Saturday, 22 August 2015


Ian Paul looks at the articles by John Hayward that I linked to a fortnight ago: When will the C of E be extinct? and The Extinction of the C of E: Two Issues.

Vic Van Den Bergh No Communion for you! - the woes of trying to go to church on holiday and failing!

Giles Fraser The Guardian At a Christian funeral all are equal before God – even Cilla Black

Sarah Puryear has been talking to the Revd Anders Litzell (prior of the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace) for The Living Church Lambeth’s Benedict Option

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 22 August 2015 at 11:00am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

So much for the article by 'Vic the vicar'.

No wonder the Church of England is in decline. God help us all!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 23 August 2015 at 1:42am BST

Ian Paul : "Without the anchor of theological security, we won’t be free to engage in the journey to meet our culture—and some would argue, we wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to offer when we got there."

Sadly, it would seem that the sort of 'theological security' that Ian Paul applauds, as being the reason the Church of England seems to be doing better that other provinces of the communion at stemming the tide, might just be based on the 'sola Scriptura' understanding of theological discourse - without the faculty of 'Reason' being applied to the pursuit of hermeneutical interpretation of 'moral issues'.

Sadly, too, it may just be this insistence on conservative theological absolutism that will eventually lead to the downfall of the Church of England, as it proceeds to ignore the realities of life as it is lived in the 21st century.

'Semper Reformanda' - the catch-cry of Good Pope John XXIII - has already lost momentum in the R. C. Church since Vatican II. Similarly, the Reformed Church of England seems to be dragging its collective feet on the Gospel emancipation of Women and Gays. Looking to our heroic past is not good enough. We need to be on tip-toe, looking for ways of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to ALL people, not just the elect few.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 23 August 2015 at 2:04am BST

With policies openly based on the preferences of African Christians it seems hardly surprising that the church is in decline in England and Wales.

People seem to find organised religion most compelling when it's messages are clear and not obviously self-inconsistent. CoE policies are a mass of compromises designed to hold the body of the church together in the short term rather than articulating a clear doctrinal basis for long-term growth.

To be fair, it can be hard reconciling the Old Testament, the Gospel message and Pauline Christianity. I suspect many here rely mostly on the Gospels but Africa and the traditionalists place weight on the Pauline Epistles.

Posted by: Kate on Sunday, 23 August 2015 at 4:46pm BST

I, for one, place tremendous weight on the Pauline Epistles:

'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.'

'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.'

'Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.'

'For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.'

'For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.'

Posted by: Liam on Sunday, 23 August 2015 at 10:54pm BST

Father Ron, I don't share Ian Paul's theology, but as a person who takes a nuanced approach to the Bible, and who passionately supports equal ordination and social justice, he sits on the open, not the conservative, end of evangelicalism.

I'd draw the boundaries of church membership wider than he would, but as his constituency runs the church, they can OK who's in, and who's out. If the boundaries are to be widened, as the holders of power, him, and those like him,
must be persuaded. As an open evangelical, he's open to reason, so this is certainly possible, but it'll be a long, delicate process, in which he calls the shots.

Evangelicals run the church 'cause their brand of Christianity's most popular, which suggests they're not at all divorced from the 21st century, but rather, that the 21st century isn't what we'd like it to be.

Posted by: James Byron on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 6:28am BST

As far as the Pauline epistles are concerned, I think it's pretty clear that one of the main things Kate is talking about is their use in support of homophobic discrimination. In this regard, it's important to remember, and to say loudly, that twenty-first century translations of the Bible have infused the epistles with a homophobia that wasn't there in the KJV epistles. Perhaps what we need to stamp out homophobia in the Church is some _real_ traditionalism, starting with a campaign against the use of unauthorized versions of the Bible in CofE services.

As far as popularity is concerned, one cannot judge it by looking at who holds the majority in the House of Laity, since fewer than 1% of baptized members of the CofE are on church electoral rolls. If a situation like that arose at a local council, Westminster would be very quick to take it into "special measures" and rightly so.

Posted by: Feria on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 9:46am BST

Ian Paul's constituency may control the Church in a political sense but it doesn't represent the majority of us who still identify as Church of England. The divorce is between their 'faith' and that of the population the institution is meant to serve. I've given up on regular church participation because the 'worship' and other local events on offer do not connect with my interests and priorities. Church attendance nationally suggests I'm not alone.

