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The Church of England is not dying -- it is regenerating

The Church of England is not dying -- it is regenerating

By Gillan Scott
October 16, 2015

It's been well publicised this week that there are one or two Church of England congregations that aren't exactly bursting at the seams. If you go to a Church of England church and find that you can count more of your own fingers and toes than people attending all of its services on a Sunday, don't be surprised; you're in good company. This is the case in a quarter of all C of E churches and for rural churches it's half. With 16,000 buildings and not a lot of people filling many of them, the Church of England is in a bit of a pickle.

What do you do when a church congregation is in single figures but their Grade I listed village church is costing over £11,000 a year just to keep it useable? If it was any sensible business running the show, it would be time for lights out and instructions to the attendees to go and find somewhere else. But of course the Church of England is not a sensible business so those sorts of rules don't apply.
As we know church attendance has been declining for over a century, but there's only really been one plan for the C of E during much of this time and that's to carry on regardless. This is not even a survival strategy; it's a hopeless attitude of sitting on a long slide into oblivion and pretending you'll never get there.

Well believe it or not large parts of the Church of England are just about there and as you might expect, it's not a great place to be. The parish system has been on its last legs for years. Individual clergy have been taking responsibility for more and more churches meaning their limited time and resources are spread increasingly thinly. Multi-parish benefices are finding it more and more difficult to make appointments as most clergy have understandably limited interest in running around madly looking after a bunch of churches with hardly anyone going to them.

Take my diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. It has 134 clergy, 478 church buildings and being a very rural area of has a population of 1,379 per church. Despite rural Church of England attendance being much better than the national average, these figures are increasingly failing to add up. Apart from the C of E's past inability to take much notice of its mounting problems, additional factors have compounded the situation. Over the last few centuries we've had rural populations decline significantly in proportion to urban dwellers and with the advent of car ownership, those who do make the effort to go to church are not automatically going to attend their local church. If you have young children, but the least elderly member of your village church's congregation is in their 50s, is that going to be your first choice, or will it be a church in the town 10 miles down the road that has a thriving children's ministry? Even St Paul would have had trouble building up a village congregation given these circumstances.

With 57 per cent of C of E buildings in rural areas, the solution, according to Giles Fraser at least, is simply to blow them up. I have to agree with him that large parts of the Church of England are mired in nostalgia and obsessed with its buildings. This week's Church Buildings report, which is the first to be produced in years by the C of E, says a great deal about how all of these church buildings bear witness to the Christian faith and the history and memories that are contained within them. The truth though, is that many are saying that Christianity is firmly rooted in the past and that we were once a Christian nation. Buildings speak of what has been, but the people who frequent them are the ones who reveal the present and the future (or the lack of it).

Blowing up a few thousand churches is rather extreme and won't go down well with local councils' planning departments, but the choice is stark. Either these buildings will have to see their use adapted considerably for the benefit of local people or they need to become 'festival churches' -- only open for festivals and special events -- or effectively closed for good.

The mistake that is made regularly when we see this state of affairs is to think that the Christian faith is dying. There's far too much evidence to the contrary for that to be true, but it demonstrates what happens when society moves on and the Church gets left behind. It also is a reminder that if churches spend more of their time concerning themselves with the upkeep of their buildings rather than in mission to their local communities then their buildings are in danger of becoming expensive museum pieces. On this topic, the respected Christian missiologist, Alan Hirsch wrote this yesterday:

"In the midst of the rapid change and hyper-growth of almost everything around us, we as the Church have lost our voice to impact the culture. Now more than ever, what is "new and improved" becomes "old and worn out" in just a fraction of the time. This dramatically impacts the mission of the church. As leaders responsible for our generation, we simply cannot expect significantly different outcomes using outmoded understandings of church and culture. If churches are not prepared for what is here today, how will they respond to what lies ahead?

The good news is that we can become the church as it was always meant to be----a rapidly spreading, high impact, movement. We need not settle merely for striving in this rapidly changing world; Jesus' people can actually thrive in it, and God willing, even redirect it. But if we are to do so, we will have to change. Jesus has given us everything we need to get the job done. Our greatest opportunity is to recover the forgotten ways of church-as-missional-movement."

The good news is also that all types of churches up and down the country are creatively adapting their ministries and the use of their buildings in order to share the unchanging message of the gospel. We are rediscovering what was taken for granted in mediaeval times; that church buildings can be a resource and a blessing to a local community whilst still being a place of reverent prayer and worship.

We may be seeing church buildings close for many years to come, but at the same time we are also seeing new ones being born like the multi-million pound C3 Church in Cambridge which opened this month, or the renovation of a derelict gasworks in Birmingham, which as the Times reported at great length on Saturday, 'is about to become a beacon to attract young people into an encounter with Jesus.'

The Diocese of Birmingham is investing £1 million and has recruited the well-known songwriter and worship leader, (the now Rev) Tim Hughes to head up a new church in the city's clubbing heartland. Even though the building work is still underway and the first service only took place on Sunday, Hughes is already talking about putting on events and courses, training leaders and planting groups from its community into struggling churches to revivify them. These are anything but the words of a church in retreat.

