Ian Paul – State of the Church: sociology or theology?

In Protestantism, discussions about the Church are often reduced to the problem to its sociological dimension. If, however, we understand the Church to be more than a human institution, such an approach is certainly partial and inadequate. By the way, that was one of the main reasons why I left Romanian Baptists (whose creedal statement reduces the church to a mere sociological reality), and became an Anglican.

Theologically, the Church in a theo-anthropic (divine-human) reality, having a divine head – Jesus Christ, and a human body – the members of the Christian community, who declared their commitment to Christ through Baptism and celebrate it regularly through partaking, Eucharistically, into the body and the blood of Christ. Moreover, the Church is, for me, an ‘ikon of the Trinity’, an immanent image of the dynamic perichoretic union between the Persons in the Trinity.

The article below, written by Ian Paul, theologian, writer, speaker and Associate Minister at St Nicholas, Nottingham and Honorary Lecturer at the University of Nottingham. discusses such matters and their actual implications in the life of Christian congregations, particularly in Anglican context, but they are relevant, I think, beyond the borders of Anglicanism.

* * *

The Church Times has been running a series of interesting article on the state of the Church, with some significant insights from Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at the University of Lancaster.

Previous articles have explored issues of church growth, leadership, and some of the reasons behind the decline in church attendance. One of last week’s articles analysed the social impact of the Church of England, and made some provocative suggestions.

Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.

But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…

Yes, you read that! ‘Its most influential activities could continue’! My first response was to think this was an incredibly ‘clericalised’ view of the Church: its most important and influential activities are the ones done by its clergy and officials. It reminded me of my bishop in a previous diocese, who once commented:

Imagine what would happen if each parish hired 50 actors, dressed them in clerical collars, and paid them to wander around the parish. What an impact this would have on the profile of the Church!

What a hideous idea!

Linda Woodhead’s article does contain some encouraging news, but do look carefully at what is being measured:

How do [people] connect with the Church? In descending order, the five most common points of contact are: funerals, visits to a cathedral or historic church, weddings, Christmas services, and christenings. Regular worship came in sixth place.

But surely the main way that people have contact with ‘the church’ is by meeting, living next to and working with members of the church—Christians! This reminds me of the story John Wimber used to tell. A member of his church complained that a homeless man attended a service, and the man hoped ‘the church’ would do something for him. ‘In the end, because the Church did not help him, I had to take care of him!’ Wimber replied: ‘Looks like the church did do something!’

Fortunately, the Church of England ‘About Us’ web page has a more enlightened view:

  • A quarter of regular churchgoers (among both Anglicans and other Christians separately) are involved in voluntary community service outside the church. Churchgoers overall contribute 23.2 million hours voluntary service each month in their local communities outside the church.
  • Church of England congregations give more than £51.7 million each year to other charities – that’s even more than the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal.

So at least some of the ‘influential activities’ of the church are things done by ordinary Christians. Still better is the LICC’s ‘Imagine’ project, encouraging all Christians to realise that their first place of ministry is the place where they spend their time Monday to Saturday.

Perhaps the root of the issue is something that Linda Woodhead mentions at the very beginning of her article.

LAST week, a young person asked me a question in response to recent articles in the Church Times which brought me up short: “What should change, Church or society?”

The reason I was dumbfounded was that I had never thought of the Church like that – as separate from society. The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.

* * *

This is only setting the stage for the analysis made by the author. You may read it HERE.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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