In the face of declining congregations, the Church of England must adopt a new progressive outlook if it is to survive, warns David John Keighley
The jangling ringing in the ears of the Church of England is not the sound of church bells tolling for Evensong, but its own death knell. The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the need for drastic change and post-pandemic renewal is essential if anything is to be left for the next generation of believers.
Faced with a devastating bureaucracy, desperate mismanagement, forced clerical redundancies, a relentless decline in congregations, a catastrophic plunge in its finances, decades of failed initiatives and, an undistinguished leadership. there is little to be positive or hopeful about. Having abandoned the nation at its greatest time of spiritual need, by hiding behind locked doors during lockdown and taking to streaming services, a further wedge has been driven between the Church and those that it claims to serve.
The Church is declining at a horrifying rate. If this continues then the Church will run out of congregations by 2067, ending a run of 533 years as the Ecclesia Anglicana. Maintaining Augustine’s mission to England in AD597 is looking extremely doubtful. A serious look at urgently reforming itself for 21st century life is unavoidable. The Church of England should be reinvigorated with a new theology, a new progressive liturgy, and an emphasis on acceptance, universal love, and provision for investing in community projects. There has to be an acceptance that the Church’s traditional foundations are crumbling. If it does not change, it will fade into obscurity and die.
Recently, an internal Church of England report was leaked to The Sunday Times. It revealed just how much damage has been inflicted on the Church with many buildings now deemed unsustainable, a quarter of past worshippers not returning to the Church, and brutal cuts in the number of clergy proposed. The age-old pastoral link between parishioners and the dedicated body of caring priests committed to their spiritual care will be severed beyond repair.
When the Church closed its doors during the pandemic, and our priests were only seen on computer screens, the nation took over the fundamental teachings of Christianity in the Church’s absence and put them into practice. Our society effectively followed the edicts of loving your neighbour, displaying care and compassion for the suffering, and sacrificial love for others irrespective of their gender, race, creed, sexuality and economic status. Key workers — our country’s nurses, delivery drivers, cleaners and food-bank workers — effectively became the new priests.
The Church urgently needs to respond to societal changes to become an institution that is fit for purpose in the 21st century: sharing the Christian message of hope, and conducting good works. It must identify a new place for itself in society, as the current form of the Church has become redundant. It must accept that traditional faith is dying within the UK, and that traditional supernatural theism is already dead. When a new priest is installed into a new parish, the Declaration of Assent all clergy have to make, states : “The Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.” Things cannot continue as before. A radical restructuring of the Church has to be its highest priority. It must reform its theology and its structures if it is to recover from the assault it received during Covid, when it chose to close churches and, by doing so, lock God out for the nation. Simply making cosmetic changes to its administrative structures and cumbersome hierarchy will doing to stop to the rot, proving as ineffective as to the fundamental issue as repositioning the deck chairs on the Titanic.
My new book of progressive Christian poems — Poems, Piety, and Psyche: Progressive Poems for Rebellious Christians — is my contribution to a renewed theology for the changing face of tomorrow’s Church.
A shift to a progressive Christian theology, based upon a living faith for the Church of tomorrow, will be critical. A belief system that is unbelievable to a scientifically-educated population — based on ancient, unintelligible creeds and outdated concepts — can no longer remain the foundation of Christianity in the changing post-pandemic culture of today. My poems challenge this outdated, literal dogmatic position in order to disclose the hidden truths of the Christian faith still valid today. Traditional faith is dying. Traditional supernatural theism is dead.
Poems, Piety, and Psyche reclaims the original gospel message and takes readers on a challenging journey to the heart of what it is to be truly Christian, always remembering that the gospels were written as theology and not, as usually assumed, history. Only by taking aboard a progressive theology can the Church hope to recover its relevance to today’s searchers after faith.
It must live up to its mantra: ‘The church is the people, not the building’. Perhaps 25% of our churches could be maintained for worship. The remainder must go.
If it can rally the strength for renewal and embrace a progressive Christianity, the Church may still have a chance to recapture its historic place at the heart of British life.
Poems, Piety, and Psyche: Progressive Poems for Rebellious Christians by Revd David John Keighley is published by Resource Publications and is out now on Amazon, priced £20 in paperback and £7.69 as an eBook.