That was the Sabbatical that was… 1

In a week, my sabbatical ends and I return to the coalface of public ministry – the parish. I’ve very much enjoyed my time away, and want to record my thanks to everyone who has supported and enabled me to have this opportunity.

It has, of course, been an interesting three months of study, engagement and reflection on the role of clergy today and how we run our churches. That it has taken place in one of the most turbulent periods of time in our country’s history (by pure coincidence) has also been fascinating. Perhaps the two are not as unrelated as might first appear. It is, I believe, all about people, engagement and commitment.

So this is part one of two posts…

Woodhead and Brown

The last few days has been taken up with reflecting on Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown’s That Was the Church That Was: IMG_3722How the Church of England Lost The English People.

It’s a fascinating read. The style is thoroughly journalistic – but the use of the authors self-referencing themselves in the third person “Andrew at this time…” “Linda was working as…” is a little clunky as a literary device.

It is a page turner; it’s at times funny; it’s bitchy and in some places it’s downright rude. It quite rightly flags up all sorts of difficult ‘issues’ with the Church of England. It is an absorbing heady cocktail which I devoured in one afternoon sitting.

But therein lies, I think, the real problem with this book. Its a polemic of ‘what the problems are’ and ‘who to blame’ – but it is poor at coming up with specific answers or suggestions. At times it feels very raw – as though the authors themselves are living out their own personal guilt, hurts and agendas. As Robin Gill, reviewing in the Church Times puts it:

“it is quite difficult to sort out fact from fiction, clear-sighted observation from gossip, and legitimate concern from personal bias.”

Edward Lucas, writing in The Times is even more pointed:

“Despite flashes of insight and some vivid writing, their book is lazy, spiteful and meandering.”

For Woodhead and Brown, the central themes are that decline in membership of the Church of England can be ascribed to:

  • Not taking seriously the women who have variously run church activities (the fault of clergy)
  • The debates about the ordination of women (which is mainly the fault of Catholics)
  • The Church’s position on same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general (which is mainly the fault of screwed up evangelicals)
  • The rise of ‘Voodoo Management’ and dull bishops (the fault of the appointments process)
  • All Archbishops are, liked or not, a bit useless (their own fault)
  • Not offering ‘spirituality’ which is attractive to a ‘spiritual generation’ (parish churches  fault for offering ‘religion’)
  • A Church in league with the Establishment (Politicians fault, particularly the Tories) at a time when the establishment and proletariat were diverging
  • Not taking people like Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead seriously (obviously everyone’s fault, but particularly the Archbishops’ fault)


As Gill points out, decline in membership of the Church of England isn’t a special feature of the Church of England alone. It affects all mainstream Christian denominations, both in this country and across both Europe and North America. Gill reminds us that Grace Davie:

“has helpfully depicted this as a cultural shift from “obligation” to “choice” — something that affects political parties as much as Churches.”

Lucas’ review concludes:

“In the final pages the authors concede that the church may have a future, based on using the talents of the laity, and with many more non-stipendiary clergy. It could combine the “enthusiasm, flexibility and organizational pragmatism” of the evangelicals, the liberals’ “love of humanity and clever interest in the outside world”, and the “unnerving because otherworldly” spirituality of the Anglo-Catholics. It would be a church for England, not the Church of England — because the England that sustained the church described at the beginning of the book no longer exists.

These are tantalising thoughts, but they are not developed. Instead the book concentrates far too much on the abundant character flaws of the people involved, most, but not all of them, dead.”

The Church and the World Today

In the twenty years since I was ordained, the world is, in some ways, very different. In the thirty years since I took my “O” levels (the period Woodhead and Brown’s book covers) that choice is even more marked. Family intergenerational fun is always to be had with stories of “ah yes, when I was your age…” But there have been three great trends I think in my adult lifetime:

  • The rapid growth in technology and its widening availability
  • The rise of ‘rolling’ news and the attendant growth in ‘opinion’ pieces
  • The predominance of a ‘me’ culture: the death of community and the isolation borne of individualism and self-service

These of course all sound a little grand, but each has enabled the other. “We knew the names of everyone who lived in our street when we were kids, now we know no one.” It is entirely possible that this is middle age musing, but I strongly suspect that this is a line more commonly repeated today than ever before. Why? Why this breakdown?

I think there are two underlying themes which are exacerbated by the trends above.

