The latest Church of England statistics are out, with interesting analysis and comments from David Keen at Opinionated Vicar (http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/), Jeremy Marshall (https://tinyurl.com/yckp9o2j) and others. They continue to show a decline in attendance, and a wide range of reasons are suggested for why this should be so.
Is there anything the Church of England can do about its current decline? If so, how does it identify what can be done and start doing it?
It seems to me that there is an underlying yearning to be part of a visionary church, one that is moving forward in the will of God. We know that where there is no vision the people perish; what we don’t know is how to be visionary.
This is partly because there are a whole range of myths surrounding vision. One myth is that it is possible for vision to happen top down. Over the last 20 years I have attended several church away days dedicated to vision and mission. We have come back and written Vision Statements and Mission Action Plans. I was really excited by the first one – after years of drifting along fairly aimlessly, it seemed to me that the church was actually getting to grips with who it was and where it should be going.
But nothing actually changed – or if it did it was not as a result of the MAP or the Vision Statement. I think this is because people find it almost impossible to turn the vague generalised principles of the Vision Statement into a practical reality. There is a tendency to look at what we are already doing and see how it fits in so that we can tick the box that says for example “Respect everyone”. Mission Action Plans can all too easily degenerate into Coming up with Ideas to Keep the Bishop Happy. But good ideas are not vision…
Another myth is that we need unity in order to be visionary. Given the current range of views in the Church of England, this is an impossibility. There is not going to be a magic moment in which everyone suddenly converts to our way of thinking – and even if they did it might end up as a sterile situation.
So perhaps we are never going to be part of a visionary church?
I think we need to let go of the idea of a visionary institutional church that encompasses the whole of the Church of England.
But vision still happens… In my experience (which is obviously limited) it takes place in a very specific context. Often something sparks and an idea is taken up and developed by an individual or a small group of people.
Vision is time limited. That initial excitement does not last; after a while the vision becomes the usual, even the routine. I’m not sure that matters… for then the wind blows again and there is a fresh vision or a transforming of the old one as it moves in an unexpected direction…
So perhaps instead of one overarching vision for the Church of England, what we need is a piecemeal approach. A mosaic of vision.
In that case what is the place of the institutional church, particularly at national level? Is there one?
I was starting to think the answer to this was no. But on reflection I thought that what unites all Christians is prayer. So perhaps:
- The diocese removes the pressure on churches to produce Mission Action Plans, Vision Statements and the like. Churches can still do them if they want to, but it isn’t compulsory.
- Instead the diocese conducts a prayer audit of all churches. Who is praying, how often, how long for etc
- Each church is encouraged (or possibly even mandated) to start a prayer group. As a minimum, one person who is not ordained or part of a clergy household once a week for half an hour. (It is probable that clergy and their families are already praying; this is something that needs to be taken up more widely.)
- In addition each church has a monthly prayer group which includes clergy, some of those in church leadership positions and some of those the church leadership regard as the bums on the seats.
- These prayer groups are free to pray as they feel led, but in addition they need to pray specifically, every time, for any projects or initiatives that their church is engaged in. Even the ones that they personally disapprove of or think are pretty rubbish anyway. Also for any local Christian projects and initiatives, regardless of denomination. They ask specifically for God’s guidance and attempt to listen to what He might actually be saying to them in their context.
- They also pray for protection.
- Meanwhile the diocese sets up its own prayer groups. They carry on (for the moment) with all the courses and support that they are currently providing, but they then look to see what is bubbling up from the churches and how they can support it.
- They also collect and share stories of people who prayed for years before seeing their prayers answered. This isn’t a quick fix. We are all in this for the long haul.