The C of E: money for mission, but what about method and message?

Jul 16, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

“There is no magic money tree” was a pre-election refrain employed by the UK government last year. And yet when expediency demanded it, money was found, whether for Northern Ireland in return for the political support of one of its parties, or for the NHS after years of trying to control its spending.

The Church of England, too, has suddenly found a ‘magic money tree’ for an ambitious programme of establishing new local churches, at a time when many of its Cathedrals are reported to be close to bankruptcy. “Church of England may be forced to sell some of its ancient cathedrals to cover their overwhelming debts”, reported the Mail in the week before General Synod (6th July).

Five days later, just after Synod ended, a Press Release from the C of E trumpeted an “ambitious growth programme” in which grants of £27 million would be given to various church planting and regeneration projects around the country.

Is this bold strategic investment in the future, or a last throw of the dice? News reports suggested the latter: the Guardian noted that the new investment is announced as figures show continued marked decline in regular church attendance countrywide. The Telegraph had reported the day before that regular planned giving to C of E churches has fallen for the first time in 50 years, raising questions about future sustainability once the current grants from the Church Commissioners runs out.

To whom should the ‘prime the pump’ money be given? In an interview on last week’s BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme, Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, complained that up till now, most grants have been given to ‘resource churches’, usually large, charismatic evangelical centres in middle class and particularly studenty areas, which have a proven track record of multiplying membership. North has consistently warned that this rewards already affluent and successful churches at the expense of ministry in poorer areas. His point seems to have been taken into consideration with the new allocation of money, which will be specifically targeted at outer urban housing estates, and small coastal towns whose pockets of deprivation and lack of vibrant churches have received publicity recently.

But North goes further: the mission model should not consist just of using funds from the centre to plant new, predominantly evangelical churches. Rather there should be a programme of redistribution of resources, effectively taxing the wealthier Dioceses to give to the poorer ones, and funding community-building projects from churches with a quieter, more pastoral anglo-catholic flavour.

So among the C of E leadership the debate goes on. Should central resources be used to keep open the flagship Cathedrals whatever the cost? Or should ‘market forces’ be allowed to take their course for unsustainable, moribund institutions, pass the (enormously expensive) Cathedrals on to heritage trusts if they really can’t make ends meet, and focus new investment on entrepreneurial mission, establishing new self-sustaining worshipping communities? The Archbishops have opted for the latter course, but combining proclaiming the message of Jesus with an intentional focus on deprived communities. Some like Bishop North will be critical of the bias towards evangelical churches, and the failure to address financial inequality between the Dioceses. Others will see too much influence from secular accountancy and management thinking in the Reform and Renewal programme, rather than more ‘spiritual’ concerns. But many will welcome the initiatives, not just those benefitting from the grants, but all who believe that if it means wider proclamation of the gospel and more churches, that must be a good thing.

But questions remain. Here are just three:

I believe it’s a good thing to try to plant churches in areas where the church is weak, and in areas of deprivation, not just in traditionally more fruitful places. But why is the church struggling to maintain a vibrant witness, even a presence, in many English communities, especially the less affluent areas? Is it lack of resources and a particular type of leadership, or is something else going on?

I served as a minister in a relatively deprived outer urban estate for seven years, and so I know first hand some of the very real difficulties in engaging people with the gospel, issues that had very little to do with the resources available to the church. I have also worked in the townships of South Africa, a context of disadvantage and social problems much more severe than anything found in Britain. And yet there, as in many other similar and worse environments in Africa, churches thrive without the help of generous grants from the head offices of large denominations. As I have said before, I believe the problems of church decline in England are not caused by lack of investment or good evangelistic technique, but are primarily symptoms of a serious spiritual crisis in the West. While I’m sure money for new churches is welcome, the rhetoric accompanying it does not address the root issues of godlessness in our culture at all.

Linked to this is the question: what is the good news that the church offers? For the Archbishops of Canterbury and York as they commend the awarding of £27 million of grants, the message of Jesus is central. But which Jesus? Is it the Jesus of Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, vice-chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Task Force on Evangelism and also an enthusiastic supporter of the LGBT Pride movement? Is it the Jesus of the Diocese of Lichfield with its new policy encouraging LGBT inclusion and transgender clergy, or the Jesus of the Province of South East Asia who have terminated their link with Lichfield because of ‘departure from orthodoxy’? Is it the Jesus of the Scriptures celebrated at Gafcon, or the Jesus of the ‘evangelical’ Church of England Bishops who will not have anything to do with Gafcon? The C of E might speak about Jesus but if it can’t provide clarity on who Jesus is, why he came and what it means to follow him, God will raise up other churches which can.

And then, in terms of mission strategy, what will the new money be spent on? The familiar model for church planting in the Church of England is to identify an area, and then bring in a staff from outside, providing housing, salaries, building refurbishment and equipment. Many other new churches use a much lower-cost and grassroots approach. A group of lay volunteers will feel called to an area where others have already been living and praying; the members of the leadership team are self-supporting; the meeting takes place in a front room, then a rented hall; only after the congregation has grown sufficiently is consideration given to setting apart a pastor to full-time ministry. Which model is more likely to create dependence, and the sense that church is a middle-class activity? Which has principles of indigenous and self sustaining ministry built into it from the beginning, and is more likely to continue that way?

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