A Church for this generation

First published 27th March 2015

The Church of England faces great challenges but it is also a time of opportunity. As the national Church reforms and the Diocese of Bristol develops its strategy for the next few years, Bishop Mike considers the realities we must address to fulfil our calling as a Church for the nation.

There is a growing feeling that the Church of England, and indeed the wider world, stand at a critical moment in history.

As followers of Christ who are part of a Church which has a mission to the nation, we are called to embody the life of the risen Christ in every community, sharing the Good News in the hope that we may all be transformed by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

When the local church lives out this calling, it becomes the hope of the world - we see true and lasting change to lives and communities. The vision for the Church of England is to unite with God in His Mission and with each other to bring about the change on a national scale.

Geographically, we have maintained the Church of England strapline as a Christian presence in every community. Local churches make a positive impact in the life of their communities and the country.

But the challenge to be a Church with a mission to the nation grows more complex as society and communities change, and the size, strength and make-up of our churches also change.

50 years ago churches largely reflected the demographics of their context; today they are markedly different. Put simply, churches have not successfully retained young people as they move into adulthood.

Numbers attending Church of England services have declined at an average rate of 1% a year in recent decades. In any given week, less than 2% of the overall population attend our churches. In some areas, particularly outer estates and the inner city, this is less than 1%. The age profile of our membership is now significantly older than that of the population.

As I said in my Synod address in December, the harsh truth is that there is a massive cultural gap between what we do in our churches and the subcultures amongst whom we dwell.

We still have the infrastructure to be a Church with a mission to the nation, which remains valued and used by individuals and communities at different times and in different circumstances. However, we can no longer claim to be a Church living out its calling to proclaim the Good News afresh in this generation.

I believe our Diocese has the vision and commitment to change that, but not if we choose to ignore the reality of a fast-changing world.

On becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby reflected that we live in a time of revolutions economic, social, cultural and political. We must take hold of, he said, a revolution that God's Spirit is blowing through our structures and ideas and imagination.

Nationally, the Church has acted on this. At Februarys General Synod, a programme of renewal and reform was discussed, proposing significant changes to how we resource mission and ministry.

Commentators suggest we are undergoing a once in a 50-year shift in how people behave, interact and belong. As a truly incarnational Church, we need to understand and engage with these changes.

Yes, this is a challenge, but also a great opportunity. In our communities there is a longing for a more local and simple way of living. The local church is ideally placed to respond and contribute to this.

But people also expect a more personalised approach and to be known. We expect the right format, at the right time and in the right place for us. Trust is won and lost through the quality of an experience, not through loyalty to an institution.

As communities change rapidly and diversify, our understanding of them can become quickly out-of-date. If we are to examine whether what we do is truly rooted amongst the people to whom we minister, tailoring what we do will require insight and support, imaginative change and focused effort. It also requires a willingness to work with others so that together we might reach the diversity of our wider communities.

We should be hopeful about this but in truth it will require a shift in attitude and culture. Our strength is that we are part of a wider family in the Diocese and the Church of England; we do play a part in something bigger.

We should have the ability to harness our strengths as a missionary people and share them across wider areas. We are used to sharing financial resources through Parish Share and ministry on an ad hoc basis. But in truth churches are locked into a parish focused mentality and struggle to think and act alongside each other at a more strategic level to meet the mission challenges we face.

For the sake of the Church and the nation we seek to reach, we can no longer afford to have this ambivalence. If attendance continues on the current trajectory, adult attendance will halve in 20 years. Finances have been relatively stable through increased individual giving, yet 70% of this comes from those aged over 55, and 42% from those over 65.

Although we have seen a welcome increase in Parish Share giving in 2015, in reality parishes are giving considerably less to the wider Diocese to support mission and ministry elsewhere. Levels of subsidy have become unsustainable with 60% of parishes not meeting their direct costs of ministry, subsidised to the tune of 1.8m by other parishes and the Dioceses resources. Many of these parishes are not in deprived areas. This begs the question, are we investing in growth or subsidising decline?

As well as ageing congregations, the age profile of our clergy is increasing. 40% of clergy are due to retire over the next decade. While ordination rates have held up, a seismic increase would be required to maintain current numbers and the impact of that increase would take some years to be seen.

So we must change, and take prayerful, purposeful, coordinated and urgent action to do so.

Together we have been discerning ways forward through our strategy conversations in Diocesan Synod and elsewhere. In the first half of 2015, we will clarify our vision and consult on a strategy for 2016-18.

As this is a diocesan strategy, its focus must be on how we can work together in a new way. It will address what kind of ministers we need to meet the challenges; how we recruit and develop them; how we focus people and leadership to break the vicious cycle of spreading them too thin. It will determine how diocesan and deanery support can best enable participation and collaboration. And it will provide ways for ensuring mutual accountability and support.

Personally, I cant imagine a more exciting challenge. The sooner we understand that the assumptions of Christendom must be re-imagined for a post Christian society, the more likely we are to create a strategy that faces the great challenges ahead!

Further details of how we propose to respond to this challenge are being discussed at our Diocesan Synod and are available online. Please read and discuss them in your parish and deanery - and share what you think!

Powered by Church Edit