Thursday, 22 September 2011

Not ANOTHER commission!

Not another commssion and another review! Have we been here before? The following article first appeared in the Church of England newspaper on May 7th 2011 about a commission set up by the Church in Wales to look at halting or "managing the decline" (strange phrase) of the Church in Wales:

"Managing the decline of the Church in Wales calls for a fundamental re-think of its structures and finances, the Archbishop of Wales said last week.

In his presidential address to the April 27-28 meeting of the church’s Governing Body gathered at Swansea University, Dr. Barry Morgan said a three-man review commission led by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, and retired London Business School Professor Charles Handy would examine the church’s structures in light of declining revenues, clergy and members.

The commission would be asked to determine whether “the resources available to the Church in Wales are being deployed efficiently and effectively;” whether the “organisation of the Church in Wales is one which enables the Church to be effective in addressing the nation of Wales;” and whether the “organisation should be adapted to enable the Church to live more fully into a model of church life which is theologically and missionally coherent and sustainable in the long term.”

Declining revenues, rising expenses, aging clergy and congregations and an absence of young people were driving the reforms.  Dr. Morgan noted that “average attendance had continued to fall by 2 per cent in line with the longer term trend,” while “average attendance among young people had fallen particularly sharply.”
Finances were also a concern, as the “level of total direct giving fell for the first time since the statistics began to be collected in this format in 1990” and “for the first time since 1993, total parish income was less than expenditure.”  This was coupled with a rise from 28 per cent to 31 per cent of the proportion of parish funds “spent on buildings.”

Long standing polices, including a presence across all of Wales, would have to be reviewed, the archbishop noted.  However, Dr. Morgan stressed the importance of the work of the church’s bishops, who would be “devoting more time at our forthcoming meetings to further defining our vision for a more ‘fit for purpose Church’ and for ensuring that we have in place the right plans and processes for providing and supporting ministry at all levels of the Church to achieve this vision.”

Dr. Morgan said that “in commissioning such a review, we will all have to be prepared to take seriously its findings and to be open to the possibility of significant change in our structures, ministry, use of buildings and other resources if it is seen to be in the best interests of the church and its mission to the people and communities of Wales as we look ahead to the next decade.”

My response is a mixture of hope and scepticism. Scepticism because I have, over 25 years of ministry, seen several such commissions and reviews - provincial and diocesan - which have done nothing to halt the continuing decline of the Church in Wales. I am not sure grand gestures of this sort ever really work because they take very much a top down approach to such issues and I am not sure that this is God's way of doing it. The incarnation is the model for us here when God Himself, in Christ, came and dwelt among us (John 1) and did not set up a comittee or a commssion to sort out the problems the world was facing. Instead he got alongside the people, started a small movement - beginning with a few disciples - and told them to continue to do what he had taught them to do, and to teach others to do the same. Fundamental to this was a faith in God - evidenced in the amount of time they gave to prayer - and the superantural - which included a reliance on the Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost. Commissions etc therefore seem to be a very human way of dealing with the problem and are an expression of the very human way we have been trying to run and grow the church in express contradiction to the way it was set up and meant to function. You get the impression at meetings of the clergy nowadays that God got the ball rolling and retreated back to his heaven to let us get on with it ourselves. "Thanks for the kick start God - now we'll take it from here." Of course there is prayer at such meetings, but generally they are hurried and seen as a box that needs ticking before the real work begins.

But having said all that I must admit to some hope too because something is happening and maybe, just maybe, the commission will trip over God as He bends down to speak to us and catch something of His guidance and inspiration in all this. But will it be a praying commission and will it be a commission that, in John Stott's famous phrase, practice a kind of "double-listening" both to God and the world? There's the nub for me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs we must pray. To pray is light a candle rather than curse the darkness all the time. It is to do something positive. And maybe, just maybe, this will work.

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