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Renewal & Reform in the Church of England

Renewal & Reform in the Church of England

After the Guardian and Observer newspapers published in-depth accounts of decline and growth in the Church of England this weekend, a slew of responses both supporting and criticizing the programming known as Renewal and Reform appeared across the blogosphere. The original posts, available on the Guardian website, pit the evangelical wing of the church against a more broad church emphasis.

In this first of a two-part posting, we will look at the Guardian stories that sparked off renewed debate about Renewal and Reform. We’ll follow up later this afternoon with some of the reactions found around the blogroll.

On Saturday, Harriet Sherwood, writing about Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, for the Guardian reported

Renewal and Reform has created discord within the church, although a motion welcoming the programme was overwhelmingly carried at last month’s synod in York. But some critics claim there is little room for substantial debate on the programme.

According to Percy, the strategy is fundamentally flawed. “It will take more to save the Church of England than a blend of the latest management theory, secular sorcery with statistics and evangelical up-speak,” he writes.

A cure for the ailing church “would require a much deeper ecclesial comprehension than the present leadership currently exhibit … There seems to be no sagacity, serious science or spiritual substance to the curatives being offered.”

Rather, he says, the church “is being slowly kettled into becoming a suburban sect, corralling its congregations, controlling its clergy and centralising its communication. Instead of being a local, dispersed, national institution, it is becoming a bureaucratic organisation, managing its ministry and mission – in a manner that is hierarchically scripted.”

On Sunday, Sherwood followed up in the Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, the Observer, with an account of the church plants inspired by Holy Trinity Brompton (HBT) appearing around the country as part of the Renewal and Reform program.

Nabi was among about 200 people who had come to sing, sway and pray at St Luke’s, a beautifully renovated warehouse in Gas Street, which opened its doors as a church in February. Now, according to priest-in-charge Tim Hughes, it regularly attracts a total of 500 people to its two Sunday services, which are characterised by loud rock music, chatty homilies rather than formal sermons, group prayer, and manifestations of God in the form of shaking or speaking in tongues.

Before moving to Birmingham, Hughes, 39, and his wife Rachel spent 10 years at Holy Trinity Brompton, an ultra-evangelical church in west London known almost universally as HTB, which pioneered the famed Alpha courses and where Hughes was director of worship. The Hughes and their four children were joined by two dozen other members in relocating to Birmingham to establish St Luke’s as a “church plant”. Members of the congregation are encouraged to commit to regular attendance and financial support by standing order.

The church plants are part of “the church’s biggest evangelism drive in a generation.”

That the Church of England needs to reach new people is beyond question. The scale of its institutional atrophy was graphically illustrated by data earlier this year showing that church attendance was set to continue falling for another 30 years. Today’s figure of 18 people per 1,000 regularly attending church would drop to 10 per 1,000, with an 81-year-old eight times more likely to go to church than a 21-year-old.

In an attempt to stem this apparently inexorable decline, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has launched the church’s biggest evangelism drive in a generation, with the goal of a religious revival among young people who are less likely than any other age group to identify themselves as Christians.

Welby, himself a former HTB man who was prepared for ordination by Sandy Millar, HTB’s vicar until 2005, is optimistic that his drive will succeed. “I think the tide is turning in this country. We are seeing many churches growing,” he told Michael Gove in an interview in the Spectator last December. In March, he told an evangelical gathering: “I believe from the bottom of my heart that the long years of winter in the church, especially in the Church of England, are changing. The ice is thawing, the spring is coming.” …

The church plants are getting generous support from the new Renewal and Reform program – which may be account for some of the opposition from those who feel that they are being left out of the renewal process.

Although it may appear to be a grassroots phenomenon, church planting is a key part of Welby’s strategy – and gets generous support. The allocation of church funds is a crucial way of effecting change in an institution whose running costs are about £1bn a year (much of it going to cover its vast pensions liability). According to a senior source, “money used to be handed over on a formulaic basis, and the dioceses could spend it how they liked. And the formula was perverse – if [church] attendances fell, you got more money. It was the wrong incentive structure.”

From January next year, funding will be allocated to two streams. One will go to poor areas, mostly deprived inner cities; the other for “strategic development”, with church planting taking centre stage.

[Bishop of Islington] Ric Thorpe said: “What’s changed is that [the church] is now saying, we want this money to go towards growth – which, when it’s in decline, is a wise investment.

But there are those who remain sceptical of the focus on evangelicalism as the best form of evangelism.

Many among the clergy and in congregations are uncomfortable and distrustful of charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues. There is also a belief that the established church of the country should be broad and inclusive – even if that means a little fuzzy – rather than narrow and uncompromising. …

Some in the broad middle feel marooned and neglected by the scale and pace of reform. Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church Oxford, and one of the most outspoken critics of Renewal and Reform, said Welby had a “group of very loyal lieutenants around him, but a lot of people in the church feel we’ve become exiles in our own institution”. The church, he said, was in the grip of a “small group of elite organisationally minded evangelicals who think the church is a biddable, shapeable, governable body, and that’s not the case. The reality is complex, messy, knotty.”

As to the language of membership,

Robert Cotton, rector of Holy Trinity Guildford and a member of the Archbishops’ Council until earlier this year, said … [t]he emphasis on growth in membership left him uneasy….

Evangelical churches expected a degree of commitment that many people felt unable to give, said Cotton. “The C of E for centuries has seen itself as a church serving the whole nation – the religious enthusiasts as well as those who are unable to demonstrate that sort of enthusiasm, but still take the moral life, the life of good character, the life of community service very seriously. And the church for years has wanted to value and nourish those people even if they can’t sign up to every article of the creed. The danger is that if we become too much a membership church, we’re actually shrinking our connection with the country.”

Find Saturday’s story featuring Martyn Percy’s critique here; Sunday’s examination of the HTB church plant phenomenon here.

Featured image: via htb.org (Holy Trinity Brompton)

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