Talking Heads

Robbie Low on compulsory viewing

The Church of England has entered the video age! How do I know this? Along with every other clergyperson I have recently received, special delivery, a large package from head office containing a boxed video set and accompanying booklets entitled, ‘Restoring Hope in our Church’.

Clearly a project of this scale does not emerge in a matter of months. Its origins are in the dog days of the Carey era. Most of the evidence points to it being an idea of Jayne Ozanne, one of those bright young things appointed to the Archbishop's Council. Failing to find sufficient enthusiasm or budget through official channels it was taken up by the mission agencies who, with considerable support from the Archbishop of York, ran with it, raised their own stake, encouraged like-minded trusts and individuals to contribute and began the extensive planning. The budget was some £125,000 of which 90% has now been raised.

Several things need to be said here. First of all it is a positive sign that six major mission agencies (CMS, CPAS, USPG, MU, Springboard and Church Army) were able to collaborate. Second, it is a measure of the seriousness of our situation that mission agencies and the Archbishop’s Council give priority to the morale, organization and mission in their homeland. Third, it demonstrates a remarkable degree of optimism that, by sending vital messages to the clergy, they will somehow permeate that usually impenetrable barrier and trickle down to the laity.

It is impossible to know in detail the conversations that begat the video, but it does not take a genius to reconstruct the salient points. Readers of this magazine will be all too familiar with the presenting symptoms.

The Decade of Evangelism has been a failure. Average attendances have been in free-fall. In spite of the growth of some churches the Church of England has leaked approximately 20 per cent of its membership in 10 years.

Far from delivering an open welcoming new era of church life, the priesting of women has been a spectacular own goal. Apart from the obvious and painful divisions within, serious ecumenism with the major communions has ground to halt and people are not queueing up and to join a family at war. Recent research indicates that women priests and their supporters have a significantly lower belief profile than other Christians.

Vocations, in spite all the efforts to produce easy entry and part-time training, have plummeted.

Finances, battered by the investment scandals of the early Nineties and depressed by plummeting stock market and low interest rates, are in a parlous state. As clergy face unemployment, not one single dignitary post is cut. The amalgamation of parishes grows apace leaving some clergy with insupportable workloads while, behind closed doors, the bishops talk urgently about ‘the management of decline’ while their dioceses trade insolvent.

This is the sobering backdrop against which the video was made. Though, you will not be surprised to know, none of these crises is confronted head-on, they haunt every frame as the speakers seek to find ways of being optimistic about the future.

The Video

It comes in a large brown case. Recipients of the Turnbull Report will recall a cover photo of a brown wicker basket which, if uninspiring, did at least give a guide to where it could be filed. Some corporate image joker has, presumably advised the Church of England that brown is the new black.

The film begins with triumphal music and stained-glass windows. (There is a lot of stained-glass in this film). We hear the voice of Rowan Williams, a necessarily late recruit to this movie, talking of the uncontainable excitement of the life of faith.

Tom Wright, the new Bishop of Durham and narrator here, gives us a potted history of Christianity’s significance to England before giving way to more stained glass and more triumphal music. This is the historic church, I imagine, for we are swiftly translated in cinematic cliché to Tom in the market place where people find us ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and ‘dated’. This, Tom tells us sensitively, must hurt us a bit.

Fortunately Rowan is on hand to outline his hopes for the Church. The two key words are ‘confidence’ and ‘space’. Confidence in ‘Knowing whom we have believed ‘, ‘the treasure we have been given’, ‘the new way of being human’ and ‘freed from the past and guilt and the downward drag of selfish instinct’. The ‘space’ is to explore the gift in a ‘psychologically big and hospitable churches’ where ‘a gentle pace and open spirit allows us to be taught by God’. Tom describes this as ‘an inspiring vision’.

Now I have no quarrel with either of these chaps. They are both immensely likeable, thoughtful, clever and capable men. (Anyone who has read Wright’s works, for example The Resurrection of the Son of God will welcome a strong ally in a huge area of doctrinal orthodoxy). But they must be aware that, with cheap and makeshift theological education, years of disastrous episcopal appointments and the recent consistent evidence of clerical disbelief and poor morale, we are light years away from this sunny hope.