Evangelical, catholic and traditional middle of the road leaders are (in general) equally disconnected. Arguing with opinion formers like Ian Paul, while it's probably worthwhile in order to have a voice, is unlikely to change anything. I suspect the rest of us will have to build something new if we want a more broadly useful Church for England.

Posted by: David Marshall on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 10:36am BST

James, you and I seem to share similar takes on a lot of things.

However I'd question your comment: "Evangelicals run the church 'cause their brand of Christianity's most popular, which suggests they're not at all divorced from the 21st century, but rather, that the 21st century isn't what we'd like it to be."

It may be true that conservative religion attracts more people than a more open or liberal religion. People look for certainties, simplicities, and absolution from taking decisions based on their own consciences, preferring to have 'sola scriptura' imposed on them and taking responsibility for their moral choices for them.


I am not convinced that that means that conservative Christians are 'more in touch with the 21st Century. Although the minority who go to church may be more likely to be conservative in attitude (debatably), the far greater majority of people who are walking away from church do so precisely because here in the 21st Century the literalist or inerrant view of the bible, and popular brands of conservative Christianity are at odds with 21st century secular conscience, science, and psychology. To the 21st Century young person (or older person) the conservative interpretations of scripture seem 'unreal' and out of touch and irrelevant to them.

In some senses the churches are declining *because* of 'popular' evangelical views on scripture.

You are right to observe that attraction to fundamentalism or a range of simplicities and imposed moralities is a trait of early 21st Century people around the world, not just in Christianity.

But fundamentalism and inerrancy and absolution from having to exercise one's own conscience in submission to the scriptures is what people run to. It reduces Christianity to a kind of cul-de-sac, somewhat along the path towards sect and cult, enclosed in its own system, but more and more out of touch with the rest of the world.

If people retreat to biblical literalism or even inerrancy, then Christianity is losing the battle to be relevant to the 21st Century and the exercise of conscience and love in the face of the actual world.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 10:40am BST

James Byron. Thank you for this thoughtful and eirenic take on responding to open evangelicals. I agree with you in encouraging engagement. But they would be surprised by the notion that they are running the church at the moment or 'calling the shots'. I can assure you it feels very different to them. But perhaps that is one reason the process of meeting and engaging feels, as you call it, 'delicate'?

Posted by: David Runcorn on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 12:08pm BST

I'm rather surprised by Susannah Clark's description of evangelicalism as 'fundamentalism and inerrancy and absolution from having to exercise one's own conscience in submission to the scriptures'.

I've been an evangelical for my entire Christian life. I am not a fundamentalist, I don't believe in inerrancy, and as for 'having to exercise one's own conscience in submission to the scriptures', I believe we had a Reformation over that issue, except that we called it 'the right of private judgement', which has been a key plank in the evangelical platform ever since.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 4:46pm BST

Susannah Evangelicalism has always been a broad and pluralist tradition. James Byron made clear he understood this in referring to the 'open' end of the evangelical spectrum. You, by contrast, appear to think the name Evangelical describes only the narrowest, mindless kind of sectarian fundamentalism and bad faith. Well it doesn't describe Tim's faith. It doesn't describe me either. Like every tradition and flavour within the church Evangelicalism is facing huge challenges of faith and mission today - but causing the decline of the church counts as one of the more startling accusations I have read recently - and I read quite a lot.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 6:42pm BST

Thanks for such thoughtful responses! :-)

I agree, David Marshall, that all branches of the church are disconnected from society. It's just that evangelicals, in tapping pop-culture, are slightly less disconnected. I also agree about the disconnect between leadership and many who identify as Anglican. It's the evangelical skill to have stopped this disconnect from turning into resistance.

Susannah, I agree that most people in 21st century societies (at least in the West) reject evangelicalism, if only 'cause church membership in general doesn't appeal. I also think you're right to say that evangelicalism as found its niche. Striking for me is that, while most people reject evangelicalism, they don't actively oppose harmful policies in the church. It's that passivity that makes me think the 21st century isn't what we'd like it to be.

I'm fascinated, David Runcorn, that evangelicals don't believe they're calling the shots. I've often heard this, but am no closer to understanding it. In what way is the Church of England (or, outside Scotland, Canada and America, Anglicanism in general) antithetical to the values held by evangelicals, at least the open kind?

Posted by: James Byron on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 7:54pm BST

I have the same problem with Ian Paul’s analysis (and that of John Hayward on which it is based) as I do with the discussion on another thread about cathedrals. Cathedral congregations are growing, so let’s create a whole lot more cathedrals. Evangelical congregations are growing, so let’s all become evangelicals. Both these ideas are nonsense.

