The Future Church of England: What about conservative evangelicals?

A while back I was sitting with a bishop - a nice guy - discussing the future of conservative evangelicals in the Church of England.  The conclusion was basically that as things are there isn't much future for people like me (always encouraging when, God willing, you have another 30-ish years of ministry ahead of you!).

The reality is that moves to help us flourish in the church don't seem very tangible, whereas legislation on women bishops and discussion on homosexual relationships seem more tangible and not very hopeful for my constituency.

Such a view isn't very hopeful, but it also isn't the whole picture.  From what I can see, there has been a gradual, but tangible resurgence in conservative evangelical ministry in the Church of England over the last few decades.  There are many very strong conservative evangelical churches and an increasing number of churches with ministers with conservative evangelical convictions.

Alongside this, there has been something of a re-invigoration in organisations like Reform, Church Society and Crosslinks perhaps with the increase of younger conservative evangelical ministers joining.  With this you have AMiE and Gafcon and conferences like ReNew.

All of this doesn't look like the end for conservative evangelicalism in the Church of England.  What are we to make of this mismatch?

Actually I think it is very hard to see how things will work out.  One scenario is to assume that the Church of England will push conservatives out one way or another and continue as normal.  In this scenario the larger conservative churches probably continue and set up a network with church plants maybe under an AMiE-like banner.  The big loss here is that small churches will struggle to do this, even if they are conservative and of course if they are not, conservative evangelical clergy will be left in difficult positions - probably having to resign, possibly having to leave ministry.

A second scenario is that the Church of England does provide a way for conservative evangelicals to flourish.  Here, a conservative evangelical bishop or two are appointed and within the system we find ways of of working.  This feels a bit unlikely at the moment, but is possible and may provide the ground for a more thorough reforming of the denomination in the long term.  In this case conservative evangelical clergy and churches could look to grow, plant, and reform.

I think something more complicated is going on though.  Behind the debates on women and homosexuality, there is the rather significant problem of resources.  It seems to me that many dioceses may be approaching a tipping point with respect to churches which are not financially viable (some dioceses have historic assets which may maintain the status quo for longer).  Alongside that, the number of ordinations to stipendiary clergy versus the number of retirements is a fairly disturbing statistic.  It could look something like this.  In the next 5-10 we may see large numbers of church closures.  We will see churches increasingly brought into large benefices with few, if any, full time clergy.  This in turn is likely to accelerate the decline leading to more closures etc.  If that were to happen, I would presume that establishment (already under threat) would fall away pretty quickly - at one level would the church still be able to provide the funeral, wedding, baptism services that it is required to?

Now if that did happen, how would the two scenarios play out?  I'm not sure.  So some would try a narrative that runs like this.  Work for scenario 2 and the financially strong conservative evangelical churches will be able to pick up the pieces.  Alternatively, go for scenario 1 and you will have the structure to motor on when the collapse comes.  Of course there can be all kinds of intermediate positions.

One key question, which I think we need to address, is how conservative evangelical ministry in smaller/poorer churches and in non-conservative churches can flourish.  I have no obvious answers to this question.  Clearly such places are currently dependent on the dioceses financially.  In some cases these places would be unwilling to move out of that situation into a more conservative context, even if such a context were financially available.

A few of suggestions come to mind.

  1. For ministers in those situations, the best way forward is a growing, giving and theologically astute church.  To achieve that we often need resources we don't have: specifically money and people.  I.e. we need courageous people to be willing to move and join us in the work, who will support us in conservative evangelical ministry and we need larger churches to encourage, release, push etc. people to do that.  We need finances to do everything from dealing with the collapsing building to (more importantly perhaps) employing assistant ministers and admin people and evangelists and apprentices to really help us get good gospel ministry going.
  2. We need money now (see above) and money being put aside for the future (however near or far).  In many cases the reason these churches are surviving is because they are propped up by the diocesan system.  If we think they're worthwhile mission posts, then we will need money in place to prop them up when collapse or ejection happens.
  3. We need some working groups/wisdom/mentors or something to help in these situations.  Often it is young ministers like myself who are in this situation, who might know what we want to do, but have little idea how to get hold of the stuff to do it.
What do you think?

Comments

  1. I'm in the Reformed Episcopal Church in the U.S., but from what I saw when I lived in England 2000-2001, your analysis seems about right. I think, ultimately, things will look very different, but this will take a while to assume an identifiably different form.

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  2. Thanks Charles. Interesting to see you felt similarly over 10 years ago.

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