There is a brief interlude on statistics. The Reverend Linda Barley (the official number cruncher and spin doctor) blames changing lifestyles for our decline and discovers that old favourite, the midweek service, to put figures back up in the comfort zone. Flannel. Dr Leslie Francis, an independent statistician, reminds us not to despise our strong base of affiliates (‘non-practising’) and exhorts us to go after the lapsed. Fair comment.

And back to Tom. He tells me not to get bogged down by desk work and negative messages and reminds me what the Gospel is all about. Yes, it's a bit patronizing but he is forgiven, because his Evangelical summary is pretty much on the button. Besides, he should tell me about desk work!

So far it is all talking heads – and, I should warn you now, that's how it stays.

We are then confronted by a series of ‘challenges’. Here, I suspect, is where clerical viewers may start to get a little bit irritated. It's not that we mind challenges, we live with them every day on the front line. It's the underlying assumption that we've never really thought about these questions.

Let me try a few of them on you and, knowing that many of you are too polite to respond to the provocation, I will try to articulate some of the things that may be going through your mind.

1. Are we too inward-looking?

Archbishop Hope warns us about the internal disputes that have distracted us from our agenda.

David, you are a very nice chap and I agree with you. But age can play tricks with the memory. Wasn't it the bishops who forced the pace on women priests and brought schism? Wasn't it the bishops who rushed to undermine traditional teaching on human sexuality and marriage discipline? Wasn't it the bishops who fought to maintain a secretive Church in appointments and finance? Wasn't it the archbishops who chaired meetings that led to scandalous and morale damaging senior appointments all over the country?

Most of us would have given our right arms not to have to argue about all this and just get on with the job. Serving the parish against a backdrop of heresy and disorder is no easy task.

2. Are we engaging with the youth?

Christina Baxter (Chairman of the House of Laity) tells us that we can learn from young people, but they do not want the Church’s baggage. This is one of the few moments of unconscious humour.

The answer is, Christina, we try. And yes, very often, we are not successful. Mother and Toddler, Sunday School, youth club, evening groups, school visits, assemblies, teaching slots, family services. We try. It is a hugely secular culture. We cannot compete in terms of entertainment or baby-sitting. Christianity and confirmation are not normative. State schools and national media pump out a regular diet of anti-religious prejudice and secularism. But we try and, please note, young people come to churches who know what they believe in – not those who cheerfully accommodate secularism.

3. Can we be more flexible?

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali thinks we can be both a traditional and a spontaneous church. Here again unintended humour creeps in. ‘Traditional’ is spoken over a photo of a volume of Common Worship! ‘Spontaneous’ show us earnest worshippers gazing adoringly at an overhead projector. There is nothing quite so unspontaneous as singing a song three times from an OHP.

As a priest serving a parish which has avoided both of these ‘aids’ to worship, Michael, I want to agree with you. But I want to be clear why. We love the Prayer Book here and it gets a good congregation for solemn sung celebration (eastward facing) at the high altar. We also have a monthly mission service with a rock band which is well attended. But the heart of worship will always be the liturgy – the communion. People are not looking for flexibility, Michael, as you know well. They're looking for the Gospel. Its truth is bang up to date and deeply radical whatever the presenting cultural package.

4. How willing are we to change?

David worries that some of us don't want to be transformed and that he often finds ‘church’ in other places. Michael has noticed, on his way to church, how many people go to car boot sales. Perhaps, he ponders, that's where he should be.

It would be easy to lampoon the sentiments, but we know what they mean. But please be careful, gentlemen, change is a very slippery word. The Church of England has been in a Gadarene rush for most of my lifetime to change to fit the secular agenda. It is, consequently, always 20 years out of date. People do not turn to churches that are always restlessly changing and re-inventing themselves. Statistics tell us that England's growing churches are Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox, churches that are scripturally based with powerful worship. The change they seek is repentance and conversion.

It is quite obvious that the whole project, to quote one of the brains behind it, is ‘a semi-official tool for leverage for change’. But ‘change’ is not an agenda in itself as we have learnt to our considerable cost.

5. Where will the money come from?

Christina Baxter encourages us to give a vision to ordinary lay people to give money to poorer areas and youth work. Noble sentiments, Christina, but too many parishes are scarcely surviving or viable themselves. Others are frankly tired of paying to maintain a synodical, diocesan and national hierarchy that is unlikely to bring one soul to Christ. We already choose to give our money to front-line work which is both open and accountable. The days when people trusted the institution with their money is long gone. The more you centralize, the less we will give you.