The Church of England is not in terminal decline despite its past and current failures. The dead wood is being pruned and the new shoots that are growing up in its place will bear plenty of fruit if they are watered well and allowed to flourish. As we have seen time and again, God refuses to let his church slip away. The Church of England is not dying -- it is regenerating.

FOOTNOTE TO THIS STORY. A well verse Anglican clergyman in touch with what is going on in the UK sent this as a caveat.

A) This article could have been written any time during the last 30-40 years. Lots of obvious truisms.
B) It does not mention a key factor: many stagnating or shrinking churches especially in rural areas have congregations of good increasingly elderly folk who are not converted. In some cases vicars have tried to preach the Gospel but the penny has not dropped.
C) The focus is too often on providing clergy to serve congregations rather than equipping congregations to serve and evangelise communities. Of course you can't do that if no one in the pews is converted. But if some are there if they need to switch from being customers to staff. For this to happen clergy need to be educators not just pastors.


Conservative evangelicals celebrate election of 'living out' leaders to CofE synod

By Ruth Gledhill
www.ChristianToday .com
October 19, 2015

Conservative evangelicals are celebrating the election of the three leaders of the "living out" community to the General Synod of the Church of England.

Dr. Sean Doherty, who lectures in Christian ethics at the evangelical St Mellitus College in London, topped the clergy poll in the London diocese. Also elected were Rev Sam Allbery, associate minister of St Mary's Church, Maidenhead, and the author of Is God Anti-Gay? and Ed Shaw, associate pastor at Emmanuel Bristol.

All three admit to same-sex attraction but live out a lifestyle in which they consciously "help Christian brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction stay faithful to biblical teaching on sexual ethics and flourish at the same time."

Through the Living Out organization they also aim to help the Christian Church understand how they can better help those who experience same-sex attraction to flourish, and to help the wider world "hear and understand that there is more than just one viable script for those who are same-sex attracted".

In his election address, Dr. Doherty, married with four children, said: "I used to identify myself as gay and am still predominantly same-sex attracted. I am fully committed to the Church's teaching on human sexuality, which I believe is faithful to Scripture and to the mind of the historic and global church. I have found this teaching to be life-giving and fulfilling in my own life, and I have found the church to be a place of unconditional acceptance and support."

He said his journey and experience made him well-placed to help the church be more welcoming and loving to LGBT people. "The Bishop of London has asked that 'those who offer themselves for membership of General Synod ... will do so with a commitment to take part' in the Shared Conversations on sexuality. I believe that it is vital for voices like mine to be represented in those conversations and on Synod if we are to recover our confidence in this teaching as positive and life-giving. I will advocate for our Church to welcome all, but without watering down biblical teaching, and I would oppose the authorisation of blessings and/or church weddings for same-sex couples."

Their election is significant and comes as at least four openly gay clergymen were also elected to the synod, including one who is married, two who are in civil partnerships and a fourth who is planning to seal his relationship with a civil ceremony.

Other significant victors include Jayne Ozanne to the laity. Ozanne, a former conservative evangelical, continues to regard herself as evangelical after she "came out" as gay in an interview with Christian Today earlier this year.

The results reflect a strengthening of both the evangelical as well as the gay activist lobby at Synod, at the expense of the more ambiguous middle or liberal wing.

In addition, the Catholic group strengthened its presence. Forward in Faith said the Catholic wing will be re-invigorated as a result. "Half of the members of the new, larger, Catholic Group have never been members of the General Synod before. We are particularly pleased to have increased our representation in each of the three houses."

Now that women bishops are "done" and some already consecrated, the conservative evangelicals, who were divided on that issue, are likely to find a new unity on the gay issue. The LGBT side is also expected to witness to intense lobbying for a change in practice. At present actively gay clergy technically cannot be ordained or marry and Church of England churches are forbidden in law from hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies.

A source told Christian Today that the first test of the new synod's position is likely to be a move to soften the so-called Higton motion, passed by an overwhelming majority in 1987, and which was the synod's last official statement on the issue. A subsequent 1991 paper, Issues in Human Sexuality, which appeared to set different standards for gay clergy and gay laity, was from the House of Bishops only and was never formally backed by the synod.

The Higton motion affirmed "the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships", said fornication and adultery were sins against the ideal and that "homopsexual genital acts" also fell short of the ideal, following on with a call to repentance.

It is widely felt that the tone and language of the Higton motion is unhelpful in today's context.

At the same time, the strength and large numbers of those elected on the conservative side, who will oppose any change to the hard-won status quo, indicates that the significant movement is likely to be in the tone of the debate on the issue. Led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby himself, there is expected to be a shift towards a more conciliatory tone in both statements and debate.

Although much will depend on the results of the "shared conversations" which are still continuing, the elections of the Living Out candidates support early indications that there is unlikely during the five years of this synod to be any significant change in practice or doctrine.

The Rev. Peter Ould, orthodox Church of England priest, commentator and blogger, told Christian Today: "It's an incredibly significant moment for the Church of England that all three founder members of Living Out have been elected onto General Synod, with Sean Doherty even topping the poll in London Diocese. For far too long the narrative of Christian LGB experience has been portrayed as being oppressed by the Church's teaching - now the Church has to grapple at its highest level with the witness of those who flourish whilst living faithfully within the traditional Christian sexual ethic."


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