It’s the limit.

Barnaby Perkins notes how clergy and laity across the traditions of the Church of England have been united in shock by an unfortunate use of language at a conference on Church growth endorsed by the Archbishops, and suggests the Church needs to do better in showing that it truly values those who serve it.

How to make hardworking clergy and faithful lay people feel unloved by the Church. Lesson 1: call clergy ‘limiting factors’ whose training, stipends and housing are an unnecessary burden on the Church, and lay people ‘passengers’ who hold the Church back by their utter laziness and lack of commitment to anything other than their own comfort.

The twitterstorm which followed the publication of Madeleine Davies’ article “Synod to discuss target of 10,000 new lay-led churches in the next ten years” (2 July 2021) was, as far as I can see, unique among such outpourings of online ire in that it united priests and lay people from every stable within the Church of England. The article reported plans set out in a General Synod briefing paper and at the multiplyX 2021 church-planting conference to plant 10,000 largely lay-led house churches over the next 10 years.

The plans received widespread criticism being among other things unrealistic (are we really going to find that many lay people to lead churches?) and fraught with dangers around accessibility, safeguarding, health and safety and accountability within the plethora of new, exciting churches meeting in peoples’ sitting rooms. The real anger, however, was reserved for two particular statements quoted from a lecture given by Canon John McGinley at the multiplyX 2021 conference:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

Clergy are ‘limiting factors’. Lay people are ‘passengers’. It seemed peculiarly insensitive, offensive even, coming after a year and a half of clergy having done far more than they ever thought they would have to do to keep churches together. Even more insensitive after a year and a half in which many lay people in the Church of England have endured something of an enforced ‘passenger’ status because so many church activities were prohibited.

As things erupted on social media there were welcome voices which pleaded for calm and critical engagement with the actual report rather than with a Church Times article. They also stated that there is no ‘grand plan’ in the upper echelons of the Church to dispense with the priesthood, or parish churches or whatever. 

There were also the usual voices, inspired either by a fan-boyish devotion to every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the House of Bishops, or by a furious anti-clericalism, or by an unreconstructed commitment to the radical reformation (and in many instances, all three), who gaslighted the clergy who were justifiably hurt by being labelled ‘limiting factors’, holding back the Church’s growth. ‘It’s all in your head’ they would say, ‘you’re misunderstanding things’, ‘this is all about how poor stipendiary clergy are overstretched and need more lay support’.

It is possible that this was a clumsy way of talking about clergy being spread too thin, and that we can’t afford ordained, stipendiary priests to plant new churches. Still, I can think of a thousand better ways to say those things than calling the very people you value ‘limiting factors’ and ‘passengers’. If it was clumsy, it was culpably clumsy.

Nevertheless, statements like this are always viewed against a backdrop. For the last twenty years, I have heard certain types of Christians within the Church of England blame the decline of the Church on poor leadership (or preaching, or leading of worship) by the clergy, and laziness among the laity. I’ve even heard a reasonable number of priests claim that the real problem is that the laity of the Church of England aren’t really proper Christians at all! Twenty years ago, the voices which spoke this way were fewer in number and were not in positions of authority. Now these voices are more numerous and have become the leaders of the Church. Within the last six months, while sitting on a diocesan strategy working group, I have heard senior priests saying these very things: the limit on our growth comes from rubbish priests (who we can’t get rid of) and lazy laity (who need to go on an Alpha course). Think of the issues in the Diocese of Winchester, with stories of clergy being set performance targets for recruiting new congregational members with the price of failure being pressure to move on. Think of the way in which General Synod has changed the rules around clergy redundancy to make it easier to cut back the ‘dead wood’!

So while I am sure that it is true that there is no ‘grand plan’ for purging the clergy, or for throwing the ‘passengers’ of the good ship C. of E. overboard, or even for systematically dismantling the parish system, it is surely important to ask the question: how many senior people have to start thinking the same thing before that thinking accidentally becomes a real plan?

To the faithful and their hardworking priests this report was, perhaps unintentionally, a slap in the face. Let’s not forget that a slap in the face has the same effect whether it is intended or accidental. It still hurts. It is still humiliating. The Church of England needs to ask serious questions about the reports it releases and the effect of poorly chosen language on the very people it is desperate to encourage.

The Rev’d Barnaby Perkins is Rector of East and West Clandon in the Diocese of Guildford.

4 thoughts on “It’s the limit.

