Church of England

Chartres' Lambeth Lecture: the Church must be "vision-led and not problem-led"


While the Archbishop of Canterbury pored over the Blogosphere on his iPad (to which he is apparently rather attached), the Bishop of London psyched himself up for the latest Lambeth Lecture: ‘New Fire in London‘.

‘Lambeth Lecture’ sounds a little prosaic, if not unutterably dull. And the way this one began was positively anaesthetising, if not spiritless blah:

The decline in the active membership of the Church of England as a whole in the last quarter of the 20th century was mirrored and exaggerated in London. Many of the congregations were aging and found it difficult to engage the young people who were flooding into the capital from other parts of the UK and from abroad.. Zzzzz..

But that was the Richard Chartres’ way of transporting you to the arid, dispiriting landscape of parish life in 1984:

By the time I arrived as the Reverend Mr Ichabod – ‘the glory has departed’ – there was an average Sunday attendance of 40, no assistant staff and the daughter church had been turned into the HQ of the London Diocesan Fund.

And he recounted financial problems, congregation shrinkage, decrepitude, social deprivation, worship deterioration and tedious formulae for sustaining poor parishes. We were “at the sagging end and chapter’s close” of the Church of England story in London. God could have been relegated to the leisure sector. Evangelism? No cash:

If there had been any appetite for church extension, financial constraints were a major dis-incentive. The Diocesan Budget was in deficit most years and necessitated the sale of historic assets, chiefly property, in a process described by the then Diocesan Secretary as reaching into “his hip pocket”..

It’s a long lecture – a very long one. What followers are the highlights (or lowlights) of the Bishop of London’s diagnoses of the essential structural problems, and the nexus of his missiological transformation:

..there was an energy-sapping superstructure of boards and committees for Mission, Unity, Ministry, Social Responsibility and the like, all of which had been established during the period of decline.. Over-worked members of the Diocesan staff found themselves discussing the same issues over and over again in slightly different forums. There were ideas in plenty and not a few “initiatives” but little energy left over for implementation..

But then comes a spark:

..there were voices within HTB urging that a base outside the Church of England would be more conducive to growth. The local hierarchy was unwilling to see HTB as much more than a conventional parish in the Area, and in particular was keen to restrict the numbers of curates that the Church could employ, even though there was finance available to enlarge the staff. The restrictions were fuelled by a liberal distaste for charismatic evangelicalism and a conviction that the supply of curates should be evenly spread throughout the Diocese, irrespective of the capacity to pay.

And then the kindling:

Growth springs from movements of the Holy Spirit, and from communities and individuals in whom there is life-giving sap. Bishops can do very little alone. They can seek to remove obstacles, and to make wise appointments. Pronouncements can usefully change an atmosphere, but too many “Diocesan initiatives” can be a distraction and contribute to weariness and even cynicism among the clergy, especially if they suspect that the bishop is trying to make a name for himself.

And then a glow (slightly singeing the ‘talent pool‘/MBA approach to leadership):

Spiritually speaking, if a bishop desires the health of the Church then he must lay to heart St Paul’s advice to the elders of Ephesus in Acts XX: 28, “take heed to yourselves” and then “to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you episkopoi”. It is also salutary to remember the saying of St Augustine that “for you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian”. Shipwreck awaits anybody who assimilates their role and their person. I believe that I am working for the Bishopric of London, I happen to be the 132nd holder of the brand, the local successor to the apostles, but it is vital to understand one’s own frailties and limitations, and not be tempted to personal inflation. The one thing that cannot be delegated is one’s own prayer and study of the scriptures. An MBA in ecclesiastical administration is no substitute for the development of a beginner’s mind and acquiring the teachability with which the Spirit can work. I do not doubt that we can learn much from the experience of other organisations, but the church should also have a non-exclusive confidence in its own experience.

And then a flicker:

..I am aware of the functional atheism of parts of the contemporary church. I simply do not believe that the Spirit who is the author of growth is mere mould grown on the rock of economics and programmes and policies by themselves can have only a limited effect.. Woodenness is both more common and more dangerous than wickedness in the Church of England.. Unfortunately the habit in the Church of England of making changes by juxtaposing new structures without replacing the old ones has often led to confusion.

And then a flash:

Lay participation in church government, liturgical change, schemes of church union, reform of marriage discipline, and the ordination of women were all arguably sensible measures, but the idea that they would halt or reverse the decline in church membership failed to take into account the profound character of the social and intellectual changes which had led to the contraction of the church-going part of the population. Internal bickering over the changes did, however, waste energy, and played a further part in alienating some of the church’s traditional supporters.

