A view over the horizon: the future of the Church of England, challenges, issues and opportunities (a presentation to Peterborough DEF).

       1. Probability as the guide of life

The title for this talk was inspired by a striking picture I saw a few years ago at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne. This picture was a photograph taken over the horizon on the international dateline in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia and showed the dawn breaking over the Siberian side of the strait. Because it was a photograph taken from east to west over the dateline it was literally a view into tomorrow.

Now most of us cannot literally see into tomorrow. We cannot see ‘over the horizon’ and know what tomorrow will bring. However, we have to act as though we could. We have to make decisions about what we think will happen in the future and plan accordingly. In the words of James 3:15 we have to say ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that’ and act on that basis.

It would be possible to make the basis of our action pure chance. We could just make all our decisions about the future by tossing a coin or throwing a dice, but most of us don’t. This is because, although we cannot know the future with absolute certainty, experience shows us that most of the time there tends to be continuity between the past, the present and the future and that when we assume such a continuity and act upon it things work better. For example, I know that the coach to Oxford I need to catch if I am going to do a morning’s teaching at Wycliffe Hall leaves Buckingham Palace Road in London at 6.40 a.m. I cannot be absolutely certain that on any given morning the coach will leave at that time (or even that there will be any coach at all). However, experience shows me that if I want to get to Wycliffe on time acting on the belief that the coach will probably depart at its normal time is a good idea. As the great Anglican theologian Joseph Butler noted back in the eighteenth century, we have to act on the basis of what we think is probable and this is determined by what has happened in the past or is happening now.

What is true of individuals is also true of churches. Churches have to decide how to act and this means that they have to decide what they think the future is going to look like. As in the case of individuals, they need to make the basis of their decisions the belief that there will probably be a general continuity between the future and the past and the present because experience shows that things work better if decisions are made on this basis.

There are, of course, examples that can be cited to challenge this belief. In the case of the Church of England a good example is the 1964 report by Leslie Paul The Deployment and Payment of the Clergy.  In the words of Adrian Hastings

‘When published early in 1964 it was hailed as an authoritative and professional piece of analysis. Unfortunately it was just wrong, based on gravely false assumptions. Writing in 1962 and 1963, Paul had behind him a decade in which the number of ordinations and the general state of things – church attendance, finance, and the rest – had been pretty steadily improving. Perhaps a little unimaginatively he presumed that this would continue almost indefinitely. In point of fact he wrote at the peak of the movement when decline was just about to set in and set in fast.’

Just how wrong Paul was can be shown by his prediction of the likely number of ordinations in 1971, a prediction he though was on the conservative side. He predicted 831 ordinations. The actual figure was 393. Paul thought that the number of ordinations would rise year on year throughout the 1960s. In fact they shrank and the Church of England has been struggling with a shortage of stipendiary clergy ever since.

The Paul report is a salutary reminder that predicting the future is an inexact science. From a Christian perspective what adds to the uncertainty, while also giving us great grounds for hope, is the fact that the Bible and the history of the Church both teach us that from time to time God acts in history to renew the life of his people. Think of the Exodus, think of the return from exile in Babylon. In the history of the Church of England think of the renewal of the Church brought about by the Reformation in the sixteenth and the Evangelical revival in the eighteenth century and the Charismatic renewal movement in the twentieth. These acts of God can radically change the life of God’s people, but precisely because they are the acts of God, and God is, to quote Karl Barth, ‘the God who loves in freedom’ precisely when and how they will happen cannot be predicted with certainty.

However, bearing both these points in mind, the fact remains that churches have to plan for the future and the best way to do this is to think about the future by thinking about what looks likely, or, in Butler’s terms, ‘probable.’  In this paper I shall be looking at what seems probable in terms of the future of the Church of England.

  1. Mission

As most of you know, a minor growth industry in recent years has been the production of mission statements. A mission statement is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organisation or individual.’  For example, Google declares that its mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ e bay’s mission statement is to ‘provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything’ and the Costa Coffee mission statement is to become ‘the most successful coffee business anywhere in the world as measured by customer preference and return on investment.’

