Declining numbers of church attenders pose an ongoing problem for the Church of England. Scott Anderson calls for a dramatic diocesan re-organization in order to address this issue
London diocese has a number of large evangelical churches. These congregations usually meet during the week in small, dispersed groups. The groups, or pastorates, are run by lay people, and provide Bible study, prayer, nurturing and pastoral care for people who live in the suburbs but work and worship in central London. This practice has been frowned on as drawing mainly professional people away from their parish churches, where their skills and money would be useful. Perhaps the time has come to recognize that this could be the model for the emerging church which Anglo-Catholics seek.
The Church of England has seen continuous decline in numbers for about 150 years. If it were to learn from the world of business, it would be rapidly retrenching in order to define and resource its ‘core activities’. Many are now convinced that the Church of England as a body has neither the will nor the ability to do this. The attraction, then, of the free province is that it will allow Catholics to concentrate on these core activities, freed from the bureaucracy and constant compromises of the synodical Church.
Bishops Staff Meetings and Pastoral Committees frequently have to consider the plight of tiny, ageing congregations, worshipping in immense buildings with no money. There seems to be no solution to their problems except slow attrition, until the priest retires or moves. Then the parish is suspended. Finally, after several years, the building is closed, and the remnant of the congregation disperses. A few will go to a neighbouring church, and several will never go to Mass again.
Theory of church growth
By the time the process is completed, the next parish along will have declined, and so it all begins again. Money from the sale of the buildings goes to the Commissioners and the diocese, unlike in Scotland where it is sensibly ploughed into making sure that the neighbouring parish is repaired and resourced. The money lost and wasted in this interminable process would pay the salaries of several priests for several years. The cost in souls – of people lost to the sacraments – is incalculable. There must be a better way.
There is a useful analysis of function and size in the theory of church growth. This identifies three levels at which each Christian must function in order to be properly nurtured in the faith. The Congregation is a gathering of 80-150 people and is the sort of number which can be pastored by one priest, and where he and the people can reasonably know each other by name. But it is too big for personal growth, and for this, each member of the congregation needs a Cell. The Cell group consists of perhaps 10-15 people, and it is here in the weekly meeting that teaching, prayer and pastoral care are effectively given. The congregation needs occasions of worship and praise and so combines with other congregations for the Celebration level, where ‘the more the merrier’ is the best guide to numbers.
Theory of church growth
Each of these levels has its own scale and way of working. There are things which the Cell can do which are impossible for the Congregation, and the Celebration has a power which is simply not available to the Cell. Yet we are bewildered by changes in the parish because we do not understand which level we are functioning at. Confusion leads to inappropriate demands being made on laity and clergy, and inevitably to decline.
Many congregations in both city and countryside now are actually Cells. They share a common age profile, which is usual for such groups. But they have to function as Congregations, which is disastrous for their life. They must elect churchwardens and a church council. They must raise funds for their own building (instead of meeting in a large living room as a Cell would). Most curiously, they are being pastored by a full-time priest, and the
relationship is stifling, for both priest and people. Their resources are stretched. They are not attracting middle-aged or young people or children, which is limiting to worship and life. If they were able to function as a Cell, they would probably be successful in attracting other retired people. They may be full of fighting spirit, but they are fighting for the wrong thing. In struggling to be a congregation, they are committing suicide.
Radical change needed
The challenge is to the bishops and the laity who must tackle – and change – the way that the Church of England lives its life. Nobody will believe that the church is serious about being mission-shaped while she retains the current number of dioceses and parishes. Both the present numbers of Anglicans at Mass on Sundays, and our mission to re-convert England to Christianity, require a leaner, fitter church. The call for diocesan re-organization must become deafening.
While the bishops are tackling closure and amalgamation of dioceses, the laity will be asking how they prepare to be a missionary force to re-establish the Christian life here. The key question for many of them is whether they love their building more than the Lord Jesus. For the simple fact is that when you close a church building, significant numbers stop worshipping God on Sundays. The creation of congregations of appropriate size and with adequate resources for growth is of paramount importance. Yet all the signs are that we shall give in to the cries of the building preservationists about the Church’s ‘responsibility for the nation’s heritage’, and to the threats of the nominal Anglicans that ‘if you close our church, we will stop coming’.
There is a better way. It begins with realism about the nature and mission of the Church in England. We no longer have the luxury of the Commissioners’ money paying the clergy.
The Forward in Faith working parties are looking for a better way of being church to and for the people of Britain. They will speak, not just to the Catholic constituency, but to the Anglican Church of the four provinces of England, Wales and Scotland. Whether they will be heard remains to be seen.