If Christianity dies in England, it will die first in the countryside. This may seem paradoxical. When we think of English Christianity, we think of medieval churches standing at the heart of quiet villages. Surely the most traditional parts of the land would cling to traditional ways such as Christianity? But the traditions have largely died, and the churches with them.
This long, slow trend is what should really worry whoever takes over as Archbishop of Canterbury from Rowan Williams – an announcement on which is imminent. To understand the problem, I went in search of the worst jobs in the Church of England.
Wickford, in Essex, was once a village. Now it is just a swelling of houses alongside the dual carriageway to Basildon. Its church, built in the 1960s, exudes the optimism of Ladybird books from that time; it could hold 10 times today’s congregation of 31. Perhaps five were under 50, and eight were male. The sermon was plain, forceful and thought-provoking. I have known the preacher and team rector here, Canon Jane Freeman, for years: she’s a woman of great intelligence, humility and force of character, and seems not in the least discouraged by her surroundings.
Some were astonished that someone who seemed fast-tracked for promotion should take such an unglamorous job. She had been working in a predominantly Muslim parish in east London. ‘In many ways, the East End was easier: you might get your tyres slashed, or people asleep in the front garden, but there was a reserve of faith. We didn’t have to worry that people couldn’t see the point of God. There was always a new community who hadn’t lost the habit of faith … But this area, Wickford is where so much of the Church of England is.’
There are two other churches in her benefice: one Anglo-Saxon, popular with weddings, and the other Victorian. All once were proper parishes. Now all of their congregations rattle around inside them. The rational thing to do would be to run them together. But this is a solution that the parishioners would not accept, said Freeman. ‘A third of people actually get the problem. The others would feel betrayed if the church were to close, or there were no longer a church in their village.
‘It might seem that the problem, out here in the suburbs of Basildon, is that religion has been made redundant by material success. But although this is a cheerfully materialistic part of the world, it is not conspicuously successful. After the service, we passed through a room with bags of canned and dried food – what modern churches do at harvest festivals – for local homeless people.
‘Unemployment is increasing, although this a comfortable area,’ said Freeman. ‘Here we have started to help the area’s emergency housing, partly because it’s across the road, and so not a problem in Basildon. So many of the people around here have a sense that things aren’t right, whether it’s their health or something else. There are so many people who have one way or another a sense of their own worthlessness.’
A parishioner came up with a question. ‘Well, if you think that I’m in charge, dear!’, said Freeman, and laughed at the absurdity in a way that had us all laughing with her. But while we were laughing, I thought that her job would be quite intolerable if she did not believe that God was in charge. These Essex suburbs may not have much to offer the Church of England, but they are not the places where it is most endangered. Modernity is good for religion. In the cities, it flourishes because it delivers the benefits of community. In the suburbs, all kinds of churches can find a niche: in the market town where I live in north Essex there are churches for Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, URC, Methodists, and a pentecostal congregation on the industrial estate, as well as the Anglicans, whose church could hold 1,000 – and still holds 170 on a normal Sunday.
Things are worse in the deep country. The least glamorous parts of the Church of England are the rural dioceses – Lincoln, Truro, Carlisle, and Hereford. Their problems were exhaustively analysed by a statistically trained vicar in Lincolnshire. Unlike more central or pleasant places, they don’t attract priests from the outside, even to retire. Oxford, for example, has more than 500 retired clergy on its books, almost all of whom are available for minimally paid work.
In the deep countryside, congregations are shrinking and ageing. The other Christian denominations have all already disappeared from rural England. The Anglican vicar who is left will have as many as 20 churches to look after, and if they are not careful they will spend all their time driving frantically between them. The congregations are elderly. They have watched all their lives as fresh initiatives came from London to bring people back to church – and they have seen their children and grandchildren move elsewhere anyway.
David Rowett is a vicar in one of the more distant corners of Lincolnshire, Barton-under-Humber. The Humber bridge lies just north of his parish, and the Anglo-Saxon church of St Peter is at the bottom of the vicarage garden. Twenty years ago, there were 13 salaried clergy looking after the 30 churches in his deanery; now there are five. ‘At one point we were told to plan to make do with two. We are reliant on an absolutely brilliant NSM [an unpaid non-stipendiary minister]; an older, hard-working volunteer priest, and a supportive retired priest floating around.
‘As we chip away and chip away at clergy numbers, the stuff that we used to be able to do is fading. Issues about the quality of theological education. How are we meant to resource things like spiritual direction, spirituality, vocations, which was all done in spare time? But the spare time has all gone. Everybody is tired, but the expectations grind on.’
When I went to visit, he greeted me in an apron that said: ‘What would Torquemada do?’ His curate wears a ring in one nostril; her husband is a churchwarden. Despite the gloom of the situation they described, they were full of a contagious delight. I don’t think I have laughed so much in months as I did at the stories they told over lunch.
The curate recounted how she was assisting, as a deacon, at communion. It was December in the newer of the parish’s churches, dating from 1170, and she could not work out why the priest was so slow when he elevated the chalice full of wine. It was only after the service was over that he explained his hands were so numb with cold he thought they would freeze to the silver.
‘The Victorian model of church, based on an unlimited supply of young men prepared to work for nothing, is just not going to work,’ said Rowett.
The other failed model he sees around him is managerialism. The diocese of Lincoln has just been the subject of an excoriating report into its management practices. This has resulted in the early retirement of one of the two assistant bishops. The senior lay figure in the diocesan administration had been given the title of chief executive. That has gone, too.