The reason that mission statements have become popular is that they help an organisation, group, or individual, plan for the future by telling them what their overall aim is. Once you know what your aim is, it is much easier to work out how to achieve it in the future. In the case of the Church of England (and the Anglican Communion as a whole) its current mission statement is the Five Marks of Mission which were endorsed by the Anglican Consultative Council in 1990 and by General Synod in 1996. In their latest form the Five Marks of Mission declare that the Church’s calling is:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom;
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers;
  • To respond to human need by loving service;
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation;
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

The first two marks are based on the mission commands given by Jesus to his disciples during his earthly ministry and after his resurrection (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-24, Matthew 28:18-20) and the last three are based on the overall biblical teaching that God’s people should respond to the needs of their neighbours, promote peace and justice and care for God’s creation. If you want a good overall summary of the Bible’s teaching about mission that show how these five points fit together I recommend Chris Wright’s book The Mission of God published by IVP in 2006.

The fact that the Church of England understands its mission in terms of these five elements has a number of general implications for the way it should seek to operate in the future:

a. The Church of England will need to maintain as far as possible its existing parochial and chaplaincy system since these give it a comprehensive network of mission stations covering the whole country that, potentially at least, provides the opportunity to reach everyone with the gospel.

b. It will increasingly need to become what Archbishop Rowan Williams called a ‘mixed economy’ church, that is to say, a church that supplements traditional forms of church life with new ones that will enable culturally relevant forms of outreach to those who have no current connection with the Christian community. This is what the Fresh Expressions initiative is about.

c.It will need to develop ways of responding at a variety of levels to the rejection of Christian belief and morality that is now deeply embedded in our culture. The Church has high calibre intellectual apologists such as Michael Green, John Lennox, Alister McGrath and Bishop Tom Wright. They can counter the arguments of the well-known anti-God polemicists such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Philip Pullman and the sort of work that they do will need to continue and to be encouraged. What the Church will also need to foster, however, are ways of communicating the case for Christian faith at a more popular level. Courses such as Alpha, Christianity Explored and Emmaus have begun to do good work in this area, but arguably they are still too Middle Class in their approach to reach out to the nation as a whole.

d.It will need to be a church that proclaims what it believes not only in words but also though the quality of life exhibited by its members both as individuals and as a Christian community. This is because, as Graham Tomlin puts it in his book The Provocative Church:

‘Evangelism that proclaims a gospel of truth, yet pays little attention to the kind of community that it creates or the quality of life of the people it shapes, is unlikely to be listened to for very long by those who have imbibed the postmodern suspicion of disembodied truth with their mother’s milk.’

As Tomlin goes on to say, what the Church of England will need to foster are ‘provocative churches’, churches that will ‘provoke people to ask about the beliefs that inspire the life of that community and to take those beliefs seriously.’  If you want to see what a provocative church looks like read St. Luke’s account of the Early Church in Acts 2:37-3:5 or St. Paul’s description in Ephesians 4:17-6:8 of how the Church should exhibit the marks of the new humanity that God has created through the work of Christ.

e.It will need to be a church that practices integral mission in the sense of combining the proclamation of the gospel with care for those in need, work for justice and peace and an active concern for ecological issues. As the 2001 Micah Declaration on Integral Mission puts it:

‘It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.’

This form of integral mission will also mean being prepared to work with those of all faiths and none on matters of common concern and working on how to do this in a way that does not compromise a distinctive Christian witness.

f. In order to be a church that is provocative and that is able to undertake the demanding task of integral mission, the Church of England will need to be a church that takes Christian formation seriously, a church that produces not only converts, but mature disciples who understand the cost of Christian commitment and who are willing, and have the spiritual resources, to pay it.

g. Finally, it will need to be a church that is willing to undertake informed and sensitive mission amongst those of other faiths. We cannot say that those of other faiths are out of bounds to mission. The gospel is for everyone (‘make disciples of all nations’ Matthew 28:19). However, we do need to be aware of the impact of evangelism on community relations and of the high level of pastoral care required by converts from other faiths for whom conversion and, particularly baptism, may lead to ostracism or positive hostility from their families or communities. The Church of England report Sharing the Gospel of Salvation published in 2010 and available online gives a good introduction to these issues accompanied by examples of good practice.

As well as pointing us to these general issues, the Five Marks of Mission also provide us with the context for considering six specific issues which the Church of England will need to address in the years to come ministry in general, women bishops, establishment, sex, marriage and family life, ecumenical relations, money and prayer.

  1. Ministry in general

In order to carry out its mission effectively the Church of England will require ministers, that is to say, those who have been called by God and commissioned by the Church to undertake mission themselves and to help the whole Church to do the same through teaching, encouragement and co-ordination. What will change in future is not the need for ministers, but the pattern of ministry.  The shortage of stipendiary clergy caused by the retirement of those ordained in the 1960s and the high cost of stipendiary ministry (some £48-50,000 a year) means that the proportion of stipendiary clergy to self-supporting clergy and various forms of lay ministers will probably continue to fall (see ‘Stipendiary clergy projections 2015-35’ on the Church of England website) . This means that in many, if not all, areas of the Church of England the future is likely to lie with forms of collaborative ministry involving  teams of clergy and lay ministers working together to provide ministry for a group of parishes. The role of the stipendiary clergy will increasingly become to provide leadership for such teams rather than carry out most of the ministry themselves.

