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.