A new era dawns

Everybody who is anybody will be descending on Canterbury on the last Thursday in February. One assumes this was the only free date in the Prime Minister’s diary, so Synod will be prorogued the day before to allow those who have been invited to be present in Canterbury Cathedral to mark the coming of a new Archbishop.

I’m not sure exactly what you call it – an enthronement or whatever. Rowan Williams was already an Archbishop (of Wales) before being appointed and apparently is already Archbishop of Canterbury – but in the Church of England we do like our pomp and ceremony even if the new man is less than enthusiastic about it all.

So what will the agenda be for the coming years? Will the new Archbishop find that the bureaucracy dictates the agenda to him, or will he be his own man and manage to impose an agenda of his own? More importantly, when Rowan Williams leaves office, will the gospel have been advanced in this land, or will he merely have gone with the flow and managed decline, as his predecessors have done?

I suppose there is never a good time to become Archbishop of Canterbury but, notwithstanding reams of paper about priorities from the Archbishops’ Council, the Church of England at the moment does seem to be remarkably unfocused on what ought to be its primary aim – winning the nation for Christ. Churchgoing in the last decade has fallen to its lowest levels for many years. Some people are all too ready to grasp at straws (regarding people who occasionally come to a Family Service as regular worshippers, for instance), but Peter Brierley’s research makes all too plain the Church’s utter failure to capture the interest of the younger generation. Most under-40s are far more likely to turn to a counsellor than to a minister for guidance.

What then should we do? Passivity is always a popular option and it is relatively easy to plan for managed decline. Buildings can be closed, the parish system dismantled, a deanery corps of mass priests can rush around like pizza delivery men armed with wine and wafers – but what a travesty of the gospel. With an ageing clientele we can do little more than stave off the inevitable consolidation for the next generation to deal with – and leave a rising generation completely ignorant of the claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives.

Evangelism is never a popular option. I remember a clergyman telling me once that he often ran courses on evangelism in his parish. ‘I always have a well-attended course for the first five weeks,’ he said, ‘but then I say that on the sixth week we will be going outside to actually do some evangelism. The attendance on that last week always plummets.’

It must be difficult to persuade people to become Christians if you are doubtful about some of the basic doctrines of the faith yourself. Again Peter Brierley’s research suggests that a worrying proportion of Church of England clergy have views which are well adrift from the traditional orthodox Christian beliefs expounded by the writers of the New Testament. So is evangelism an option for the Church of England? It is all very well leaving it to a handful of thriving parishes and to para-Church agencies, but why are the still considerable resources of the Church of England not being thrown at this enterprise, which must surely be of paramount importance?

In recent weeks, the evidence from the Church press has been that the Church seems to have starkly different priorities. Just look at the news items from last month, for instance.

The new Bishop of Bradford went public with some intriguing views. He said, ‘We are scared of them (young people) and there is no reason to be. They need to be given confidence and know that they are wanted. Young people are no longer antagonistic against God but are open and interested. And in very many schools RE is now the most popular of all the subjects offered at GCSE.’ I suppose it is just possible, though unlikely, that most of the young people that Peter Brierley found in church worship within the Diocese of Bradford.


The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, published his autobiography in which he claims he was nearly driven into atheism by his experience of being a bishop. However, he makes no mention of his legacy to his successor – the fastest declining diocese in the Church of England.

The Bishop of St Albans, speaking in the House of Lords, urged the BBC not to dissipate its energies on ‘make-over’ programmes but to get serious on important issues such as the euro.

The Bishop of Lichfield sent a taped message on evangelism to his diocese, the main point of which, according to press reports, was asserting that financial giving was as much part of Communion as the breaking of bread.

The Bishop of Hereford, in his new year letter, urged people in his diocese to sort out the balance between life and work, in order to prevent them working themselves into an early grave. ‘Do we work too hard, while others have no work?’ he asked.

The House of Bishops backed the new Archbishop’s view that events in Iraq did not call for a response from the world community. No doubt the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs will be gratified to hear that English Bishops are prepared to turn a blind eye to their plight – and settle for a quiet life. The Bishop of Birmingham was particularly outspoken in his desire to protect Saddam Hussein’s regime when he spoke to the press afterwards.

How any of this activity is going to help the Church of England in its mission to save souls is difficult to see. When His Grace takes the reins at the next meeting of the House of Bishops, one imagines he may have to say a few words about priorities. Leading a team of forty four independent minded autocrats will not be easy, but notwithstanding the much vaunted collegiality of recent years, can he weld together a team which will address what ought to be the Church’s priorities?

When the Church has nothing to say about Jesus Christ, it will always seek relevance by talking about social issues. By not proclaiming the saving words of Christ to needy souls it simply becomes ‘salt that has lost its savour’.

Will the new Archbishop face up to the unruly members of the lower fourth and remind them that they do not have the luxury of indulging themselves in flights of fancy and playing at being amateur politicians while gospel imperatives remain unaddressed?


Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.

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