I’ve been asked if there’s anything that I think Baptist Christians might need to take notice of, or respond to, in two recent articles in The Guardian, both of them putting a spotlight on the Church of England.
The first article poses the challenge: ‘modern churches are driving up numbers among the young, but critics say their direct and emotional style of worship risks alienating mainstream Christians’.
The second article draws upon critical appraisal by Martyn Percy, warning the Church of England is in danger of becoming a narrow sect “driven by mission-minded middle managers” who are alienating clergy, congregations and the general public. It’s focus is upon what Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, writes in the afterword of his latest book, The Future Shapes of Anglicanism, that church leaders’ strategy is moving towards “centralised management, organisational apparatus and the kind of creeping concerns that might consume an emerging suburban sectarianism, instead of a national church”.
Part of the backdrop to the Church of England’s Reform and Renewal programme is the on-going march of decline among the mainline churches. For headlines the Anglicans are using are such statistical projections as:
- Today 18 people per 1000 regularly attend an Anglican church. This is likely to reduce to 10 per 1000 in 30 years time, if present trends continue.
- An 81-year-old is eight times more likely to attend church than a 21-year-old.
I have no desire to try and evaluate the basis of Anglican Reform and Renewal programme, other than to commend Justin Welby for trying to help the C of E grasp some pretty stingy nettles. My interest is in the questions this raises and the challenges it could highlight for Baptists. Here are three for starters:
Question 1: To what extent are our responses galvanized by our anxiety about church decline, rather than missional enterprise?
We’ve been talking about becoming ‘missional’ since the dawn of the new millennium. For Baptists this came around the same time as the biggest organizational shake-up our Union had seen since it came into being in its present form.  The shift on the ground, however, is very small from my vantage point as a Regional Minister. If our life together is to be organized around mission, rather than mission being one activity alongside everything else, we will need adaptation on a much bigger scale.
At least the Anglicans are beginning to face reality. I still meet denial in the faces of most Baptists. Our problem is that our numerical decline does not appear to be as steep. Whenever we look at the graphs, particularly those comparing the mainline denominations, we can deflect our challenges with the refrain ‘we’re not doing as bad as the rest of them’.
I read a lot of ecclesiocentrism both in Reform and Renewal and the subsequent initiatives. These should neither be unexpected, nor disparaged – after all it is the state church! Alan Roxburgh characterizes our ecclesiocentric responses as “If we can fix the church all will be well”. 
Let me say one thing … I do believe the church needs fixing, so this is not an inappropriate response. However, I suggest something we struggle with every bit as much as the Anglicans is that it is not the only response we need to be making.
Unfortunately, when I survey the agendas and budgets of churches, associations and consequently, our Union, the element not allocated to fixing what we’ve become is so small as to have negligible impact.
Question 2: To what extent are our responses founded upon actual evidence, rather than anecdotal hunches?
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” we know the quote well. I’m well aware how many people feel about statistics, but at least the Anglicans appear to have some reliable figures to more adequately base their responses on. Sadly, we Baptists don’t value much of a place for them within our system. Is this because we’d rather live in the land of denial and maintain our smugness when comparing ourselves with others?
My problem is, if we don’t have any reliable statistics on which to base our responses, the other two options (according to Benjamin Disraeli to whom this quote was attributed, even if unsubstantiated) are a much more worrying foundation when the re-evangelisation of the UK is at stake. My hunch is our Baptist figures could plummet within the next ten years, but I have no evidential basis to prove it. I think I see a scary percentage of our attenders within ten years of the current life expectancy figures, week-by-week, but I’m notoriously bad at guessing people’s ages!
Question 3: To what extent are our responses focused by traditional patterns, rather than strategic direction?
Highlighting the dislocation between where we’ve reached/what we’ve become and where we need to go/where we need to change is rarely welcomed and never universally by whatever system is under threat.
I am very interested in the language being used by way of criticism from among Anglicans. For example, how many words would you need to change for this one to fit us? (maybe a new party game for The Baptist Assembly?)
‘church leaders’ strategy is moving towards “centralised management, organisational apparatus and the kind of creeping concerns that might consume an emerging suburban sectarianism, instead of a national church”. (ref. article 1).
Whenever I’ve talked about the issues of ‘centralisation’ within BUGB circles I’m usually met with a universal abhorrence of the idea … everyone agrees we don’t believe in hierarchies, centralised funding, the primacy of the local church, autonomy, etc. … but the system has a tendency to strikes back!
The fact is the dear old C of E is actually much more strategic than us free church, light on our feet, de-centralised lot. I could remind Baptists of some key voices who advised we needed a more strategic approach to church-planting for example, a number of years ago now, but the evidence suggests this largely fell on deaf ears.
Reform and Renewal is looking to shift resources in a previously unimaginable way. The plan is to re-focus resources (funding) 50/50:
- Support for mission in the lowest income communities 50%.
- Strategic development Funding for new growth opportunities 50%.
There’s a lot more in Reform and Renewal than this and much of it is very useful, but irrespective of whether we agree with the points of focus, or the division, there’s a question for us to answer as Baptist Christians. We have the ability to adapt much more quickly than the ten-year transition proposed in the C of E, but do we want to be more strategic? Could we? Would we? Should we?
 I suggest there’s an unsurprising link in the timing.
 Joining God, Remaking Church and Changing the World. The New Shape of the Church in Our Time. Morehouse Publishing, New York. Alan J. Roxburgh. 2015. Loc 806.