If this is increasingly going to be the future of ministry. then the training resources of the Church, which are still focussed on training people for stipendiary ordained ministry, will need to be re-focussed on providing training for all forms of ministry. What the Church’s training institutions offer and how they are financed will need to be developed accordingly.

A final point in relation to ministry  in general  is that if the Fresh Expressions work is to be carried forward the Church of England will need to be prepared to finance and support increasing numbers of pioneer ministers, both ordained (as at present) and lay, who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to undertake this form of mission..

  1. Women bishops

Following the passing of legislation to permit the consecration of women as bishops in November 2014 there are ten women bishops in the Church of England. There are two women diocesans, Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle, and eight female suffragans, Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport, Alison While, Bishop of Hull, Sarah Mullally, Bishop of Credition, Ruth Worsley, Bishop of Taunton, Anne Hollinghurst, Bishop of Aston, Karen Gorham, Bishop of Sherborn, Jan McFarlane, Bishop of Repton and Joe Bailey Wells, Bishop of Dorking. Women now make up 10% of the overall College of Bishops, still a small minority, but one that is likely to grow in the years ahead.

The appointment of women bishops means that the Church of England is faced with a number of challenges.

Firstly, what should the Church of England’s stated commitment to the ‘mutual flourishing’ of those with differing views on the ordination of women actually mean in practice? As the arguments surrounding the proposal to appoint Philip North as the new Bishop of Sheffield have shown, there is a strong disagreement between those who think that those opposed to the ordination of women should only exercise episcopal ministry in relation to those of the same persuasion and those who think that mutual flourishing means that all forms of ministry (including ministry as a diocesan bishop) should be open to those opposed to the ordination of women as well as to those in favour.

At the heart of this dispute is the fundamental theological issue (which the debates about the ordination of women bishops skated over) about how it is possible ecclesiologically for the Church of England to be one church when there are within it bishops and clergy who do not recognise the theological and sacramental validity of one another’s orders. The fact that this key issue was left open in the debates that took place between 2004 and 2014 and that we are now in serious trouble as a result, is an important warning against letting the supposed needs of mission override the necessity of actually achieving proper theological agreement about divisive issues. What will now have to happen is remedial work to establish agreement as to what ‘mutual flourishing’ does actually mean, work that will be made more difficult because of the strong feeling generated on both sides by the controversy about North’s proposed appointment and the would not be necessary if proper agreement had been reached in the first place.

Secondly, is it within the range of legitimate theological diversity in the Church of England to ground opposition to the ordination of women of the belief that as there is both equality of being and subordination of function between the Father and Son within the Holy Trinity so also women should be functionally subordinate to men in the life of the Church even though they are equal in terms of the dignity of their common humanity and their participation in the saving work of Christ?  This view has been criticised as heretical on the grounds that it denies the full divinity of God the Son, but as Mike Ovey shows in detail in his Latimer monograph Your will be done this criticism is misplaced. As he explains, regardless of your views on the ordination of women, a belief in the eternal functional subordination of the Son is what makes best sense of the biblical witness and is line with the historic teaching of the Christian Church. The Church therefore needs to proclaim this belief as an integral part of its mission preaching and its instruction of new disciples and on this basis to challenge one of the basic temptations of fallen humanity, which is to prefer pride to humility and self-assertion to godly obedience (see Philippians 2).

Thirdly, there remains a problem about the recruitment of women, and particularly Evangelical women, to full time stipendiary ministry. In recent years there has been a stable figure of roughly 38% of those being ordained being women. However, women are being ordained disproportionately as SSM clergy with the 2015 figures (the latest available) telling us that 27% of those ordained to stipendiary ministry were women compared to 51% of those ordained to self-supporting ministry.

Furthermore, while there are no official statistics available that break down ordinations by churchmanship, anecdotal evidence suggests that most women who are ordained are liberal Catholic or open/liberal Evangelical. It appears that we are ordaining relatively few orthodox Evangelical women and this will mean that as more women are appointed to senior positions in the years to come the Church’s senior leadership will move in a more liberal direction. The fact that 78% of the female members of the General Synod House of Clergy voted not to take note of the House of Bishops report last month is a bell weather of this, as are the known views of those women appointee as bishops, deans and archdeacons. This is an issue that Evangelicals need to take seriously because if the Church’s leadership does move in a more liberal direction this will undermine the likelihood of the Church continuing to proclaim biblical truth and biblical standards for Christian discipleship as it engages in its mission to the world.

