The Church of England is nothing if it is not a National Church.
A National Church – a National Institution – present in every community.
However, there has been a progressive squeeze on the Church’s ability to sustain a nationwide presence.
As the research from the Archbishop’s Council and the Church Commissioners concluded starkly: “put simply, fewer clergy are now ministering to a larger population and having to maintain a roughly similar number of buildings with fewer worshippers to pay for them”.
So what should we do to arrest Church decline?
1. Let the tribes thrive:
When I grew up in the 1950’s Anglican Church services on a Sunday, across the country, were fairly uniform. Indeed, at that time, in most places the Book of Common Prayer Matins – either said Matins, or sung Matins, depending on whether a church had a choir.
But increasingly, in the late 60’s, 70’s and onwards there was much greater ability for parishes to “pick ‘n mix” Orders of Service.
This, taken together with controversy and debate over the ordination of women as priests led to distinct groupings emerging in the Church of England, such as “Forward in Faith”, and various strands of Evangelical Churches.
Such diversity is a strength for the Church of England.
One in three Anglican congregations is growing; we need to celebrate and build on their success.
2. Sort out Sex Swiftly:
When I was asked by the Editor of the Church Times, what I would miss when I ceased being Second Church Estates Commissioner next March, I replied “Sex”.
I wasn’t wishing to be facetious, but much of my time as Second Church Estates Commissioner, seems in some way to have been related to considering issues of gender, or sex.
• Women Bishops;
• The legislation for Same Sex Marriage; and
• Discussions in the Church regarding sexuality more generally.
Most of my children’s generation have friends who are openly gay, know of gay friends who are in long term partnerships, and feel that if those friends are not welcome in the Church of England, why should they want to be members of an institution that excludes their friends?
I very much welcome the facilitated conversation within the Church, initiated by Archbishop Justin, and I hope that it is possible for the House of Bishops and, as swiftly as possible, General Synod, to find a way forward on this issue, because I do not believe that young people will either be wooed into joining, or wooed into staying in the Church of England if the Church gives the impression of being “Anti-Gay”.
3. Archdeacons’ Action Plans
I think in the Church of England we are generally very good at consensus. I am not sure that we are always as good at the grip of leadership.
I am very conscious that within the stewardship of the Church there are finite resources and ultimately someone has to make value judgements of how much of those finite resources are spent on buildings, and how much of those finite resources are spent, for example, on other parts of the Church’s mission or, for example, on social action – although of course, very often with sensitivity and investment, one can make church buildings and more available for the wider purposes of the Church, importantly to worship, activities as diverse as everything from Village Post Offices to Food Banks.
So decisions have to be made as to how all these various assets and resources – human and physical – are best used for the mission and growth of the Church.
I would suggest that what would be helpful is for each Archdeacon to produce after appropriate discussions within their Archdeaconry an action plan of how they see those assets being best used.
Archdeacons already have responsibilities in respect of local clergy and also in respect of church buildings and they are in the best position to put forward coherent action plans for the church in their own area.
These action plans could be updated annually and at a diocesan and national level would collectively give both an accurate health check of the Church’s position and a clear overall map of direction of travel.
4. A Church which welcomes Children
To be a living church for future generations, the Church of England must not only stop losing teenagers and those in their early twenties, but we must find ways of encouraging many more families and children to come to church.
It is a very simple, very stark, proposition and a church which does not have the regular attendance of children and young people, will eventually die.
The Church that I attend in Bloxham, every month, almost always, has a Communion Service with Baptism, or a Family Service with Baptism.
Parents still bring their children to be baptised.
They bring their family and friends and the children of their family and friends.
What I would love to discover is how do we persuade those parents to bring their children, once baptised, to church, if not every week, once a month. Or, if not once a month, a number of times each year, or encourage them to attend Sunday School.
I do not in any way underestimate the challenge but it is such an important issue for the Church that it has be, I would suggest, one of our top priorities in terms of mission.
5. Disagreeing Better and Reconciling
I genuinely consider that the Church of England probably only has about twenty years in which to ensure that it remains a viable national church.
We cannot afford to squander any of that time. However, my experience as Second Church Estates Commissioner over the last five years is that it seems very difficult for the Church of England to be able to focus at any one time on more than one issue.
And we have spent a large part of the last ten years collectively debating Women Bishops.
The breakthrough in finding a way forward on Women Bishops largely occurred once Archbishop Justin had enlisted the help of Canon David Porter to start facilitated discussions between all the various parties, and actually encouraging everyone to listen to what each other was saying and trying to find a way forward.
I suggest we need to see a lot more of that approach at every level in the Church.
I think we all have a duty as Anglicans to work out how we can better effect and agree what is in the common good of the Anglican Church.
We need to learn – all of us – how to disagree better but, as importantly, we need to learn how to reconcile those differences, make decisions and move on.
6. A Church for All of England
The concept of our Established Church is occasionally misunderstood and I believe commonly under-appreciated.
Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.
It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more an active cooperation for the common good with those of others faiths.
I do not believe that we should consider that continuing decline is inevitable. As Christians we have a duty to our faith and all those who have gone before us, to do our best to ensure that we hand on to our children and our grandchildren a living and vibrant Church in England.
This is an abridged version, with Sir Tony’s permission, of his speech to Ripon College Cuddeson, published in full on his website here.
Sir Tony Baldry has been a Member of Parliament for North Oxfordshire for 30 years (elected in 1983). He was knighted for political and public services in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2012 and was made a Privy Counsellor in November 2013. He has been the Second Church Estates Commissioner since June 2010. He is a Church Commissioner and ex officio a member of the Church of England’s General Synod. Tony Baldry is the only Member of Parliament to be a member of General Synod and the only member of General Synod to be a Member of Parliament. Sir Tony is also a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Personnel Development; a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.