I’ve had the same mad conversation no less than five times in the last month, which is enough to suggest that others may not think the idea is so barmy, and that maybe I should take it more seriously than I do.
To backtrack a little, we’re talking about the slow disintegration of the Church of England. This is not an attractive prospect for me, and not only because I have a career and a pension riding on it. I happen to believe in a lot of what the CofE represents, which probably comes as no surprise to even a casual reader, but I am nevertheless increasingly pessimistic about its prospects for surviving in the way we have known it.
Where it affects us is whether we think there should continue to be a local church in every community in the land. In this part of the world we live in a deanery of sixteen parishes. Within living memory, each parish had its own clergyman, and Stansted also had usually two curates, so eighteen full-time clerics for sixteen parishes. These days, for the same sixteen parishes there are five full-time clergy. In fifteen years there will be three full-time clergy for the same number of parishes with increasing populations.
Back in the days when clergy were a less endangered species, it was possible for their church councils to say that, if they took care of the roof, the fête and the flower festival, the vicar could go and visit, do The God Bit and bring people to church. Those individuals who didn’t like franchising their faith to the clergy became Methodists or Quakers but, for the rest, this undemanding arrangement worked reasonably well. Reasonably well, that is, until clergy become thin on the ground, which creates a vacuum.
This empty space, to be fair, has come upon rural churches at a quicker pace than they are used to working; in fact it has come more quickly than any of us would like. Even for the most devout of us, it is one thing to recognise the gap, it is quite something else to fly in the face of old instincts and prejudices and presume to offer oneself to meet the need. In small communities this is an even larger step because, as we all know, there is nothing like a village for remembering the human frailties of its inhabitants ‘til well after they have taken up residence in the churchyard.
So, we must keep the church going, but we don’t quite know how. So we reach for widely held beliefs which are ready to hand: ‘The church is the centre of the community’ is one of these. This belief is held by sane people who hold down serious and responsible jobs. It is a view which only makes sense if the community is all Christian, and the kind of Christian which expresses its faith through formal organisations like a parish church.
The mad idea with which I started is also widely held in all three parishes, and even beyond, as I had the conversation in another diocese last week. It says that, if the parish church can put on social events in church to attract local people, somehow this will encourage them to become active members of the church, and so will stay the process of decline, now that we do not have local clergy to go and round up the lapsed.
Now I have no objection to social events and look forward to more of them in my parishes, but their provision does not address the core malaise of the church. The root problem is that most people, given free choice, do not publicly practice Christian faith. This is not just the much lamented young, it has been true for a long time. People born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s mostly are not regular church attenders for most of their lives. I know this as I bury a good number of them in the course of a year. Their offspring struggle with the language of a Christian burial ritual because it speaks using images and metaphors whose meaning just escapes them. Fewer people in church means that there are fewer individuals who feel a call to holy orders. With fewer in holy orders, there is a sense of communities being beached by the church, and so giving goes down, which in turn means fewer clergy taking on more parishes, which then see less of them, they become disaffected and the spiral goes on. If I were to stay here until retirement, I can quite see my parish growing to include half of the deanery.
There is hope for rural parishes, but the route is not an easy one, and the days of an undemanding faith are over. We need somehow to grasp the idea that people do not become practicing Christians by accident. There may even be some who choose a church because they like the cleric who serves there, but that’s not a true faith as it will evaporate when that cleric moves on and, surprise, surprise, the cleric is not God.
A local church is attractive only if it is engaged in its core business, and this is about ordinary fallible people stumbling around, along with their no less fallible cleric, trying to listen for the echoes of God’s footsteps in their own lives, and then sharing what they find with others. This is how a church is grown, and it doesn’t need a local cleric constantly to hand for that to begin.