Yes, a lot of evangelical churches are very big, just as a number of other churches catering to a particular constituency (such as cathedrals) are also big. But not all evangelical churches are growing, and some are declining dramatically, often because of the drawing power of the latest “successful” parish down the road.

I have come to the view that a sizeable minority of the population in countries like Britain, North America, Australia, and New Zealand are attracted by what Susanna calls “fundamentalism or a range of simplicities and imposed moralities”. I would estimate that minority to be between a quarter and a third of the population. Within that specific clientele the evangelical approach is likely to be very successful. That’s fair enough, but that success is accompanied by two serious costs. First the successful churches of that brand (the one Ian Paul mentions in San Diego is a likely example) will have drawn people from other nearby churches, both those with a broad inclusive approach, and other, smaller evangelical places. Second, the approach of this brand of Christianity tends to alienate the remaining 2/3 to ¾ of the population.

Extrapolating from statistics is always dangerous. I just do not believe that the Episcopal Church, in either the USA or Scotland, will cease to exist in 30 years time. I will be 95 then, and I hope I am still sufficiently compos mentis to contact any of our readers to say, “I told you so”.

Posted by: Edward Prebble on Monday, 24 August 2015 at 11:31pm BST

Edward, I suspect you're right about the certainties of evangelicalism appealing to a sizable minority of the population. But its style, not its substance, appeals to plenty more: the popular evangelical churches aren't exclusive brethren huddled in drafty halls, but churches with slick services combined with social support.

There's no reason, none at all, that other Christian traditions couldn't present their distinctive theologies in a modern flavor, keeping the moderate, liberal, or Anglo-Catholic substance, but incorporating contemporary music, audio-visual, and pop-culture references (the Catholic Church often does just that).

In many cases, evangelicalism may well be succeeding despite, not because of, its theology. If all traditions embraced a modern idiom, then, and only then, would we know which content is most popular in the 21st century.

Posted by: James Byron on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 12:27am BST

To think of Saint Paul's teaching as wholly moralistic, it to forget that he himself admitted to a 'thorn in the flesh', that could well be attributed to a homosexual gene disposition.

I think Paul's tendency to moralise is based on his own deep understanding of our acute moral ambivalence; as would-be followers of Christ - the need to 'do our best' and yet remain fully aware of our own human frailty. Paul's signal recognition of this ambivalence is gleaned from his epic statement; when he admits that his righteousness is 'as filthy rags'. Also, his complaint: "Why do I do the things I know I shouldn't do, and why do I not do the things I should do?" - Then he attributes grace, not to his own striving, but to the implacability of God's prevenient grace: "But thanks be to God for the victory - in our Lord, Jesus Christ!"

It is faith in the power of God who redeems us that provides the clue to our salvation; not our ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I think Paul was well aware of that truth. I think Paul could well be saying, in his moral teaching; try to do as I say, not as I do!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 1:32am BST

"the far greater majority of people who are walking away from church do so precisely because here in the 21st Century the literalist or inerrant view of the bible, and popular brands of conservative Christianity are at odds with 21st century secular conscience, science, and psychology."

I agree, but I think even using the term "religion" may be too limiting. If we think of "belief-system" rather than "religion", where do agnostics/atheists/anti-theists fall in the demographic totals? Which *belief-system* is really growing the fastest, and why? (*)

...not that I think that "fastest-growing" equals capital-T Truth, mind you. But I'd like to put all the bean-counting into some greater perspective!

(*) Also noting the demographic relevance of "belief-systems which prioritize persuasive and/or biological-reproductive growth". [Belief-systems which prioritize BOTH mission AND biological reproduction getting a double-dose of (at least temporary!) demographic boost.]

Posted by: JCF on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 2:24am BST

Surely, the point of creating more cathedrals is to create more bishops where the newly created prelates may place their cathedras. Hopefully these extra Right Reverends will be sound teachers and Guardians of the Faith, as well as being good pastors and be blessed with hearts for mission. I don't hold out much hope for the recent explosion in the creation of extra "missional" Archdeacons in assisting the growth of the church but it would seem to me that more locally based bishops possessing the fullness of ministry might just possibly be in a better position to grow the Church and extend the Kingdom? After all, this particular Patristic model seemed to work remarkably well in the days of the Early Church.