  1. The thinking of this group, Multiply X, sounds like a rehash of ‘Fresh Expressions’, a venture 20 years ago, headed by now Bishop Steven Croft – so, better look at the results then before throwing the contributions of those ‘passengers’ at a rehash of the same thing?? This all sounds too much like the Church of England serving ITSELF, its own glory – with ‘no passengers’ in its new ‘churches’, rather than serving the world which is its calling! I thought the Church was meant to ‘carry passengers’??

    A big plea! If money is short in the Church how about cutting back on the number of bishops, archdeacons and diocesan workers – spend the money at the ‘coal face’ in the parishes! Slim down the management!

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  2. “…how many senior people have to start thinking the same thing before that thinking accidentally becomes a real plan?”

    Many thanks. I think that is, ineluctably, becoming the plan. Look north of the border at the fate of the Church of Scotland. The Kirk was pillaged even more effectively by the feudal landlords in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Teinds were commuted well before tithe in England, and were based on the prevailing prices for produce meaning that ministers’ incomes were often very low; much of the liability of heritors for teind-stipends were abolished in 1925-1929-1933 and ministers were paid out of a common fund (teinds were not formally abolished until 2000, by which they had ceased to have any value). The effect of these changes was to make the clergy of the Kirk dependent upon the Kirk’s own resources without a substantive landed foundation (parochial glebe being often worth far less than in England). The Kirk is now on its uppers, and it has had to engage in a fire-sale of all assets: land, manses and many, many churches (often ancient foundations); this process has, since 2019, been packaged as a ‘Radical Action Plan’ which is intended to put and plant churches ‘in the right places’. It is almost certain to fail, and in the meantime, the greater portion of the 942 ancient parishes will have been lost: a disaster for the religious posterity of the country. Two thirds of the churches in Shetland, for example, are in the process of being shuttered and sold off in short order: this sort of things can happen with none of the fuss associated with closure and disposal schemes as in England.

    Now the Kirk is, of course, a presbyterian denomination, and as such will often place a limited premium on ‘place’ or ‘buildings’. With the duplication of provision following the Disruption, there is a perception that Scotland is grossly over-churched, and this was true even in 1929, as the remorseless collapse in religious commitment was about to commence in earnest. I suspect that some ecclesiastical planners in London will be looking at the Kirk and will be saying to themselves “here, at last is a quasi-state church that is casting off the ball and chain of its built heritage, and is determined to grow; here is a church that is brave enough to dispense with all of the accumulated baggage, and which is willing to devote its resources to mission: let us do likewise in England”.

    The plan for 10,000 churches is, however infantile, a recognition that Renewal and Reform has been an abject failure, and has not even arrested the remorseless decline in attendance. The view is surely emerging at the highest levels that R&R has failed because it did not go nearly far enough; that what is needed is a root and branch reform that discards all of the rotten lumber of the past (the parish is, after all, adiaphora to those many evangelicals in authority susceptible to bibliolatry). They will be saying that the virus has simply put the plight of the Church in an ever starker relief, and that only the liberal application of the scalpel to the various gangrenous limbs will prevent the patient from dying.

    My view is that, even if such an operation is a success, the patient is liable to die on the table. The creation of a plethora of house churches will, perforce, divert precious funds from parish churches, and so will subvert them; having attended services at a large portion of the national stock (including the Clandons) I am painfully aware of what is at stake. The proposals are also a repeat of the Methodist experiment, which has since turned out to be an even greater failure than the Church. There are, of course, ways in which the Church can keep its show on the road, which I have set out in various comments (including on this blog), but the great difference between the Kirk and the Church is that the former lacks the Commissioners with their £9.3bn (probably now at least £9.5bn) in assets, many of which are quite liquid. The Commissioners have been morbidly piling up capital thanks in large measure to the relief that they obtained for future pension accruals and stipend costs (other than for dignitaries) after 1997 – these costs being funded, regressively, by the parishes via the parish share system. It is high time that capital was returned to the parishes from whence it came. It would also aid the Church greatly if it cease to labour under the burden of its built heritage, but as Paul Binski has asserted, there is no remedy to the problem of church buildings without the state; the Commissioners, however, have ample funds with which to work with the state for the purpose of assuring the future of the buildings and, with it, the ability of the Church to fulfil its mission ‘in every community’ in the future. The Kirk is not, therefore, an inspiration: it is instead an awful warning.

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