6. How do others see us?

David tells us that we should be ‘less of an institution, more of an exhibition’, ‘pilgrims on the way’ not a ‘bleak building’ with ‘stay out’ on the door. It is not the sentiment I object to but I do resent the caricature of the lives and work of thousands of faithful priests and people in the parishes. Nor does it help that it is delivered by a man sitting in an antique chair against the background of Old Masters on the walls of his palace.

There is much more of the same but you have the flavour. Tom, realistically, worries about us being on the edge of a nervous breakdown, ‘like St Paul’. Christina warns against ‘competitiveness’ and ‘pretending to cope’. A lay member of Springboard, Martin Cavender, fears that priests think that if they just keep doing their job consistently all will come right. Father Stephen Cottrell encourages us to set priorities with lay help. ‘Stop doing some things, start doing the others.’

Two parish priests are set before us as example. One has taken his evening worship into the community centre. Curiously we are not shown this but only him playing football with some small boys. Another priest runs after-school services for mums and littlies with obvious success and his hall is used by the community. This is all very laudable and, as the older priest says, ‘nothing new’. The priests, to their credit, seem slightly embarrassed to be singled out.

Now that we have got the message and are prepared to change, we are moving inexorably to the proposed solutions. What are they?

You will be relieved, but not, I hope, shocked to learn that the first priority is prayer. In the course of roadtesting this video with a dozen clergy of different persuasions only one volunteered that this would be news to his congregation. His congregation has halved in his eight years as vicar.

The second key to revival is, apparently, small groups! Again this will not come as a shock. House groups, prayer groups, Bible study groups, healing prayer groups, Alpha/Credo etc will be normative for many ‘successful’ parishes. The curious thing about the video’s exhortation is that scripture, fundamental to all of these, is not really mentioned as such.

The third and final part of the recipe is involvement with the community. Here again I have no quarrel with the aim but hang on – isn't this what is already happening and always has been? The film of the earnest young clergy talking to people on the street and renting out their halls to community groups is surely standard issue. Our diocesan newsletter has just had a front-page congratulating itself on the massive community work done by the Church at every level – and it's true.

So where does that leave us? First of all, it is very hard to see who this video is designed for. There are the lazy, the feckless, the hopeless but they are unlikely to watch it or act upon it. I have now ‘forced’ a dozen priests to watch it – most of them were not going to – in an effort to get a response. They are of different churchmanships and ‘views’ (let the reader understand). As already noted, only one thought prayer as priority would come as a surprise to his congregation. The rest were not encouraged. Let me share a few of their comments with you.

‘It left me profoundly depressed’, ‘doesn't go to the root of the problem’, ‘no analysis of the society we minister to’, ‘what is the Church preaching’, ‘no mention of repentance and salvation’, ‘the word of God does not seem to be at the heart of this’, ‘people already think they will live for ever, so what are we teaching them’ ‘I liked the emphasis on prayer’, ‘I wished Tom Wright had done the whole thing and been allowed to talk to us as grown-ups’, ‘this hugely demanding institution is demanding more and more for less and less from less and less people’, ‘where is the evidence of the grace of God in this film? Why is there no testimony from ordinary people about Jesus in their lives?’

Perhaps the most symptomatic response came from a priest who went home and looked up his Crockford’s. ‘The five clergymen on this film telling me how to do my job seem to have one significant thing in common: i.e. they have never done my job. Of their combined 140 years in ministry only 7 have been as a vicar in charge of a parish and all those seven years belonged to David Hope’s brief spells in two parishes. These men may have the institutional authority to tell me what to do but where is the personal authority, the charismatic gift of proven leadership or simple tried and tested experience which might give me confidence that they knew what they were talking about or what my people and I are up against?’

Second the raison d'être of the film seems to be to encourage ‘change’. While this may be no bad thing, it is equally possible to argue that in my lifetime change has been a handmaid of disobedience and decline. The sad thing about this film is perhaps best summed up by a young radical Christian student I showed it to. As the dated format and cinematic clichés unfolded, I sat silent. At the end the young man got up and made to leave without comment. ‘What did you think?’ I ask enthusiastically. He looked at me sadly. ‘If you really wanted things to change, why would you make a film like that?’

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's,  Bushey Heath in the dioceses of St Albans

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