Posted by: Father David on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 4:44am BST

James..I agree re the RC. Church,.but they often have sufficient nos to run several Chiswick for example the church on the high Rd ( the best position for any church) had a Sat vigil mass, a quiet 8 am, a 10 am which was like an Anglican Parish Communion, an 11 am choral, some Latin,incense..a 12.30 folk mass and 6 pm get it over quick 4 pm Vespers and Benediction.Sadly many C ofE parishes are down to one service on a size fits all.

Posted by: Perry Butler on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 8:35am BST

James describes successful evangelical churches as 'churches with slick services combined with social support'.

I think one of our problems is that we all appear to still be thinking of evangelism and church growth as something that happens through the growing of Sunday services. But in the early Christian centuries, no one thought of weekly worship services as points of entry for the gospel into the lives of non-believers. It's not about finding a form of Sunday worship that will be slick enough to attract people who aren't Christians yet. It's about finding contact points for the gospel into the daily lives of people outside Sunday morning.

It seems pretty clear to me that in the early church, conversion largely took place before people showed up for the first time for a Christian worship service. And if that pattern still has some validity to it, slick worship services may not be as effective as helping ordinary Christians recover their confidence in fulfilling the call to 'be my witnesses' in their own circle of influence.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 9:06am BST

I suspect evangelicals have the most culturally compatible presentation because their theology requires explicit acceptance. Those of us with broader truth seeking, sense making priorities may see it more as a process of enabling the recognition and infusion of intrinsic value. But in this respect, evangelicals only emphasise certain features in traditional anglicanism. It's the anglican foundation itself that in my view is lacking. It is missing essential building blocks for a useful contemporary Church. So a Church for England will need, if not a new house, then at least to extend on some new foundations.

Posted by: David Marshall on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 11:19am BST

I wholeheartedly agree with both James and Tim..
Woolever and Bruce's analysis based on the US Congregational Live Survey 10 or so years ago, identified ten "strengths" of particular congregations; they argue that strategies to build on strengths where a congregation has gained the highest score are likely to lead to improvement in other strengths, all of which are likely to make the congregation more attractive to newcomers. But only three of those strengths - caring for children and youth, degree of congregational participation, and welcoming new people - are positive predictors of growth. None of those three is necessarily associated with an evangelical theological emphasis.

And of course Tim is quite correct. If our missional efforts are limited to tinkering with the Sunday service, we have clearly missed the point.

Woolever, C and Bruce, D. (2004) "Ten strengths of US Congregations". Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Posted by: Edward Prebble on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 9:00pm BST

Edward, that book appears to be out of print. I'd be very interested if you could list all ten strengths for us, or perhaps email me at - thanks!


Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 at 11:24pm BST

By all means, Tim.
My own copy is buried in a box somewhere, so I am quoting from a summary in my own thesis. I don't have Woolever and Bruce's definitions of any of these terms.
1.Spirituality and faith development
2. Meaningful worship services
3. Participation in congregational activities
4. A sense of belonging to the congregation
5. Caring for the congregation's children and youth
6. Community involvement
7. Sharing faith with others
8. Welcoming new people
9. Empowering congregational worship
10.A vision for the congregation's future.

Again, their thesis is that all of these are positive strengths, that improvement in any of these measures likely to lead to improvement in others, but that only 3, 5, and 8, are positive predictors of numerical growth.

Posted by: Edward Prebble on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 at 10:35pm BST

Doing what's popular is no way to run a church.

Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC on Thursday, 27 August 2015 at 11:47am BST

Doing what isn't popular doesn't seem to work either.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 30 August 2015 at 4:29pm BST

CoE evangelicals need to stop using this "steep decline" nonsense (of TEC) to justify themselves. TEC is declining less fast that our peer mainline Protestant churches. Furthermore, we do have evidence in growth in some areas.

Here's a link to a recent survey.

About 30 percent of parishes and dioceses in TEC are growing. The common denominator is that they tend to be liberal or very liberal. That is in alignment with other growth indicators, such as the presence of young families (who tend to be liberal in the US), and geography. Some urban and suburban churches are growing, rural ones tend to struggle more. Urban churches are often liberal. Suburbs are not the bastion of conservatism that they used to be.

So stop with the "steep decline" nonsense. If CoE wants to observe meaningful difference, it would look at our tendency to hear from many and diverse voices. That is in major contrast with CoE's hierarchy of straight and closeted mostly white men making up nonsense about gays and lifting up the theology of "taint" to keep the peace.

Posted by: Cynthia on Monday, 31 August 2015 at 6:55pm BST
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