The dawn of the third millennium of Christianity is only four years away and the Decade of Evangelism, which was inaugurated to prepare for it, is half over. `How goes the Decade?’ asks Robert Warren in a booklet intended to survey its achievements thus far. And surely this is as good a time as any to ask.
It is only fair to admit what Warren cannot bring himself to say: that all is not going well. Of course the Decade is precisely the sort of project which no institution can admit to being a failure. But the writing is unmistakably on the wall.
During the Decade regular attendances in the Church of England have, for the first time, dropped below the one million watermark. During the Decade, by general agreement and for a number of reasons not necessarily related, clergy morale has reached an all-time low. During the Decade it has become clear that the ordination of women to the priest- hood is unlikely to produce the increase in ordinands which was confidently predicted. During the Decade a missionary experiment described (by Robert Warren himself) as ‘a twentieth century Lindisfarne in the making’ came to grief amid disastrous nation-wide publicity. More recently the chief executive of the Millennium Commission told an audience in Southwark Cathedral that finding apart for the Church to play in the national celebrations of the event to which the Decade looks forward, was `proving difficult’. Jesus,
as a Church Times headline nicely put it, is not getting an invitation to his own party.
Predictably, in such a situation, Warren’s `audit’ of the first five years is high on rhetoric and low on actual statistics. But someone needs to ask the hard questions: what has the Decade cost and what have been its discernible and measurable benefits? Warren avoids mention of anything so mundane as pounds and pence on any of his 91 effusive pages. But there have been costs and they could, quite reasonably, be assessed.
There is the cost of the two Michaels, Marshall and Green, whose Springboard project, after initial hiccoughs and an amusing change of name, has rumbled on (yet apparently merits remarkably little attention from Warren). There are the costs of the Decade of Evangelism Officers appointed in most dioceses, occupying `posts’ or `half- posts’ on diocesan staff’s and the salaries that go with them. There are the costs of the various ‘episcopal initiatives’ with their attendant publicity mailing to clergy and others. And, of course, there is the cost of Robert himself.
No one begrudges wise expenditure; but it would be useful to know whether these costs are to be measured in tens or hundreds of thousands; more useful still to have a frank assessment of what has been achieved. Have the successes which Warren claims – the exciting projects, the parochial revivals, the mission statements, the Church plantings, the Alpha Courses, the Marches of a Thousand Men, the reduction in the rate of numerical decline – any direct connection with the money expended? Or would they simply have happened anyway? In short has the whole exercise been worthwhile, or should we cut our losses halfway?
By casting his report in the form of a discussion booklet for PCCs and others – all flannel and no, figures – Warren has not only avoided the hard questions, but made his own contribution to the problem. The problem with the Decade of Evangelism is that it is a vast, unfocussed concept which has failed to find a particular local (and therefore effective) expression.
The great success of the last years, an evangelical initiative which is rapidly spawning catholic adaptations and imitators, is the Alpha course. It has its roots set firmly in one parish and worshipping community, and in
one very particular and defined tradition (one with which, as a matter of fact, the establishment Anglicanism of boards, committees and reports is distinctly uneasy). It is a basically simple idea which has been pursued with energy and efficiency. Alpha, like much else in Robert Warren’s report, is an enterprise in, but not of, the Decade of Evangelism.
Another success story is the dedicated and costly ministry of counsel and encouragement of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors. In a church where diocesans have a stratospheric remoteness and dioceses seem all too often to be running an agenda which is at bes’ tangential to the gospel, they have been what the bishops of a missionary church must necessarily be: men meeting people. But they too, it has to be admitted, are in the Decade but not of it. They were the creations, not of strategic planning but of damage limitation.
What are we to conclude? Surely that the Church of England is no longer a Church with a sufficient social or doctrinal coherence to mount a programme of evangelism from the centre. At the centre it all too palpably lacks the simplicity of purpose and charismatic leadership which alone will ensure success. But that does not mean that evangelism is a lost cause. On the contrary. It is being done now where it has always been done: on the margins, away from the centre, where the real life of the people of God is always to be found.