Limiting Factors? Or Limited Ecclesiology?

Philip Murray considers the context and reception of the “limiting factors” debacle, and asks what this reveals about the current state of Anglican ecclesiology and dialogue.

Only those who’ve made the wise decision to avoid Twitter and Facebook will have missed the latest argument about the Church of England that blew up over the weekend. It centres on Canon John McGinley’s comments, in relation to a plan to plant 10,000, predominantly lay-led, ‘churches’ in the C of E. To repeat the Church Times quotation:

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.

There’s already been a range of excellent responses to Canon McGinley’s comments, both on this blog and elsewhere (see, in particular, here, here and here). The purpose of my contribution is to dig down a little deeper into why there has been such a negative reaction, and to ask what needs to change, as we continue to discuss the future of the Church, to prevent such negativity in the future.

There have been several attempted defences of Canon McGinley’s speech. One such defence, itself retweeted by Canon McGinley, suggests that both (a) Canon McGinley’s tweet has been taken out of context; and (b) those reacting negatively to the original report are ‘insecure’ and defensive. Let’s explore these points.

Taking the context point first, what I think is being alleged is this: that all Canon McGinley meant to suggest is that there isn’t enough money to fund additional stipendiary posts, and that this lack of money is a ‘key limiting factor’ to planting churches as traditionally understood, i.e. led by clergy. The response for the Church of England, then, is either to do nothing, or to plant churches that aren’t clergy-led. Ignoring the fact that there seems to be plenty of money for all sorts of projects in the Church, and that therefore it’s not obvious that clergy are a finite resource (especially given the increase in numbers of those being selected for ordination), the issue is that, of all the things that could be cut to make church plants possible, it’s clergy (and, to a lesser extent, buildings) that are singled out by Canon McGinley as disposable. The thrust of his argument seems to suggest, further, that not having to rely on clergy will be a good thing, in that ‘then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form’ (my emphasis). The logic of the argument is that with clergy leading churches, lay Christians are held back from realising their own vocations to leadership, and new churches are prevented from being formed. Hence the description of clergy as a ‘key limiting factor’. Isn’t this exactly how Canon McGinley’s interlocutors have characterised his comments? What have they, we, I misunderstood?

The truth of the matter is that the very idea of lay-led church plants poses a direct challenge to how we as Anglicans understand the Church and ministry within it. The Ordinal sets out the Anglican understanding of priests as those who are ‘ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel’ (my emphasis); priests are the ones who ‘share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church’. Article 19 of the Thirty-nine Articles makes our ecclesiology clear: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered’. And, for Anglicans, preaching and due administration of the sacraments is the responsibility of the ordained. To say that clergy are a ‘key limiting factor’ to the Church’s mission comes close to sounding like you’re saying Anglican church polity per se is a key limiting factor to mission. Is it a surprise that those of us who believe in, value and have given our lives to serve in such a polity take objection to this?

Anna Matthews, the Vicar of St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, hit the nail on the head when she suggested that what’s underpinning this argument is a much deeper debate about ecclesiology. Canon McGinley has himself said that the place of priests and sacraments is the ‘million dollar question’ still to be resolved for the church planting project. Forgive me for thinking this issue, so crucial to how we think about who we are as Anglicans, is logically prior to the formulation, let alone the publication, of any new plan for church growth. Perhaps the counter-reaction has been so visceral precisely because this work hasn’t been done: because it comes across, in that work’s absence, as a direct challenge to how we understand ministry as Anglicans.

This leads to the second defence of Canon McGinley’s speech: that those of us who have reacted negatively are in some way insecure or unduly defensive. Ian Paul, drawing on comments made by the Archbishop of York, has correctly diagnosed the prevailing clerical zeitgeist as one mainly of initiative fatigue, compounded by the demands of leading parishes through a pandemic. To all this we can add, I think, that growing sense, particularly in relation to the Church of England communications team, of a gulf between clergy on the ground and the central administration of the Church nationally. Clergy are tired and, in many cases, frustrated by all this. Is it really a surprise, then, that they react negatively when the very place of their ministry to the future of the Church appears, in whatever way, intentional or not, to be challenged? This isn’t disproportionate insecurity or an overdeveloped inferiority complex. Even though we know that our ultimate value is rooted in fidelity to the one whose call is ever faithful, that doesn’t make it irrational or self-indulgent to expect those formulating Church strategy to recognise, value, indeed share, the same basic understanding of ministry as the clergy who are expected to enact it.

