Monday, 30 July 2012

The Decline and Fall of the Church in Wales?

The figures about the decline of the Church in Wales make depressing reading. In 1959 it had a membership of 155,056 over 18's. Today that figure is 57,207! That is a two thirds drop in 53 years. In any book that is not a crisis but a disaster. If the Church in Wales was a company they would have sacked the board of directors, made a large number of staff redundant and closed a significant number of outlets. But as we are talking about a Church then what should be the appropriate religious or spiritual response?

First of all there should  be a call to repentance.
But what should we repent of? I can think of a number of things.
1. Disobedience. Jesus said "Go and make disciples....teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28: 19) We have made people members through baptism or Christening, and encouraged them to join our churches and worship every Sunday but there has been a distinct absence of teaching, training or equipping people for the life of discipleship where we are expected to "obey everything" that Jesus has taught us.
2. Idolatry. This is not to negate the love and devotion of many devout and hard-working Christians down through the years but the attachment to buildings and the things in them verges on the idolatrous, so much so that battles are fought over them and people have left because of them. With the Church needing to change and adapt the way it uses it's buildings this can be a major stumbling block to it fulfilling it's call to reach out with the gospel to those longing to hear it. So instead of our churches becoming a means to an end, they have sadly become the end.
3. Clericalism. Ministry is seen very much as a one man - or one woman - band with all the gifts centred on one person who is expected to do everything. This is underlined and emphasized by the growth of the Holy Communion movement which, quite rightly has taught us of the importance of the Eucharist but has over-sold it to the extent that nearly every service has to have one and that means an over-heavy dependence on the priest.

Secondly, although the Church in Wales review has been a good one, there was one glaring omission from the report (unless I missed it), and that is the need to church plant. Why plant churches when we are having trouble filling the ones we already have? Several reasons:
1. New churches don't have the historic hangovers that existing buildings have in terms of existing membership and the likes and dislikes of the congregation, the insistence on maintaining choirs and music that are old and outdated.
2. Depending on what the church plant looks like, there are none of the restrictions that the shape and content of our present buildings have in the way of pews, lecterns, organs etc. These new premises, if carefully chosen, will have a flexibility to them that much of our current stock do not have leaving room for experimentation and new ways of being church.
3. New wine-skins are better able to contain new wine. New ways of being church are more likely to work if we are able to disassociate ourselves from people's wrong perception of a church that is out of date and at odds with where society is.

Thirdly, current clergy, especially the younger and more dynamic element, should, under supervision, be allowed the freedom to express themselves and be given as much support as possible. Young people attract young people. Also training should be given to help hone the skills and ideas they have. We need to be unafraid to experiment and make mistakes. The system of leadership within the Church in Wales is so rigid, so controlling and so bound by fear that it has stifled creativity or tried to restrict it within the legalities of a system of Canon Law which, while attempting to maintain orthodox and historic faithfulness, has made the church ill-equipped to relate to modern culture.

Fourth, prayer. Not prayers - the office or the set intercessions - but prayer from the heart that is spontaneous and expresses what I feel not what someone else has felt several hundred years ago. We need prayers for now and for what we are experiencing. Don't get me wrong I am all for ancient prayers written by godly people who knew how to pray better than me. But we need the rawness of our own at a time like this and we need to revisit the whole subject of intercession that expresses need IN THE NOW.

So despite the depressing news of failure and decline I believe that God has not finished with the Church in Wales yet and is giving us one more chance to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. But even God can't do anything if we determined to go it alone.

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