Then a flame right at the heart of the via media:

One of the underlying principles of the past twenty years in London has been that every legitimate strand in the Anglican tradition should be honoured and reflected in the appointments made in the Diocese. Everyone should have a spoon in the soup, thereby avoiding the polarisation that often arises from subordinating the appointments processes to the will of transient synodical majorities or — even worse — ideologically driven bishops. Of course the desire to be comprehensive sometimes leads to risky appointments which are not successful. In particular, finding conservative evangelicals who are capable and willing enough to work constructively across the whole gamut of church life has proved challenging.

The flames spread to communities:

I was very struck by a remark of Rick Warren, the American Mega-Church leader, to the effect that he had spent “too much time on para-church and not enough on parish church”. The vision of a church serving the whole of its neighbourhood, and not merely growing on the basis of like attracting like, is a very noble one. Unfortunately, the comprehensively devolved character of the Church of England makes it relatively easy for small groups to get themselves into a position where they can appropriate the resources which ought to belong to the whole community, and to build a church with only limited outreach. In extreme cases the result is very far from a genuine parish church, and remote from the “cutting edge of mission”, with the parochial leadership occupying a caravan well to the rear of the battle.

And blazes into mission:

..the aspiration to be a “Christ-centred and outward-looking church” is widely shared. We are well on the way to equipping and commissioning our 100,000 ambassadors for Christ by 2020. [I wanted 144,000 but was overruled by colleagues who said that we would look like Jehovah’s Witnesses.] We are also making progress with increasing the numbers of ordinands by 50%, not only for our own needs but for those of the wider church.

And incendiary new fellowships:

Church planting in the nineteenth century was very often an Anglo-Catholic phenomenon. More recently the charismatic evangelicals have taken the lead. Holy Trinity Brompton made its pioneering church plant into St Barnabas Addison Road in the mid-1980s but the pace of planting has really picked up post-2000 with the establishment of a plant at St Paul’s Hammersmith… Under Capital Vision 2020, we are pledged to establish 100 new worshipping communities in the Diocese in the next five years. Some will be rejuvenated parish churches, but others will be in new locations.

The Church is in the refiner’s fire:

In London in many contexts we have entered a post-denominational phase. Very few of the hundreds of thousands of students studying in the universities of the capital arrive with any clear ecclesial identity. They are looking for communities of faith that are vigorous and spiritually credible, without being too concerned about the denominational label. In particular, the old opposition between the “Established” church and Dissenters has largely faded, and the possibilities of street level co-operation with allies like the Redeemed Church of God run by Pastor Agu have vastly increased.

But the full blaze is yet to come:

Having spent much of the first half of my life wrapped in gloom as a laudator temporis acti, these days I find cheerfulness constantly breaking in… The Christian community will continue to thrive as long as it is vision-led and not problem-led. Prayer of the persevering kind that marks the 24/7 prayer movement really does open the door to God’s future while the Holy Spirit never leaves himself without witnesses. When my name survives only in a litter of plaques marking school extension openings and the refurbished loos at St James’s Clerkenwell, I am convinced that future Bishops of London will be able, with Haggai, to say, “the glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former saith the Lord of Hosts.”

It was an extraordinarily inspirational lecture, in particular this wonderful observation of ecclesial-theological conservatism:

Traditionalism is the obstinate adherence to the mores of the day before yesterday – the dead faith of living people. Tradition is the spirit-filled continuity of the Church’s life, through which the truth is communicated from generation to generation in fresh ways in order to stay the same. Tradition is the living faith which we share with dead people. Actually often the hardest task is to persuade yesterday’s avant-garde that they are today’s busted flush.

You will rarely (if ever) hear bishops articulate their personal political philosophy in such candid Burkean terms. It is not for nothing that Richard Chartres was asked by Margaret Thatcher to speak at her funeral. It is not for no reason that Richard Chartres is a faithful friend and trusted counsellor to the Prince of Wales. He is, as he says, an introvert: his “default position is as an observer and commentator”. This is an undoubted strength, but it is also a great pity.

The Bishop of London ought not to be confined to the lecture circuit or having to deal with such trivia as the tedious defence of his “modest lodgings“. He grasps the “profound character of the social and intellectual changes” of contemporary society. He understands the distinction between dead church and living church: it is contingent on being vision-led and not problem-led. Someone give him column, or invite him to write an op ed. Perhaps he might do Thought For The Day or be a regular on Question Time. How about it, Auntie?