Firstly, the explosion of choice. Choice is good. Everyone should have choices, everyone should have the same choice. But as I was well taught in pastoral psychology, much of the choices that face us are illusions: ultimately they frustrate us rather than empower or enable us.

When we go to a supermarket we are confronted with choice (choices not available until the birth of supermarkets in the late 1940s – the first fully ‘self service’ store was in Albert Road, Southsea – so, ironically the parish where I served my title was the birthplace of the post war “choice” boom).

Yet what we’re not able to do is choose from every foodline available. We’re in fact having our ‘choices’ limited by others – we’re choosing from what others have chosen for us. And then our choices are directed, managed and filtered by product placement. Sorting out what is actually the best value, or unit prices is far more difficult than appears. By the time you’ve calculated BOGOF offers, multibuys, selected discounts (who knew I needed 10% off a product I’ve never used) you’d need a whiteboard and laptop to work it all out. Our choices are heavily steered by others.

The education reforms of the 1980s and 1990s promised parents they would be able to ‘choose’ the school their child would go to. Yet parents know that today school admissions criteria, the presence of an older sibling or the distance from their home to the local school are determinate factors, rather than their own preferential choices.

Choice is very often an illusion. Yet as ‘choices’ have grown (with a narrative extolling us to choose) we’re more confused than ever. We either stick with ‘what we’ve always known’ and feel cheated out of a good offer, or have to spend inordinate amounts of time navigating the options available to us, and the competing claims of those shouting “choose me” through ever more subtly burnished advertising.

We live in a society increasingly disadvantaged by the array of choices available to us. Sure, the brighter you are, the more easily you might be able to manage the decision making process – but it takes time…

The second is time itself – or rather ‘capacity’. In this age of choice and labour saving gadgets we are sold an illusion of more and more quality leisure time. What’s actually happened is that we’re being sold more and more choices to fill that time. If anything, we have less ‘down time’ now than since the end of the second world war. And as people have taken jobs with longer or more unsociable working hours, so the competition of time and choices has become more complex. Add social media to that mix, and we have even more chance to fill ever more time, doing even less…

Of course, there is a flip side to this. Accessing these choices, opportunities and advantages doesn’t just take time. It takes as I’ve indicated some brain cells. It also takes great literacy and numeracy skills. Without this latter set of skills then accessing an increasingly ‘online’ economy becomes more and more difficult. The more literate and numerate we are, the easier we not only can get online, the more also we can evaluate and research so as to get the best we can out of a not just globalised but ‘digitized’ economies.

The importance of literacy and numeracy is, I think, crucially overlooked still today. It is easy in a world of league tables and Ofsted reports for (well educated, literate, numerate middle class) people to overlook the astonishingly low literacy and numeracy levels in the general population. Around 5.2million adults in the UK are ‘functionally illiterate’ that is they can get by and cope with familiar simple vocabulary, but anything new or complex is a barrier. The average ‘reading age’ of an adult (something of an arbitrary concept) is 9. The Sun is written for someone with a reading age of 8. The Guardian, 14. The same reading age is needed to access Common Worship. The Book of Common Prayer requires a reading age of 21.

If you can’t read the school admissions form, understand the website (or app) or quantify the value of the ‘bargain’ at the supermarket, or have the time to do either, then today, you’ll miss out. No wonder we’re in a time where so many people feel ‘left behind’ or increasingly caught up in a world of cultic languages. The greatest triumph of management speak is that it is the modern day Tower of Babel – its power lies in the confusion it brings. Advertising exploits this – by emotive, powerful language which distorts and makes claims of ever increasing cleverness. So too, politics uses the art of ‘truthful distortion’ to statistics and complex information to ‘spin’. £350million anyone?

Of course, if you are wealthy enough, little of this matters so much – you can pay someone else to do it – or the differentials for value are negligible in the scale of economy you might work to.

Which makes me ask, is this a problem for the Church, our mission and evangelism? How good are we at accurate portrayal of ourselves, and understanding our work, witness and the world? That is, I think important in the debate over reform and renewal – it would be easy to use that as a ‘sticking plaster’ if we don’t get to grips with some fundamentals and live in a world as it is, rather than the world we believe exists of our own making.

There are many choices we are about to start making. The vital question is: are we making the right choices for the right reasons, or embarking on a vanity project based on an illusion? If it’s the latter, then my fear is that our picture of the Church and of the world will be just as partial, just as distorted as the views presented in Woodhead and Brown.