Ian McCormack on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent remarks about the link between clergy competence and church growth
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It had been going so well. The Archbishop had taken on Wonga and – despite the potentially embarrassing matter of the CofE’s own investment in the company – been much lauded for it. His famous skills as a reconciler brought a new consensus to Synodical Government and appeared to offer a way forward in the previously intractable women bishops debate. With his ‘non-churchy’ background, and his un-churchy image, Justin Welby seemed to be achieving for the Church of England something of the ‘Francis effect’ which has been (for once) bringing positive media attention to the Roman Catholic Church.
And then, on New Year’s Day, the Archbishop opened his mouth on television. And all of a sudden it went wrong. You see the Archbishop said, ‘the reality is that where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches’. And that was interpreted as meaning that where there is not growth, there isn’t a good vicar.
It doesn’t matter that that isn’t what the Archbishop actually said. It doesn’t matter that what he did say was one comment among many in a wide ranging interview on Radio 4. What matters is the seemingly simplistic nature of what he said, which of course was magnified by the even more simplistic way in which it was reported.
And why does it matter? Well, for three reasons. Let me start with the least important and work upwards.
The Archbishop’s naïve remarks matter first of all because they give ammunition to truculent and hostile laity who do not like or understand what their Vicar is doing, and (if they are well-informed enough) can now use Welby’s comments to bolster their own sense of self-righteousness, if not actually advance their hostility towards their incumbent on the basis of it. Such people are relatively rare, but there are more of them than there should be in the Body of Christ.
Secondly, the Archbishop’s message reinforces the perception that not enough bishops and other senior clergy have substantial experience as parish priests. Again, it matters not if this is true. The perception nonetheless is that it is easy for a man to sit in a palace and opine that if the clergy are up to scratch the church will inevitably grow.
And this is of course linked to the third and most damaging consequences of Justin Welby’s remarks. You may be a parish priest in one of the most deprived parts of the country, where you involve yourself in local charities and action groups, where you conduct three funerals a week, where you commit yourself to supporting the Church School, where you baptize children almost every Sunday, and where you are the visible presence of the Church on the streets – the parson, in fact. You do all of this, and yet getting bums on seats on a Sunday morning is incredibly difficult.
Or you may be the Rector of seven rural parishes, each with a tiny population but covering a vast area. You rush around between your churches, giving as much of yourself to each as you possibly can. Yet church attendance continues to decline, because village life is declining too. Or you may be priest-in-charge of a parish in an anonymous middle-class suburb. There are no church schools and no pubs in your parish; nowhere in fact in which to sink your missionary teeth and gain a foothold. And yet you care lovingly and faithfully for your flock, and do what you can to bring each one of them closer to God. Finally, perhaps you are a chaplain in a hospital, or a hospice, or a prison. The nature of the job is that people come and go and turn to you only in the moment of deepest need. Yet you are there for them, and through you they experience something of the love of Jesus Christ.
Surveys, statistics and experience all show us that these types of priests may well be over-worked, under-appreciated, tired and stressed. They need the love and the support of their own fathers in God. They do not need to apparently be told – whether or not they actually have been – that because their numbers are not growing, they are doing something wrong.
So, Archbishop Justin: you have done so much to progress the life of the Church, and to raise its estimation in the public eye. Please, in future, think a little longer before even seeming to suggest that the be all and end all of Church life is numerical growth, and that the competency of the clergy can be judged by growth alone. And remember the clergy who work in difficult circumstances, with little thanks and with little visible signs of success. Give thanks to God for them, because perhaps they are entertaining angels of whom everybody else is unaware, and making salvation known to an unbelieving and perverse generation. ND