  1. Establishment

The establishment of the Church of England is a short hand term for the position of the Church of England in English society ‘as by law established.’ This position involves a whole series of rights and responsibilities which I set out in detail in chapter five of my book A Guide to the Church of England. The key thing about establishment, however, and the reason why secularists get so cross about it, is because it gives the Church of England a guaranteed place at the heart of public life by, for example, ensuring that twenty six senior bishops have seats in the House of Lords and by giving the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to crown the monarch.

Pressure is likely to continue to grow to curtail or abolish the guaranteed public role of the Church of England in order, it will be argued to reflect a country that is more secular and more religiously plural and what the Church of England will have to decide is whether it wants to fight to resist this pressure.

Personally, I hope that it does decide to fight, not for its own sake, but because its current position gives the Christian faith visibility and influence in public life that it would not otherwise have and thus provides important opportunities for mission. I also think it is vital, however, that the Church of England uses its established role wisely and, specifically, that it uses the opportunities that it has to make its voice heard to underline three things that the nation needs to hear. Firstly, that the supreme authority which needs to be obeyed is not what public opinion wants at any given time, but the voice of God speaking through the biblical witness. Secondly, that the responsibility of the government for the welfare of the Queen’s subjects should mean a concern for their spiritual welfare and hence support for the Church and its work. Thirdly, that the material resources that we have should be used as tools of love in a way that enables all people and not just some to flourish in the way that God intends and that is compatible with caring for the well-being of the non-human creation.

     6. Sex, Marriage and family life

The issues of sex, marriage and family life are ones on which the Church of England needs to both get its own house in order and make its voice heard in wider society.

For a complex variety of reasons which are sketched out in Part 1 of Glyn Harrison’s excellent book A better story – God, sex and human flourishing (IVP 2016) our society has now increasingly moved to a radically new position on the issues of sex, marriage and family life. We live in a society in which the political system, the education system and the media are alike now telling us that whether we are male, female or some other form of sexual identity (gender queer, pan gender, two spirit etc.) is determined not by our biology but by our subjective self-perception, that sex and marriage between two people of the same sex is ok as are all forms of consensual sex outside marriage, that marriage can be ended simply because one or both spouses decide to walk away from their marriage vows, and that it is fine for children to be conceived out of wedlock and to be brought up by a single parent or two parents of the same sex.

In the face of this change in society the Church of England will come under increasing external and internal pressure to bow to the LGBTI agenda and officially accept the legitimacy of same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage and to accept that people’s God given sexual identity is whatever they declare it to be. To change in this way will be said to be a missional imperative for a church that aspires to be the Church for the nation rather than a narrow fundamentalist sect.

For two reasons, however, it would not be right for the Church of England to bow to this pressure:

Firstly, the unequivocal teaching of the Bible and of the Church Catholic (what has been believed ‘always, everywhere and by everyone’ as St. Vincent of Lerins put it) is that a person’s sex is determined by the nature of their physical embodiment, and that sex, marriage and the procreation and nurture of children are meant to belong together. Furthermore, sexual identity and activity are not minor issues because they are created by God to be primary witnesses in our very created natures to the relational life of the Triune God himself and to his passionate, fruitful and passionate love for us that will be consummated in the marriage between God and his people that will take place in the world to come (Revelation 19:6-9, 21:2, 9). It is because of this that sexual sin is so serious that it will exclude someone from God’ kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Secondly, the empirical evidence charted by Harrison and others makes it clear that the sexual revolution has not contributed to human emotional or physical well-being, but has in fact done great harm to those who are the most vulnerable in society; the poor, sexual minorities, women and children. It is they who have paid the price of sexual freedom.

What the Church of England needs to do instead is to be boldly counter-cultural in declaring that people ought to live God’s way and explaining why this is the case. In order for this declaration to be plausible the Church of England will need to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ and this means that as part of its general work in Christian formation it will need to foster truthful sexual identity, greater sexual discipline, stronger marriages and lower rates of divorce among its own members while at the same time showing Christ’s love and compassion to those who fall short in their sexual conduct and providing informed and effective pastoral support to those who struggle with their sexuality. It is getting this balance right that will be one of the Church of England’s greatest pastoral challenges in the years ahead.

