Wilson is a roots man, despite his apparent pessimism. “Locally, the CofE is often good news. Individual clergy and Christians are often liked and respected on the streets. The figure of Jesus remains broadly attractive, even intriguing and sometimes compelling.”
But he goes on to say: “The national institution, however, appears disconnected from all this, remote, hierarchical, fixated on its own stuff. The church of the future may be less a civil service or conventional business, and more a movement like Alcoholics Anonymous, the ultimate locally delivered, life-changing non-profit organisation. The job of the hierarchy will be to enable this, not to represent it or control it.”
On Good Friday, as parishes prepare for their Easter services on Sunday, it is a good moment to assess the state of the Church of England, which Rowan Williams will hand over to his successor when he moves to Cambridge next winter.
Under his leadership, it took two decisions, unwillingly and perhaps unconsciously: there will be female bishops, and there will not for the foreseeable future be openly gay and partnered bishops, even if they are celibate.
Neither was exactly the outcome Williams had wanted. He had hoped for a compromise that would enable the opponents of female bishops to continue to live within the church, but the General Synod rejected that decisively in February.
Ten years earlier, at the beginning of his episcopate, he was forced to back down from a plan to appoint his then friend Jeffrey John as a bishopbecause John, though celibate, was partnered with another priest, and in due course entered into a civil partnership with him. He did give John a job as dean of St Albans, as partial compensation for his disappointment, but was never able to overcome evangelical opposition to his being a bishop.
Even these limited gestures were enough to provoke a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion between the liberals, mostly in North America, and the conservatives, mostly in Africa. The CofE also rejected Williams’ plan to patch that up, by a kind of treaty that would formally bind the communion together. It has a hard enough time obeying its own bishops – it certainly wasn’t going to obey foreign ones.
To many outsiders, much of this has come across as out-of-touch and self-obsessed, but it is in part a symptom of the fact that the church is not is really one organisation.
Wilson is seen as a liberal, and a very junior bishop. But large parts of his analysis are shared by the evangelical Justin Welby, newly appointed bishop of Durham – the fifth-ranked job in the hierarchy. He says: “The longer I go on with this, the more I realise that the Church of England is not an organisation in any recognisable sense.”
“Any sort of concept of top-down direction is much more complicated than it looks. Part of it is illusion: because bishops are dressed up in funny clothes, with funny hats and special sticks it’s assumed that if they say to a bunch of parish clergy ‘do something’, they will do it. But that’s not how it works and never has been. Each part of the church has its own competence.”
Welby worked for 12 years in the oil industry before becoming a priest, so he knows something about the outside world. And he didn’t attend the meetings of the General Synod, the church’s governing body, before he became a bishop, as he thought it didn’t seem to deal with anything interesting. Both of these facts represent wider trends.
Welby’s a man, of course, which no longer makes him typical of ordinands. A majority of people training to be priests are women, even if few of them will find full-time, fully paid jobs. But Welby’s experience of the outside world before his training is typical. So is his pragmatism about church growth. Although he is generally reckoned to be an evangelical, he doesn’t believe that it follows from any particular theology. The idea that strict churches grow while liberal ones decline isn’t borne out by the facts: “Church growth is about doing standard things well – funerals, baptisms, weddings: making sure you’re welcoming and tolerably warm and the sermons are worth listening to.”
These seem quite simple things. But in practice, they can be very hard. Jessica Martin is a former English don at Cambridge, who left that job two years ago to become the priest of three small villages south of the city.
“I don’t feel that what I am doing at the moment is actually managing decline at all. What we’re experiencing is modest growth.”
She talks about a pattern in which the decline is still happening among older people, who grew up with Christianity and are now dying off. “I feel we might be in a sort of transitional point.”
The growth is coming among families: “Getting your children baptised is how the overwhelming majority come.” But these new members have grown up away from Christianity and the language and traditions of the church. Pretty fundamental Christian concepts, such as sin, just don’t make sense to them any more. “I find families very ignorant and very responsive, and happy to come to stuff that they feel they might have some chance of following.”
The problem, she says, is finding ways of reaching half-believers. “The cultural assumptions of the people under 40 who I meet are just totally different, and the habits of being that the church both assumes and inculcates are new. When people are confirmed as adults, a lot of them have problems with penitence; they say: ‘But I have always been a good person!'”
