At a recent meeting of clergy we were asked to think about how we might restructure our group of churches (the Anglican Church calls them a deanery) if we were starting from scratch. That’s a great question, the difficulty is that we aren’t starting from scratch. We have history in our buildings and our church structures that goes back for hundreds of years. We also have traditions in our church communities today that go back 50 or more years. So we can’t start from scratch. But we can’t continue as we have been.
I find this image challenging every time I see it.
It is the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras and was built so that it could withstand the worst of hurricanes. When Hurricane Mitch came in 1998 the bridge survived but the roads disappeared and the river moved. In many ways that is a deeply challenging picture of the state of much of the church in the UK. The storms of cultural change over the past 50 years or more have moved the river of culture and society but the church remains largely where it was. That has to change and maybe with the financial impact of the Coronavirus now is the time for radical, and painful, change to happen.
It is now inevitable that we will have to significantly reduce the number of paid clergy posts in churches. I’ve heard estimates from 15% upwards and in some dioceses I suspect it will be significantly more. What we must avoid al all costs is the solution that the Church of England has run with for the past decades and that is to spread the jam ever more thinly. I am incredibly fortunate in that I am the vicar of a single parish. Many of my colleagues have 5, 10 or even more parishes that they are responsible for leading. The result is that they cannot truly give the time energy and vision to any of the churches to lead to growth. The side effect is stress and burnout of clergy up and down this nation. And the Coronavirus has only exacerbated the situation.
What will change look like?
That’s a tough question but it if is to be effective it must involve pretty significant change for every church, not just a few.
We have a historic structure with historic legal frameworks. Every church has their own organising committee of trustees (which we call the Parochial Church Council or PCC). Each has their own church wardens, treasurer, secretary, Safeguarding officer, gift aid person etc. etc. One of the necessary changes will be to reduce this administrative and legal framework significantly. It must also free the clergy of some of the responsibilities that have today.
But let me be honest here, many of us are control freaks! We insist on having oversight and control in most, if not all areas of church life. That must change, and that won’t be easy! Why should the vicar be the editor of the church magazine, dare we ask whether we now need a church magazine at all in these days of social media? Many of the things that clergy cherish as their responsibility will have to be passed on to others, and if no one is there to take them up – then they have to stop altogether!
Many of the regular members of our congregations have been with us for years, if not decades. The clergy have fed, watered and counselled them. In doing so we have created dependance. That also has to change. Most have been with us long enough to feed themselves and not rely on the food from the vicar in her/his weekly sermon. Indeed I would ask if the sermon as we know it is in any way an appropriate way of teaching today, when was the last time you saw a lesson school led like a lecture?
As clergy we have a problem of age. I was looking round the clergy in our deanery during a recent Zoom meeting and the higher proportion were getting on a bit! And I include myself in that description. I have led one church community for 17 years. In that time I believe we have had a significant impact on our local community. We are known, respected and and welcomed by many locally. At Christmas we have over 1500 people (except this year!) through our church building, and yet our main Sunday congregation has on average 50 adults. When I look round those Christmas services I know the majority of the people.
But I am now out of touch and of an entirely different generation from the people we are seeking to reach. What our church needs is me in the middle of my 40s not me as I now am over 60! I was also trained at a time when pioneer ministry had hardly been heard of let alone taught. Sadly, as I look back, I was being trained in a style of ministry that was already leading to the death of the church!
The church today desperately needs fresh vision, energy, enthusiasm and a style of leadership that relates to the missing generations from our churches. The Gospel will never change, but the way it is expressed and communicated has to change with successive generations. We live at a time when the pace of change in out society has been faster than ever before. Sadly to me, as hard as I have tried, I have found it incredibly difficult to understand that change and express the Gospel in a way that is accessible for younger generations.
Maybe now may well be the time for some of us lovingly and graciously to had on the baton of church leadership. That will be hard for many church communities, but every harder for the clergy and their families.