key limiting factors church of england

‘Key limiting factors’: the end of stipendiary parish ministry

Priests are expensive. Church buildings are expensive. Theological formation is expensive. So the Church of England has set out its ‘Vision and Strategy‘ for cost-cutting: 10,000 new lay-led churches over the next 10 years, to make one million new disciples for Christ. Far better to bring Jesus to the local school or village hall, where the people are, and have them led by ordinary people, like most people are, than to try to sustain a model of church which is, to speak candidly, unsustainable.

The Puritans would be stifling a smirk all the way to their barren meeting-house. Gone are the naves, altars, vestments, organs, icons, stained glass windows and the monuments to centuries of parish continuity: in come rows of plastic chairs in a magnolia hall, where all eyes are drawn to the only point of interest: the lay leader wearing trainers and trackie bottoms, who declares ‘This is the day that the Lord has made!’, introduces the latest Graham Kendrick chorus (guitar, drums), quotes a few more scriptures, and then speaks on the absolute authority of the Bible in all our lives and how we all need to repent of our sin and love one another.

Some will love this unadorned gospel simplicity because it is ‘more biblical’. Others will wonder where this leaves the local parish church and the vicar – not to mention the Eucharist.

Or perhaps we should mention the Eucharist.

And perhaps we also ought to mention theological training.

Perhaps you believe that any Christian can expound the Word of God, because all that is necessary is the ability to understand the plainest meaning of words and the ability to explain a plan. And perhaps you believe there’s nothing special about bread and wine, and that all believers may just pass it round because there is nothing sacramental about it.

But the Church of England does not believe these things.

Perhaps that’s not quite true: the Evangelicals will believe these things, perhaps while forgetting the Reformation requirements for learned ministers to expound Scripture and maintain the dignity and necessity of the sacraments. The XXXIX Articles (22–24) set out the errors to be avoided in the Church, and state that no person should preach publicly or administer the sacraments unless they are called and authorised by legitimate church authority. This was meant to counter the radical Protestant belief that a Christian could preach and act as a minister on his own initiative in defiance of church authorities.

Of course you will argue that these lay leaders will indeed be ministering with the legitimate authority of the Church, but what will they believe and teach of sacramental theology? Indeed, what will they know of it? What will these lay leaders believe happens at the point of baptism or during the Lord’s Supper? If you believe that sacraments are merely outward signs of a person’s inner faith, then you will have no problem. But if you incline toward a real presence; that the strength and efficacy of Christ’s mighty word, when spoken by a priest, is present really under the form of bread and wine, and that consecration means something, then a lay-led church in a school hall just down the road from your parish church isn’t the church for you.

Your job is to sustain (against all apparent hope) the parish church of key limiting factors: the medieval building, the stipendiary priest, and the long college-based training he or she had, and that their successors will need.

Unless, of course, there are no successors. For what need the Church of Key Limiting Factors when the Church of Release and Liberation has been planted just down the road? What need an expensively-formed priest in cassock and stole when there’s a free RE teacher in trackie bottoms and trainers just down the road?

Perhaps that’s unfair: many laity will be steeped in Reformation history and the Church Fathers, and many will also be mindful of teaching error and heresy (indeed, expensive theological formation is manifestly no guard against that). But (let’s be honest) they aren’t the ones who will be chosen to lead these church plants: those who await “release” to lead are not likely to be drawn from the conservative traditional wing of the church, whose views on the sanctity of marriage as a union between one man and one woman isn’t conducive to an amorphous church plant to attract the young.

And then there’s the competition factor. When the Church of England plants a church in a school or village hall, or even in the local Chinese takeaway, you can guarantee that market forces will prevail: one will grow while the other is put on life support; if 15 of your congregation pop down the road on a Sunday morning, there’s no point holding a service in your parish church for the remaining four.

But positively: “These new churches will work alongside our existing parishes, chaplaincies and projects, spreading the love of Jesus Christ and deepening Christian fellowship in the Holy Spirit,” explains the Bishop of Manchester. “Together we will serve the communities of the Manchester area through social action, the combatting of injustice, and our care for the environment.”

Which is absolutely laudable: a church without a mission is just a monument in memory of the Messiah. And a parish-based innovation which is overseen by qualified parish clergy is welcome if it leads people to Christ. But church leaders who have not submitted to a “long, costly college-based training” will have little theology and poor (or no) formation. You end up with a Wesleyan model of church (conveniently forgetting that the Wesleys were steeped in theology and had a profound understanding of Anglican orthodoxy), with all the inherent dangers of error and heresy being lay-preached. Reading Against Heresies: On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis and writing tedious 5,000-word essays on the definition of ‘Applied Theology’ is what helps to qualify you to teach, preach and minister effectively. Some eager disciples yearn to get out into the community and ‘do stuff’, but that stuff is far better done when it is led by people whose skills have been honed, mettle tested, and vocation discerned.

And who are all these lay leaders waiting to be ‘released’? Are they all wealthy or self-employed with a lot of spare time on their hands and the ability to labour for nothing, like parliamentary candidates for the Conservative Party?

Or perhaps there are no lay leaders waiting and yearning to be ‘released’ – and certainly nothing like the army necessary to birth and nurture 10,000 church plants.

Isn’t it a curious vision for renewing and reinvigorating the Church of England that the strategy is apparently to inculcate a new generation with the theology of the Free Church: you don’t need knowledgeable priests, you don’t need beautiful buildings, and you don’t need rigorous qualifications in theology: these are key limiting factors to mission.  All you need is a passion for Christ and the ability to lead a Bible study. The rest is otiose.

Now, when will someone write a paper on the key limiting factors in the House and College of Bishops?