Yet the church remains attractive in her villages partly for reasons that have nothing to do with theology, she says: “I encounter quite often in the people who do flirt with church a quite explicit desire for physical community: an anxious sense that people need to get together and do stuff in the same place and time.”
Not everyone has Martin’s optimism. She says: “When I talk to clergy who are on the verge of retirement, they are much more depressed than I am. The generation who are coming up to 60, 65 got the full force of decline and are feeling very low about it.”
Fewer, older and less active
In places where no young people come to church – and there are many – the whole enterprise seems doomed. The vicar of one country town, coming up to retirement, talked to me anonymously about his frustrations.
“I am going into an annual meeting in a couple of weeks’ time wondering why churches are so full of people who aren’t in the least interested in Jesus. We are buggered because we’re working for something that has the structure of the civil service. These are grim times.”
His congregation remembers a time when they had more, younger and more involved members. “Over time, these congregations have become aware that their members are fewer, older, and less active in the church. Away from metropolitan centres, the CofE is still in the petit bourgeois mindset of the 50s and 60s,” he says. “Church was about being associated with the right tribe, sitting in the next pew to the headmaster and the local doctor. My lot can proudly parrot the catechism, want hymns they know and haven’t a clue what it is all about.”
So there is still quite a lot in favour of the dead tree story. The long-term trend in church attendance is still downwards, and the prolonged and bitter arguments of the past 30 years, first about female clergy and later about openly gay ones, have made the church look stupid, even to itself.
Constitutional reform has whittled away at the links between church and state: if the House of Lords is reformed, there will be at most 12 bishops sitting in the new upper chamber; the next archbishop of Canterbury will be the first since the Reformation to be chosen entirely by the church, with no final veto resting with the prime minister. Attacks on the church’s position as a supplier of education, and on the saying of prayers in public institutions, such as at council meetings or in hospitals, are becoming more vehement. And the idea that England is, or ought to be, a Christian nation looks increasingly questionable. In a lot of places, such as the disillusioned vicar’s town, the CofE looks like the church of an England that no longer exists or is dying.
But at the same time, there are unmistakeable signs of growth in the roots. Parts of the church have adapted. Although the long-term trend has been downwards for 50 years, over the past decade attendance has been flat, and has been growing in cathedrals and in London.
Pete Wilcox is the dean of Lichfield cathedral, and will move shortly to Welby’s old job as dean of Liverpool. Last summer, the cathedral mounted an exhibition of an Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found outside the city, which dated from the first Christianisation of Mercia, in the eighth century, along with two of its own relics of St Chad, who led that missionary effort. It was fantastically successful, but it didn’t seem Christian at first: “For three weeks we ran absolutely full capacity. We could barely have crowbarred in a single visitor. But they came quite explicitly to see this exhibition. We had exhibited the gold alongside our own artefacts and the chronology enabled us to communicate.”
The visitors, as they left, were handed prayer cards. They could light a candle, and leave a request for prayer. The cathedral was astonished by the response to these. Apparently secular visitors filled out two or three times the normal volume of cards: “What we had for the three Sundays of the exhibition was an overflowing wicker basket, too many for us to read them all out. They were entirely the work of people who hadn’t come with any spiritual purpose in mind.”
The problem for the church is how to turn this kind of “spiritual but not religious” traffic into more committed believers when it is the committed believers who are very often the most off-putting factor for the uncommitted.
For a while, it seemed the personal qualities of Williams could bridge this gap. But though he was admired and even loved, the church seldom did anything he really wanted it to. He managed to make the church look better to outsiders, but he had less success making Christians think well of each other.
None of Williams’ potential successors have that charisma. Wilcox points out that when Williams goes, there will be no one on the bench of bishops who has been a full university professor – something else that has not been true since the Reformation.
In May, the bishops will meet for a last attempt to fine-tune the legislation that makes female bishops possible. This has dragged out for seven years now. They will be trying to make as much space as possible for those branches of the church that simply cannot accept that women can be priests or even bishops. The synod, which must approve the bishops’ tinkerings when it meets in July, is in a much less inclusive mood. To judge from the debates in February, it wants the irreconcilable opponents pruned from the church, rather than accepting women as perpetually second-class bishops. If all goes to plan, the first women will be consecrated as bishops next year. If everything goes wrong, then the legislation could go back to diocesan committees for another two years of wrangling over details.
Either way, the church still won’t look like an organisation. But away from the synods and all the archaic brittle grandeurs of establishment, it still seems to be alive, and even putting out fresh, strong shoots.