Shiny Church or Soggy Church? Each has its place

A recent flowering of summer journalism by Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian, about the inevitably ‘critical’ future of the Church of England, sets out with clarity a Tale of Two Churches, from which we apparently have to choose, and between which there seems to be a good deal of suspicion and displeasure, at least as far as clergy tweeps are concerned.  
First there’s shiny Church. This is broadly urban and evangelical, with an umbilical cord that stretches back to Holy Trinity, Brompton, the spiritual home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the progenitor of the Alpha Course, the famous programme of dinner parties and Christian initiation for people with big questions and perfect teeth. This is beautiful church for beautiful people, appealing principally to the white, bright and polite, the brand of successful Christianity that has come to dominate the C of E, setting the ‘Renewal and Reform’ agenda that will decide on the training of future clergy (especially senior clergy), the setting of budgets, and the way we treasure or trash our legal and liturgical traditions.

On the plus side, shiny Church would claim a clear understanding of Jesus, the Bible and our response to them. It boasts a contemporary culture and aesthetic, and has a robust approach to finance, being wholly unembarrassed to talk about the sort of growth we should expect for our money.

Its detractors ask whether it’s a Church for everyone, or just for the southern middle classes, those for whom a bad day is finding that Waitrose is fresh out of vanilla pods. Does it really cater for the black and white working class, the newly-arrived, the modestly-educated, or those who’ve been round the block a few times and felt more than their fair share of life’s thorns?

In the other corner is soggy Church. This is the broad, rural, traditional C of E, sunny side of middle stump, as seen on TV. To their critics, these places are hotbeds of lukewarm nominal Christianity, people who might just mow the churchyard or bake a cake for the bring-and-buy, but who’d run a mile if asked for their Christian testimony. They don’t really have one, and wouldn’t want you to think them over-familiar with God. They’d certainly never mention Jesus without a qualifying Christ.

For others, these churches offer precisely the sort of hospitality and service a national Church should give: not clubs for zealots; more drop-in centres for the quietly bewildered. For these people, a more questioning and reticent C of E is just what they need, a place if not to belong then at least to take their turn to squint down the telescope at the end of the pier and see what fragments of horizon are discernible.

But is this Church of the ‘soggy middle’ really a church we should be pouring our cash into? The hope is that people will be drawn into a threefold process of social, liturgical and finally intellectual belonging. First they will participate in quiz nights and toddler groups, then graduate to a Mothers’ Day service or Shoppers’ Carols. After a long time they might get used to fairly regular worship, provided it’s not too full-on or cringe-making. And only then (if ever) will they begin the process of committing themselves to anything like an orthodox belief. They will probably never be ready to trade their summer holiday for a week’s camping with the youth group, and their levels of giving will never threaten their second car or house or chance of higher education for their kids. They know they ought to live more simply, but never quite get round to it; and they have heard the stories of dramatic conversion, but carry on living in their plain old humanity, in which they sit as comfortably as in an old cardie and broken down slippers. But they do at least still come, for all their flakiness. Indeed, it is their soggy normality and lack of zeal that is their greatest gift. These are the ones who, when they mention to friends and family that they’re going to something at the local church, won’t be dismissed as cranks and Jesus freaks. Their middle-England level-headedness (and still going to church?) arguably speaks more eloquently of the Anglican way and its viability than a thousand ecstatic utterances or expository sermons on the Epistle to the Romans.

The very obvious point is that there’s room for both shiny and soggy churches. It is true that our immediate reaction to one another is not especially commendable, but this must change – and not into a sort of multi-grade syncretism in which sensible evangelicals start to giggle about vestments and thuribles (and gosh, you find an awful lot of this in twitter). Both have their distinctive work to do and each must be encouraged by the other with understanding and good will for mutual flourishing. For the alternative, see Labour Party, 2016.

I therefore commend the following Eleven Commandments, not because they all have to do with the R and R controversy, but because, like the man in the lounge bar on the corner stool with the freshly-pulled pint, I am in the mood for putting the world to rights, and today is as good a day as any. So:

1. Accept that Mission Action Planning and all the rest of it has its place. It’s not a panacea, or our Lady’s forgotten words to Richeldis. It’s a game, but like the best sort of game its important product is the process the players engage in together. In this case, what matters is that the PCC and Vicar make themselves ask what the Good News is, what’s good about it, and why and how others might want to get involved. Even reluctant Planners will hereby start to travel a more fruitful road.

2. Don’t confuse principled objection with thwarted ambition. We can’t all be a dean, and there’s an end on’t.

3. Maximise the numbers of worker priests, not just to cut the wage and pension bill. We need public faces of the Gospel who are bilingual in Church and world. All the baptised have a share in this work, but those who have been specially prepared and commissioned for the work of evangelism need to step boldly into this role. Ordain men and women locally and plentifully so that each small community has someone to preside amidst the life and worship of the place. Think and work ecumenically, within and beyond the C of E.

4. Sort out the size of the dioceses. At present they’re pastorally too large and administratively too small. Use stipend money wisely so that fewer bishops and priests cover the ground not as pastors to individual groups, but as overseers, teachers, encouragers.

