A Future Church of England: Is the end nigh?

Is the end of the Church of England nigh? Now there's a question!  It would be a brave person who predicted and especially gave a time-frame to the demise of the Church of England.  The denomination has been in the doldrums lots of times and has recovered.  It has made disastrous decisions, excluded faithful ministers, burnt archbishops and still survived!

Despite all that, I think the question of the survival of the church is on the lips of many at the moment.  Let me suggest three reasons.

  1. The decline looks terminal.  Obviously God can do as he pleases, but the Church of England, despite some massaging of the figures is on the decline in a number of ways.  The number of attenders is down as the population has risen, those ordained for full-time ministry are decreasing, the age profile of the minister means a huge number are about to retire (see some useful pictures and an analysis of the clergy figures).  Linked to this are some issues about the establishment of the church - both in terms of being representative and also at the practical level of clergy being able to keep churches open, do weddings, baptisms and funerals across multiple parishes and so forth.  This has made every bishop (pretty much) very pro-mission (diocese and churches need numbers and money!).  However, the problem is that they and often many clergy and parishes haven't got much idea how to do it or much idea of what if any message they have to share.
  2. The Church of England is dividing over women bishops.  It looks unlikely that any much compromise will be reached.  As a conservative evangelical, this suggests to me that my current post will be my last in the Church of England as is and that the supply of conservative evangelical curates and then vicars will dry up.  For example, I have spoken to a bishop who felt that there was no place for conservatives in the Church of England any more.  I have spoken to an Archdeacon (of a relatively conservative diocese) who said it was impossible to place conservative evangelical curates into first incumbency (which was demonstrated by three leaving the diocese).  Many conservative catholics will I suspect feel the same as conservative evangelicals).  When I started on this process 10 years ago, that simply wasn't the case.  Now the standard line on this is that conservatives are a very small minority, which I suppose implies that as we die out it won't make much difference to the Church of England.  I wonder if that is true for a couple of reasons.  First, if the conservatives evangelicals are right, which I believe we are (obviously!), then to lose us from the Church of England is an extremely bad thing.  Secondly, I wonder about the numbers thing.  When I think of the Dioceses I have worked in, some of the biggest churches in the Diocese have been conservative evangelical.  Think of London, where you have All Souls, Langham Place and St Helen's, Bishopsgate.  Now  I have no idea what will happen with those churches, but if they are effectively removed the consequences would be pretty significant I would have thought.
  3. The Church of England seems to approaching a divide over issues related to homosexuality following the Pilling report.  From the opening shots of this debate, it looks like being extremely fierce and those against blessing same-sex marriages (an example from the report) are likely to be a larger coalition than those opposing women bishops.  If division happens it will likely be a larger division.  In the midst of the debate we will once again be distracted from mission.
If you put reason 1 next to reasons 2 and 3 it seems likely the decline will only increase over the next few years, especially as the more conservative churches in reasons 2 and 3 are often evangelistically active and are growing.

Now many in the Church of England will be more than happy to see conservatives like me removed from the Church of England.  Fair enough.  Many would like a church that had no distinctions between men and women and didn't continue to address homosexual sex as sin.  Fair enough.  At a theological level I question whether that is a church any more and so the end would definitely be nigh.  But even at a statistical level, I question how long the Church of England will be viable any more.  Perhaps even as an institution, the end is probably nigh.

I wonder if the reality is that the decline of the denomination will speed up as it argues and divides.  As this happens, the church structures will become unsustainable until the parish system, building maintenance and the responsibilities of being established collapse in on themselves.  If I understand the figures rightly, it looks a like that would just be to extend the current trajectories.

Now I'm not about to go and get my sandwich board painted up and start pronouncing the end is nigh at General Synod.  As I said, the church has been in a bad state before and God is sovereign.  But I am going to get praying more for the Church of England, for the future of faithful evangelicalism and faithful evangelicals if we are forced out or if everything collapses.


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