Who’s with the Woolwich?

A London bishop has recently concluded a remarkable exercise. Colin Buchanan, Bishop of Woolwich (‘the world’s leading evangelical liturgist’ as he was recently described on an American web-site), has visited all ninety-three parishes in his Area to ask not very searching questions about their life and mission.

Nobody, least of all Bishop Colin, would claim that this was a major event. It was, as he would say, a bishop going about his normal and proper task of becoming acquainted, gently enquiring and robustly encouraging. He has written up the proceedings in a well-produced booklet Mission in South-East London: the Practice and Calling of the Church of England (ISBN 0-904129-12-8, available from the Woolwich Episcopal Office, 37 South Road, London SE23 2JU, pp48, £3.00). The book provides a snapshot of the CofE in a segment of the capital city in the early part of 2002. Read it. But what do we learn from it?

Bishop’s eye view

It will be as well to start with the bishop himself – the inaugurator of the scheme, and so the prism through whom all these insights have been refracted.

Buchanan is not untypical of the late twentieth-century Anglican episcopate. Indeed, he exemplifies the academic-apparatchik route to episcopal preferment that is its chief characteristic. After the obligatory curacy in well-healed Cheadle he stepped on to the preferment escalator as tutor at St John’s College, Nottingham, and did not step off it again until well-publicized events in the Diocese of Birmingham condemned him for five short years to an incumbency in the Diocese of Rochester. Nothing in his curriculum vitae might be supposed obviously to have suited him for a suffragan bishopric in SE London; but a rescue operation was mounted by a fellow Evangelical, and thither he went.

Buchanan is a likeable man. The buzzing of bees in his bonnet (a whole hive of which are apparent to the diligent observer) renders him more, not less approachable. He shares the corporate pomposity and self-esteem which marks the current Anglican episcopate (‘I believe a bishop should stand close to the mission of the Church and serve and resource the parishes in their mission’ MISEL, p2). But in present circumstances who can entirely blame him?

Money and numbers

Buchanan’s report makes predictable but depressing reading. Only around (probably less than) 1% of the population in his Episcopal Area attends an Anglican Church on a Sunday. The average attendance at a church in the Woolwich Area is 76 (slightly above the national average!). Predictably this varies from deanery to deanery. The lowest deanery has an average attendance per church of 50; the highest of 102. It will readily be grasped that three figure parishes are few and far between. But they are frequent enough for their removal from the statistics to make the average attendance of the remaining churches a very sorry figure indeed.

Supposing the cost of a clergyperson is around the figure claimed by the diocese (£32,000+ pa), then the current cost of maintaining the Woolwich clergy – without taking into account the maintenance of church buildings and the up-keep of services – is around £2,976,000 or £8.20 per week per regular worshipper. Comprehensive insurance on a decent-sized church building now costs in the region of £3,200 pa; heating and lighting around £3,800; general building maintenance around £4,000. That is to say £18,000 pa, or £1,674,000 for the whole Woolwich Area (a further £4.50 per head per week).

It does not take a genius to conclude that these figures are not sustainable. The age profile of the seven thousand or so worshippers is not revealed in the report; but it is a safe assumption that a high proportion of them are pensioners; the more so, most probably, in those parishes and areas with the lowest attendance. A donation of around £15 per week per head from them is not realistically attainable and will not be attained. Nor is the balance likely to be forthcoming from the larger parishes with younger congregations (who, after all, have to find £50,000 pa themselves just in order to break even).

Fragile growth?

But all, claims the Bishop’s Report, is not doom and gloom. The last five years has seen a 1.5% increase in church attendances – or one person per congregation per year: a modest achievement, but an achievement nevertheless. But is it though? The method of gathering these statistics is notoriously subject to wilful or accidental error, and such a margin would be regarded by statisticians as well within those parameters.

What is really depressing, however, is not the figures themselves, but the inflated rhetoric that surrounds and envelops them.

This fragile operation encumbers itself with high-sounding officers and portentously named committees. Not a church mouse stirs in South East London but an advisory committee tells it that it should have installed a disabled lavatory; a diocesan agency admonishes it about child protection; a church-funded Report convicts it of institutional racism; a Pastoral Committee proposes its ‘reorganization’; a part-time job-share Evangelism Officer reports back on it; and an Area Mission Team sends it reams of literature generated on a personal computer, and mostly about itself. The parish clergyperson can often seem an irrelevance in all this posturing. All he or she has to do is find the funding for it.

Getting real

Anglicans need to get real. In reality the CofE is a tiny operation with a superstructure like the Eiffel tower. Its self-esteem is unconscionable; and it costs more than any rational person would spend on it.

On one score, however, Bishop Colin can take comfort. His Area (on attendance figures at least) is over half the size of the free, independent and autonomous Province of Scotland. And his Deanery of E Lewisham is considerably larger (on the same basis) than the entire Scottish Diocese of Brechin. On recently received Anglican ecclesiological principals the Woolwich Area could start tomorrow revising the doctrine and practice of the Universal Church on any subject it fancied – if only it had the guts to act unilaterally. A challenge indeed!

Chinese whispers

At the very end of the nineteenth century, when Protestant missionaries in China had been at work for over a hundred years, The Times featured their work in a series of articles analyzing various aspects of the declining Xing regime. During the Boxer rebellion and afterwards there was an animosity against the missionaries quite disproportionate to their effect on Chinese society. ‘The total effect of the Protestant missionary effort in the Chinese Empire,’ opined The Times, ‘has been scarcely more than one Chinaman per missionary per year.’

That, as it turns out, is about the success rate of the Church of England in the Woolwich Episcopal Area at the beginning of the twenty-first century – the ordination of women and the Decade of Evangelism not withstanding!

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, under the Episcopal Care of the Bishop of Fulham, but presently in the Episcopal of Area of Woolwich, in the Diocese of Southwark