Are the Evangelicals taking over the Church of England? Only if the rest of the Church give up!

The article in Friday’s Church Times by Angela Tilby, entitled “Deliver us from the Evangelical Takeover” (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/27-april/comment/columnists/angela-tilby-deliver-us-from-the-evangelical-takeover) has provoked quite a bit of discussion with some people loudly applauding (or perhaps quietly saying “Amen”!) and others much more critical. I’m glad of the discussion about issues of real importance for the future of the Church of England. I think that Angela Tilby overstates her case but I too am worried about quite a serious unbalancing within the Church of England. I sit on General Synod and serve on Archbishops’ Council Finance Committee and am very aware of the discussions that go on at a national level about the future of the Church of England. The demographics of many of our churches mean that some fear that within a generation there might not be any Church of England. Anecdotally we are told that some bishops fear that within 10 years their diocese might not have many churches left! It is certainly the case that the average age of a Church of England worshipper is quite a bit older than the average age in the community. The fear of church decline is driving various initiatives and it seems that Evangelical churches are the ones offering solutions.

The Church Commissioners have freed up some of their historic investments to be used to support the Renewal and Reform programme in the church. This mainly comes as Strategic Development Fund money to dioceses and is funding various evangelistic and church growth projects. In particular it is funding large “Resource Churches” and Church Planting initiatives. To the best of my knowledge none of the “Resource Churches” are other than Charismatic Evangelical. It could be that other parts of the church wouldn’t want to be a church of more than 500 people but there are plenty of other churches that could grow substantially with some of the investment that the resource churches get.

So is it an “Evangelical Takeover” or are other parts of the church simply failing? Clearly there are plenty of thriving Anglican churches of Liberal Catholic or Central church tradition. In our own diocese, the church with the strongest growth in the last couple of years is a Liberal Catholic one. There are also plenty of Evangelical churches that are struggling.  Is there anything about the Evangelical churches that make them more likely to succeed? I don’t believe so, but they are offering solutions to those who want to hear some.

In a response to the Angela Tilby piece Craig Huxley, who describes himself as “Anglo-Catholic to the core of his being“ tells of a visit to Holy Trinity Brompton (Mother church of the Resource churches) and how impressed he was. (https://thetruthshallmakeyouodd.com/2018/04/28/the-myth-of-the-evangelical-takeover/) His plea to the rest of the church is to stop complaining and to up our game. What he saw at HTB was a church that was confident and competent. Now please don’t misunderstand me, there are plenty of good Catholic churches or Liberal ones or Central ones with confidence in what they preach and live and who deliver their liturgy, their welcome, their events and programme with complete competence but there are many who don’t. There are a variety of reasons why churches might struggle – clergy who are tired and drifting towards retirement; lay people who have viciously fought every proposed change; people demoralised by too many losses; people cynical of “quick fixes” that have failed in the past – but it’s no good complaining of others taking over if we aren’t prepared to do our part. A victim mentality isn’t going to help us at all.

I actually think that many elements of a more liberal theology will aid us in mission to young adults who don’t have much time for preachy conservative rhetoric. I think many would feel happier in a lively, welcoming church of 40-80 people of all ages than in a loud and busy mega-church. I think that many people value churches that thoroughly engage with their community. I think that a slower growth might in the long term be healthier than a quick growth through transfer of allegiance from other churches. I also think that the Church of England needs a variety of styles and types of churches and we need to be investing in them all.

Those who are distributing the extra resources are very focussed on church growth. For some people the whole discussion becomes distasteful – Church growth, evangelism, increasing bums on pews – it’s not what led them into the priesthood, or it’s not the sort of church they want to be part of. The reality is that the Church of England is a smaller, less significant institution than it used to be. This isn’t entirely bad, (and we could do some good work rethinking our vision, our approach to Establishment, parish system as missional rather than pastoral etc) but for the C of E to have a future we need to draw in younger people as well as older and too many of our churches are failing to do this. Across the different traditions in the church we need to be open and generous to our communities. We need to be outward facing, willing to make use of new technologies and new means of communication. We need to be confident in the gospel, willing to talk spirituality and prayer with people, willing to pray with people and guide people in prayer. We need to listen to people’s questions and explore answers together. Our liturgy, our sermons, our social events, our community service, our websites and communication should all be done well. All of this needs to be done in a way that makes the most of our resources, empowering the laity, working as a team, so that it doesn’t become burdensome to the clergy. I hope too that we can do all this whilst retaining a sense of humour and the joy of the gospel!

I know of a couple of churches in our diocese who are taking on curates who will then go on to “plant” a church. This will mean taking a small number of people with them and could mean starting from scratch but could be bringing new life and vigour to an existing church that’s been fading away. Wouldn’t it be great to see curates from the Catholic or Central traditions who are missionally minded doing this? A “successful” church could bring new life to one that has been struggling.

And when we have success we should share the story with others, to inspire or help and we should share it with those who distribute resources so that they know there are other models to invest in.

Are the evangelicals taking over? Only if we let them. The Church of England is still a broad church and we need a breadth of approach but in a world that has changed and is rapidly changing, doing what we’ve always done in the way we’ve always done it may no longer work. So let’s work together prayerfully, generously, inclusively, competently and with confidence in the God who walks with us.

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