There will be those who say that last month’s Synod vote shows that the Church of England has already sold the pass. This is not in fact true. The Synod vote has not changed the Church of England’s stated position on marriage and sexuality which remains orthodox. For this to change would involve a complex process involving a 2/3 majority for change in all three house of General Synod which is unlikely to happen in the near future. The situation is serious, but it is not yet desperate. This being the case, those who are orthodox on sexual ethics need to do two things.

(a) In the words of Bishop Rod Thomas in his recent statement on the Synod vote, they need ‘to stand firm – continuing to teach and do the work of evangelism, continuing to turn up at Synods in order to contend for the gospel, continuing to encourage one another by meeting together, and continuing to support those who run into difficulty.’

(b) They need to think in an informed fashion about what might happen in the future and how they should respond if it does. The new document Guarding the Deposit available on the Church of England Evangelical Council website provides a helpful resource for this kind of informed thinking by explaining why upholding orthodoxy in regard to sexual ethics is a vital part of maintaining the apostolic witness and what the options are for continuing to uphold orthodox faith and practice if the Church of England as whole does move in a revisionist direction.

  1. Ecumenism

 If the Church of England is going to carry out its mission to the nation successfully it has got to undertake this mission together with the other Christian churches. This is because the task of mission to the nation is beyond the resources of any one denomination, but also, and more fundamentally, it is because it is as the churches demonstrate that unity that is God’s gift to them in Christ that the gospel will be made plausible and the world will come to believe (Jn 17:20-21). As St. Paul explains in Ephesians 1:3-3:12, it is the visible unity of the Church, made up from both Jews and Gentiles, that makes manifest both to the world and to the heavenly powers God’s eternal plan to unite all things to Himself in Christ.

In the words of the 1996 Anglican- Methodist report Commitment to Mission and Unity:

‘The Gospel Message ….is compromised by our divisions, and consequently our witness to reconciliation is undermined. The Church is called to offer to the world through its own life the possibility of the unity and peace which God intends for the whole creation. The continuing divisions between our churches give an ambiguous message to a society which is itself divided in many ways.

The challenge for the Church of England is to develop new ways of working ecumenically that avoid the cumbersome structures associated with Local Ecumenical Partnerships and Churches Together groups in the past and that are genuinely focussed on mission and to develop new partnerships with the Black Majority Churches and with the new Evangelical networks such as Vineyard, New Frontiers and the Ground Level Network that are becoming an increasingly important part of the English church scene. In addition, the Church of England needs to be prepared to be more selective in relation to its existing ecumenical relationships by only being prepared to work with those churches (or groups within churches) that remain orthodox over sex and marriage. This would mean looking again, for example, at the Anglican-Methodist Covenant and the Porvoo agreement with the Scandinavian and Baltic Lutheran churches given that both the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Scandinavian Lutheran churches have moved away from an orthodox position on sexual ethics


 As any PCC treasurer or DBF chairman will tell you, mission does not just happen. It has to be paid for. This means that if the Church of England is to carry out its mission it will need adequate financial resources. It seems likely that in the years ahead these resources are going to continue to be tight, particularly because of the rising costs of training, stipends, pensions and housing.

What this means is either the Church of England will have to cut back what is does, or, and this is the better option, those in the church are going to need to learn from the example of the Black Majority and new Evangelical churches and begin to give really generously and sacrificially in response to the fact that we have an abundantly generous God who sacrificed everything for us (see 2 Corinthians 8-9 for St, Paul’s teaching on this point). It is worth noting that if all those who attend church were to give just £1 a week extra to support the Church’s work this would go a long way to addressing the financial difficulties it is currently facing.

It is important to note, however, that if the Church of England does receive new resources in this way then it has to be generous in giving them away. If we want to be a provocative church we have to learn to give generously and sacrificially to the world around us without looking for any immediate return. This principle will become particularly important as the effect of economic downturn and the austerity agenda continue to bite and we continue to be faced with the challenge of ministering to increasing number of people in serious need.

  1. Prayer

Finally, if we want the work of God in the Church of England to go forward we need to translate that aspiration not only into work, but also into prayer (such as the period of prayer leading up to Pentecost called for by the Archbishops as part of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative). As I said towards the beginning of this paper, God is not a predictable God. He is the ‘God who loves in freedom.’ However, he is also the God who has promised to hear us when we seek his face in prayer. In the words of  God to King Solomon following the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem:

‘…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7:14)

The path to the future needs to begin on our knees.