments, and while it continues to do that, will live on.

  8. Recently I came across a quote from Archbishop Sentamu, where he says "You must be the church you want to see." This surely can only come from those who listen attentively to their calling and vocation from God- then we will have a church fit for the next 20 years and a long time beyond...

  9. I think that perhaps Dr Richmond over sensationalised his points. And looking into my Chrystal ball, I to hope to be around worshiping in 20 years, even at age, over 80. Otherwise I will have caused a decline in the CofE?

    I think that you make a valid point about the numbers of people involved in accredited lay ministry in the church and for me this is a sign of increased commitment. I've noticed more, younger people, some of them confirmed this year, offering to do more in our 5 parishes of the Benefice. We had 24 for confirmation this year, over half were young people, the rest young adults, some of who have come to faith, via a marriage in one of our churches.

    We now have a waiting list for confirmation classes this year of over 12. I see some positive signs of growth in this, the task going forward is to retain them and to look on how we can continue to grow our congregation either in the church or wider in the community. An example is our Church led youth group, with over 40 members, some of whose family do not attend church, but the youngsters attend Youth services, with the group of their own initiative.

    Reaching out to bring people the Gospel story in a way relevant to them seems to me to be the priority, rather than Chrystal balling a future that only God can see or know.



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