Sunday 15 March 2015

Bishops and Decline

It is obvious that I am not posting to this blog as I have done in the past. Rather than close it, however, I'm letting it continue in its rather sleepy condition.

I notice the Church of England is going to follow up its Conservative Evangelical Bishop of Maidstone with a Church Planting Bishop of Islington. These will join bishops for Anglo-Catholics. These all continue to be suffragan bishops so that the diocesan principle heads the pack, but then the suffragans are extra-geographical and tend to be suffragan to no one.

To have a Church Planting Bishop might mean having other speciality bishops. Perhaps there could be a suffragan bishopric revived for, say, university chaplains. If then the Church Planting Bishop is seen as evangelical-charismatic, a bishop for university chaplains might be a liberal and a scholar. There could be all sorts of speciality bishops.

I wonder why there needs to be one for church planting. I can think of two reasons.

The first is to get a grip over congregational empire builders, especially at a time when GAFCON or its successor may be busy with entryism and creating a Church within a Church that can become the Anglican Church of Northern Europe (say). These congregations, like good Puritans, will want to elect their bishops as no more than equal presbyters and from below. The institution instead will want to deliver from above.

The second reason will be the diverse nature of Fresh Expressions. Some are looking a bit Pagan and a bit secular. The involvement of occasional ordained types, committed to exclusive Anglican orders, isn't enough of a guarantee that these places aren't getting a little heretical in their absence of control. Given that a clergyperson usually comes from within or a nearby parish, the Fresh Expressions place is a form of plant. Also they can be a form of ecumenism, when another denominational is involved.

Of course diocesan bishops and their actual geographical suffragans (but even these suffragans upset the principle of the priest as the one bishop's hands in any location) should be overseeing these. Why does it take a specialist?

The Unitarian tradition has forebears that rejected bishops: the Presbyterians were chucked out as finally incompatible as they did not believe in three orders of ministry or the entire theology of the Prayer Book. The bishop principle will, however, have some logic in Yorkshire soon, when there is a minister for the Yorkshire Unitarian Union. Well, 50% Bradford and 50% the rest. But such a person will not be any more or less than the leaders of congregations: Leeds and Hull now have their own ministry leaders (Hull's becomes a full reverend in a year). And, in a sense, Hull's minister is doing a plant and Fresh Expression because he is attempting to use the small number in Hull to build it up again, via consulted planning and co-ordination.

It has to be grounded locally in order to last: sustainability is part of the deal, as he stops after five years. Church plants that are not local tend to die. Either that or they become the car park circuit of incomers by entertainment religion. A hardly Anglican Anglican church at Swanland is like that. Hull city churches that "turn on the evangelical tap" discover that it is not an instant recipe for success. And sustaining Hull Unitarians as a Unique Selling Point liberal church will be a tough act. Is there any reason why there can't be 60 to 80 members of the church in five years? Absolutely. The tide for religion out there is the toughest it has ever been and it will get worse. I'm convinced that institutional religion is dying, beyond extremities and community gatherings for ethnic minorities and groups feeling under the cosh. It might function as a definite gay inclusion church but I doubt there is even a constituency for that, beyond rites of passage (and we don't do them yet beyond the method by which I did my wedding). My own view also is Fresh Expressions will become manipulative, rather like the Forest Church project is trying to pick up Pagans and then slip in some Christianity and make it definitive. People know when they are being manipulated. When we attracted a dedicated Pagan or two, we did Paganism. But then we do a lot of the other as well. This connection never delivered either, because they continued to organise their own rituals, outings and gatherings, and still do, plus a lot of the New Age magick is irrational and stands with difficulty alongside modernist and post-modern minimalist ritual.

I'm a pessimist for all of this. Over the last four years our music has become technological and reaches out to broader tastes. It has had no effect whatsoever. We have had new people, but they tend to come infrequently and avoid committing themselves to the business of commitment to a group. At one time people would rather go to a pub, but even they are dying now. Cathedrals don't involve commitment by most members, so they tend to do reasonably well.

Oh and I retain my non-membership. I am Unitarian by denominational definition, but I am not a member of any Unitarian body and this is how it will stay - and I am one of the last of the Mohicans.