Up and down the country thousands of Church of England clergy minister to their parishes, tend their chaplaincies and witness to their calling. Churches are such physical and visible presences in our villages, towns and cities that it is sometimes easy to overlook the great range of work and activity that goes on inside them – schools, food-banks, community activity, local clubs, groups, and much more besides. There are forty-two dioceses covering every corner of England. Whether we know it or not, every single one of us has a Bishop and a parish priest looking out for us. The Church of England is a truly national institution, blessed and burdened by centuries of history and establishment connection.
In its byzantine structure the church reflects this history of national engagement. It has piled itself high with structure and process. It has created a machine which generates activity without commensurate meaningful impact, work without significant result and an increasing marginalisation in national debate which impoverishes its mission and purpose. Statements issued, such as the recent ones on marriage and Brexit, are frequently confused and cause confusion.
The hard facts, however, are stark. The number of people engaging with the church is in sharp and continued declined. As its social and community activities increase so its base, those worshipping regularly in its churches, continues to fall away. As Katie Harrison writes there is a clear need and purpose to focus activity and resources in the particular area of young people if a new generation is to be engaged. As it is, too much of church time and investment is squandered elsewhere.
This week the General Synod, the church’s parliament, will meet for the first of its biannual meetings. It is composed of over 400 members – roughly two-thirds of the size of the House of Commons. It is a perfect example of a church body and activity that consumes time and money for no good purpose. At best it will be ignored. More likely is that it will generate harmful media headlines. This great gathering is barely a hundred years old and its time has well and truly come and gone.
The General Synod is the largest and most obvious church institution in need of reform – but there are many more. Each diocese has a synod. Church House – the national headquarters of the church in London, the Archbishop’s Council, the parish and diocesan structures, the way Cathedrals are run and who runs them, are all in need of an overhaul.
Importantly, too, lines of accountability and responsibility need to be clear and enforced. No longer should it be the case that a statement can be issued on behalf of the Bishops without their permission, which many then go on to publicly disown, with no-one knowing who authorised its publication and with the ensuing furore forcing the two Archbishops into making a public apology. Such episodes lay bare the lack of proper management and accountability any other institution, public or private, would take for granted.
In recent years much focus has been put on strengthening the church’s leadership and re-invigorating its impact. Time may yield positive results. Church leaders generally do not welcome challenge and criticism. For all the talk of openness the Church of England is one increasingly looking inwards and divorced in its senior appointments from necessary and healthy accountability.
What is certainly the case is that it needs an overhaul in its structures and institutions, a process it should use to reach out once again to the people it is there to serve. In other words what the Church of England needs is a second reformation.