Happily, a number of bishops over the weekend took to Twitter to make exactly the point that clergy are valued, and will continue to have a necessary place in the Church of the future (see, e.g., here, here and here). Hopefully this can serve as a turning point in what has been a fractious, and generally painful, few days for many deacons and priests. But lest this be soon forgotten or dismissed as just another Twitter storm, a plea that two things come out of our recent argument.

First, we really do need to have that deeper discussion about ecclesiology. How do we, as Anglicans, think about the Church, and to what extent does this set limits as to how we grow the Church? We’ve talked about this so much in recent years that you’d think there’s nothing else to say. And yet here we are again, debating ecclesiology, priesthood, sacraments.

Secondly, we need to think about how we engage in dialogue, strategy and organisation better. Twitter is, of course, a dreadful forum for this, stoking division and eradicating nuance. But perhaps another lesson to take away from this most recent debacle is how disenfranchised so many clergy (not to mention laity) feel. The Church of England isn’t located in Church House or Lambeth Palace. Its locus is a dispersed one; it’s found in parishes up and down the land where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, centred around the diocese and its bishop. This is what explains our ‘from the ground up’ governance structures: from PCC to deanery synod, through to diocesan synod and then the General Synod. I wonder if so much of the recent angst, the rise in ‘rascally voices’, is fed by a sense of this being slowly and subtly reversed: of a top-down approach increasingly removed from those on the ground? Even if this is just a perception, it’s a real one, as the Archbishop of York himself has alluded to. It’s not healthy for the Church of England to go on without this being addressed.

The Rev’d Dr Philip Murray is Assistant Curate of Stockton-on-Tees, St Peter and Elton, St John, in the Diocese of Durham.

2 thoughts on “Limiting Factors? Or Limited Ecclesiology?

  1. I see this abysmal, if not vicious, ‘plan’ as a ramp or test of strength by the charismatic/conservative evangelical party over the rest of the Church. Will they go off in a huff if it is either rejected or diluted to a nullity? I would not be surprised if they at least threaten to do so. After all, they do like to make dire threats, frequently, until they contemplate the somewhat less comfortable existence (in terms of stipends, housing, pensions, etc.) which they might have to endure outside the Church.

    In 1661-64, the Church made strenuous attempts to eject from its ranks the ‘intruders’ of the Commonwealth & Protectorate (read Calamy Revised): the restored prelacy regarded the intruders as subversives, and as an enemy within. The extruded ministers took to the highways and byways and established a flourishing culture of dissent which greatly fructified the nation (there were times when dissenting academies, such as at Northampton, were as good or better at producing scholars and savants than Oxford and Cambridge). Then, in the early nineteenth century the Methodists effective extruded themselves (or were tacitly encouraged to to do) because their field and conventicle preaching was deemed subversive of the parish structure.

    However, the progressive collapse of various forms of dissent from the late nineteenth century, and the increasing precariousness of dissenting life (I mean in material terms: pay and rations), has led them to intrude again into the life of the Church. They have been given their chance because of the theological and doctrinal cul-de-sac into which the liberals have travelled (i.e., if the tenets of the faith are so fluid or matter so little, then why bother going to church at all?), and because the somewhat exotic nature of some Anglo-Catholicism makes many people feel somewhat uncomfortable. Above all, the succession of consequential misjudgements in the management of the Church, and the effective privatisation of all forms of religious thought and witness in an age of cultural, social and demographic pluralism, has caused existing structures to crater, and it is into this void that the erstwhile dissenters have pressed, and have attempted to dictate terms to the rest of the Church.

    Of course, as any fule kno, or might have predicted from the 1990s, these ‘internal dissenters’ have failed abjectly in their objective of turning around the collapse in attendance, despite being in effective power for most of the last generation. Naturally, like all good salesmen, they will say that they were inhibited by the existing structures, by those recidivists who were not ‘getting with the programme’, because they didn’t have sufficient control, because they didn’t have enough money, or that it is still early days. Above all, they will suggest that it was because the Church was too hidebound to go far enough. I. Do. Not. Believe. Them. And I suggest that those in authority stop believing them too: but I fear this will not happen, as too many in authority have been captured by their sales talk.

    I think that it is high time their bluff was called. Let us hope that this represents the high water mark of their influence (though I fear that it will not).

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  2. Surely a leader of a congregation is its elder/presbyter, hence its priest. Maybe we define priests by the wrong parameters, eg education!

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