5. Keep an open mind on buildings. It is true that we can’t keep every little Victorian sanctuary in tip top condition in perpetuity, but neither must we rush to close next Monday any church that wasn’t full last Sunday. Buildings remain a wonderful mission opportunity just by existing. Let’s stay imaginative and bold. Selling up isn’t a tragedy; hanging on isn’t necessarily a victory.

6. Ditto communities. As long as a parish can pay the insurers and the gas bill, dig them and dung them another year. Their ministry will be non-stipendiary by now, probably. Make no unseemly haste to withdraw.

7. In following Jesus Christ, emphasise always the creation of supportive communities that bear the five marks of mission: proclaiming the Kingdom; nurturing new believers; responding to need; battling injustice; caring for the earth.

8. Christian communities can grow together in peace, love and unity if, in our preaching we all acknowledge that there is a breadth of view on all subjects and a wide divergence in how we interpret scripture. A preacher can and must preach according to his or her own conscience, but just to acknowledge the diversity is a step towards valuing those whom we may find frankly unappealing.

9. Don’t confuse Christian unity with a shared taste in music. There are all sorts of reasons why we believe what we do, and why we prefer the aesthetic of some religious expression to others. This means that why and whether we find other Christians attractive or convincing is a hugely inexact science. In response to this, we would be well advised to concentrate solely on the Lord’s commandment to love our neighbour without delving too deeply into their theology.

10. Use all existing means of growing in unity within the C of E. We all naturally find vast numbers of other Anglicans strange and reprehensible, their doctrinal positions bizarre, their liturgical practices outlandish; there is a high likelihood that even their shirts and shoes will be unforgivable. This is precisely why clergy have deanery chapter and post-ordination training; it is why they go to each other’s inductions and the Archdeacon’s Visitation. It is why they absolutely must go to at least one Chrism Eucharist. They must, in short, take every opportunity available to get to know, understand and value one another, so that personal and tribal suspicions and antipathies can be erased in the common life of the diocese, so that we begin to understand, value and trust what others are doing. And even if we can’t value it, we will understand and trust each other sufficiently well to talk helpfully about our differences.

11. In all things, hold fast to our Anglican DNA and persist in ‘keeping the mean between extremes’. Our principal Anglican inheritance is the recognition that a Church of compromise, breadth and diversity is a better response to theological difference than setting fire to our opponents. (As Churchill might have said, Learn, learn is better than Burn, burn.) This process of maintaining our reconciled diversity is not only good for us: it’s one of the clearest lenses through which we Anglicans view the resurrection, and is therefore the primary lesson we share with our violently unreconciled world.
It is inevitable that, at a time like this, an Archbishop like ours (given to us by divine providence) will look to a programme like Reform and Renewal. It is equally inevitable that others will find it a misplaced and mistaken solution to all that ails us. But, however naturally I conform to one of the stereotypes, I will not be drawn into believing that we must be either shiny or soggy, either ‘missional’ (dread word) or pastoral. I do believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be a guide for the Churches; that our bishops and diocesan secretaries are good, holy and wise; and that we, provided we cling to the boat and to each other, will learn from the best of our different treasuries and so be equipped to proclaim the Word made flesh, leading many to the liberty and life he comes to bring.

 

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3 thoughts on “Shiny Church or Soggy Church? Each has its place

  1. Shiny versus soggy are not the only two choices available.

    Shiny is ghastly if it is the Alpha Course (worst oversimplification of Christian theology ever) and evangelicalism sets my teeth on edge.

    Soggy is comforting and sounds like living in a John Betjeman poem. If it was only a choice between shiny and soggy, I would choose soggy. A respectable enough suburb of the City of God, as Evelyn Underhill put it.

    Actually I have to confess that visiting an Anglican church is anthropologically fascinating but feels to me like visiting another planet – an interesting day out but completely alien. Probably because I am a Wiccan.

    I like bells and smells but I can’t bear the theology (I am fascinated by theology as a topic but turned off by 90% of Christian theology). And why are the 39 articles no longer on the C of E website? How is anyone supposed to know what they are signing up to?

    But there are other options than shiny and soggy. Where does the inclusive church fit in that paradigm? What about Brian Mountford’s mystical and apophatic approach?

    I loved points 8, 9, and 10, and the thing about caring for the Earth.

    I just hope your missional wossname is aimed at the unchurched / non-religious – because it bugs me when Christians try to convert people of other faiths. It’s rude.

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  2. ‘Ordain men and women locally and plentifully so that each small community has someone to preside amidst the life and worship of the place’ ‘Preside’ being the give away here . . the demand for weekly holy communion by too few priests a priority over and above saving churches where the average age is often over 70 and expensively trained priests fly from from church to church, sometimes coming in half way through, in ever bigger benefices with attendant and growing admin and finance work, so the answer is more priests, especially unpaid ones? Sounds like managing decline to me. . a kind of vain hope people will just start coming along, the picture painted of ‘soggy’ curchngrowth just isn’t happening, whatever your opinion or inclination or preference.
    The answer may not be 100% renewal and reform, yet those kind of churches are at least growing numerically, so what are we supposed to do?

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