The crisis of decline is unveiling the purpose of the church
The pandemic is accelerating the trend of church decline. However, as William Taylor faces the reality in his own parish, the process is raising fundamental questions about the true vocation of the church.
The church leaks from the cement ceiling and the crypt is pretty damp too. Water is rising from the ground and descending from the heavens and sometimes I wonder whether the ark of salvation will survive the coming storm.
We patch things up as best we can but actually we need a whole new roof. The parapet also needs fixing. Our Georgian tower needs repairing and repainting. Our 1773 Whitechapel Foundry bell, which dates the original church, has stopped sounding because it needs a new hammer but to replace the hammer we will need to improve access to the belfry and that’s another £500 for aluminium ladders right there.
I could spend all day of every day fundraising for this or that. But then the new Dean of Mission rings up and asks me to walk him through our strategy for evangelism. What’s your plan to grow the church? he asks. He doesn’t just want us to secure the ark; he wants us to fill it too.
I get an email from the diocesan finance officer asking where our monthly cheque is (answer: in the post). The Diocese of London, like everyone else, is worried about balancing the books. The bishops want us to increase our market share or as they put it “make new disciples”. In the meantime with the limited resources we have as a parish, I spend my time as a facilities manager and events organiser rather than a provider of what the prayer book calls “ghostly counsel”.
A month ago we launched a Crowdfunder to raise money to put our undercroft at the disposal of a whole bunch of excellent community projects including a martial arts school, a counselling service, a mindfulness circle, a yoga-for-tots class, a Caribbean cookery enterprise making hot food for isolated elders. You get the idea.
But where is Jesus in all of this? asks the Dean of Mission, reminding me that the diocese is subsidising my post. It’s true: despite our monthly cheques, some of which arrive, my church is a net receiver of money from the Diocese of London. What will happen if they turn the tap off? As my bishop points out to me the current situation is unsustainable: “I don’t think it’s likely to be possible for [support across the area] to continue at the same level as it has been.”
I think about all of this as I sit in the church each day after the midday Angelus. Tearing myself away from my grant applications for an hour I set a few lanterns ablaze around the altar and fire up the chancel with an incense burner while I pump Bach cantatas through the sound system. A few people wander in and add the names of those who have died to our list. They light a votive candle and say a prayer and then leave with a wave.
I’ve been talking to an expert in church mission about what I can do to keep my church from closing. He tells me about the three Ps of evangelism: Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion. Presence is about hosting events and outreach programmes, it’s about generating relationships and trust. Proclamation is sharing the Gospel, inviting people into a relationship with Jesus. Persuasion is an ugly way of describing the invitation to surrender to the presence and action of God.
My corner of the church, Catholic Anglicanism, is generally good at the first and last of these. But crap at the second. Or maybe it’s just me. The Alpha group lot, on the other hand, are great at the second and getting miles better at the first. That’s why they’re on the march while we’re spending all our time filling out grant applications to fix our belfries.
Before closing up shop I read out loud the names of those who have died during the pandemic. It’s a litany of loss. There’s such deep grief and disorientation in our common life as we continue to pass through this valley of the shadow of death.
I start with the names of those who have died but as I kneel there I realise I could go on. The reality is the grief goes much deeper. I could move onto the falling numbers of baptisms and confirmations, the closure of the church school a few years ago, barely having the numbers any more for the dawn vigil at Easter or midnight mass at Christmas. The fact that my male servers don’t know to take their baseball caps off when they come into church.
The loss of the shared assumptions of Christendom has been a reality for some time, but somehow the pandemic has laid bare the consequences more sharply.
As we open up for congregational worship again, we take all the necessary precautions. Alongside our service register we now have our track and trace log and our risk assessment. The water stoop at the door of the church has been replaced by a hands-free sanitiser. Our thurifer gives the incense some additional welly to clear out the lingering smell of warehouse as we push the food bank crates against the walls.
As the church has found itself increasingly marginalised in recent years there have been many efforts at reframing its relevance. Our role as provider of emergency food relief is currently the latest. There is also talk of the church as an “honest broker”, although this encourages the fantasy that the church doesn’t have interests, that it mustn’t take sides.
Actually the church should take sides and does have interests. As a vicar I have a number. One is to ensure my building is attractive and useful as a space in order that we stay in relationship with people in our neighbourhood. I now know that this is called “presence evangelism”. But is this what we’re actually here for?
I had a surprising provocation when I was filling out the census recently. I had to explain what a vicarage was and how it was related to my “core business”. What’s your “main activity”? It asked. Good question. At this time of reckoning, I might say that it is the work of cosmic dialysis, honouring that covenant not only between the parish church and the civic realm but also between the mundane and the imaginal, between the earthly and the heavenly.
I complete the form: “Celebrating the Holy Eucharist”. This is more about eschatology than it is about geography although its detour through geography is crucial: our parish is a physical place and not a digital avatar. And the people who live here are more than our neighbours. They are part of this promise too. I wonder what the Office of National Statistics will make of that.
As I stand once again behind the altar and mix the elements I mumble by habit the prayer of Pope Leo: “by the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The altar is the site of this powerful exchange between the realms. It’s where we turn the tap on to water the land where we stand. It’s where we give thanks for the bubbling and fermenting of new life throughout our parish. This is the covenant we inherit as the people of God in this place and the one we are invited to inhabit with our neighbours. We need each other and, more than ever, we need divine assistance.
It appears that the church may not only be an ark to escape the storm, but also a pumping station, irrigating the parched earth with tears of lament, turning the wilderness into a pool of water and the dry land into fresh springs. Maybe this is what we’re for.
Father William Taylor
Father William Taylor is Vicar of Saint Thomas’ C of E Church in the London Borough of Hackney and co-founder of Clapton Commons. Follow William’s blog at http://hackneypreacher.com/ or follow him on Twitter at @hackneypreacher.
This article was featured in the Easter 2021 edition of the T4CG Newsletter.