It is not mourned in Barton-under-Humber: ‘Managerialism was such a morale-sapping fad,’ said Rowett. ‘They took a model of management which was appropriate to those in paid employment and thought they could get away with it with volunteers. I’m working 70- to 80-hour weeks. We’ve got an NSM who’s working a 70-hour week.’ Then he suddenly added, as if he had forgotten it: ‘This is the best job in the world, mind you.’
So I went to see the new bishop, Christopher Lowson. The medieval palace under the cathedral in Lincoln is now a hotel, but a few rooms have been retained as the bishop’s office. He came with a reputation as a Church House bureaucrat, having run the church’s central scheme for clergy. Before Lincoln, he had been a vicar in south London, and in the prosperous Hampshire town of Petersfield. Neither, he says, prepared him for the reality of Lincoln. ‘A suburban model of the church isn’t the way to measure here. We have a situation where although the number of people entering the clergy is about the same, the number of people leaving is larger. People in rural contexts want to keep their church in a way that doesn’t apply in suburbia. There, you will choose the church that meets your needs, whether it be a 10-minute drive, or a 20-minute drive. In the countryside, the local church that you somehow are connected to is very important.’
The trouble with this desire is partly that the buildings are enormously expensive to maintain. Rowett remembered one parish with a Grade I listed church, which was inordinately proud of having raised nearly £700 for its preservation in a year. Beyond that, the cost of full-time clergy for every church has been beyond the diocese of Lincoln for at least 50 years.
The answer that everyone comes up with is to use more lay people. ‘They must be enabled and motivated, taught and encouraged by the paid parish clergy,’ said Lowson. ‘It requires them to work in a different way, not the way they have been trained. We’re still training people for a model of ministry which is no longer required on the ground.’
Looked at from the ground, the perspective is slightly different. Rowett’s wife, Viv, said she wished for ‘younger older people: people in their 50s, to take over from the lay people in their 70s who keep everything going now’.
Yet for all this gloom on the ground, the church still seems more important in rural areas than in the cities or suburbs. Lowson says he was surprised to discover, when he moved to Lincoln, that the local press wanted his opinions on all sorts of stories. ‘In the countryside, the bishop is still a local leader, expected to comment on things, in a way which is no longer true in the cities. Church is still a real part, beyond its own church life, in congregations.’
Still, it’s clear where the trends are headed if nothing is done. The parish system no longer delivers the pastoral care or the money the church needs to keep going.
Two of the younger bishops considered as contenders for Canterbury have come up with dramatic solutions. The Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, bishop of Chelmsford, and thus Freeman’s boss, sees a future in which the clergy work in teams of up to 10 people, covering wide areas together. This is good for morale, as they need no longer feel personally responsible for a parish where no one seems to need them.
It makes it easier to bring lay people forward. It also tends to reduce internecine feuding. Supporters and opponents of female ministers, or gay people or even the Alpha course, will find themselves working alongside one another and constrained to see one another as Christians, rather than destroyers of the work of Christ.
In Chelmsford, as the Church of England calls Essex, money is not a huge problem. It’s not a rich diocese. ‘But one way or another, the money always turns up,’ said Cottrell. Elsewhere, and especially in the countryside, the financial crisis is growing acute.
Justin Welby is the bishop of Durham. Gossip makes him the frontrunner for Canterbury. He has a past as an oil trader. He understands money. The diocese at present is dependent on a subsidy from the church commissioners that covers about 25% of its running costs. That is clearly not to be relied on. Retired clergy are not just a source of unpaid labour, on which the church increasingly relies, they are also a huge cost in pensions. Almost all the commissioners’ billions of pounds of assets are in fact devoted to the pension fund. The rest of the money is raised by a quota system that is almost guaranteed to be inefficient and unpopular, as it combines central assessment with voluntary payment.
Each parish is told by the central diocesan authorities what they think it should raise for the rest of the church, and then expected to raise this from the congregation. Congregations will give a lot – last year more than £800m – but they don’t give enough to keep the poorer churches going. Lowson said: ‘The model of running the church like a golf club where you decide what it will cost to employ a bartender and greenkeeper, and then set the fees accordingly – that isn’t Christian stewardship.’
He puts his hope in a better class of Christian. ‘We need people to be more Christ-like Christians. That’s the fundamental issue. The difference between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, on this particular point, is that evangelicals tend to believe that you’re giving their money to God, rather than to a particular church. Your contribution is part of your total response to God’s generosity.’
Welby’s solution is more organisational. He has asked every parish in the diocese to set a figure it believes it can realistically pay and then intends to hold them to that.
At present, there is no sanction against a parish that refuses to pay its quota, and some of the largest and richest conservative evangelical churches in the cities make a point of withholding their share. Under Welby’s arrangement, everyone will pay what they honestly suppose that they can: parishes that renege on the agreement will find it harder to get paid clergy and other financial support in the future.
There’s no guarantee this will work, but as a hard-headed appeal to idealism, it shouldn’t be cynically written off.
What keeps the Church of England running is not its leadership nor its structures. It’s the clergy’s faith in God. Williams, for all his mistakes, was loved around the church because he seemed to share and even to exemplify that faith. The next archbishop will have to get that bit right if he is to inspire his followers. It’s not a matter of having the right slogans.