“The Theologians Have Only Interpreted the World…”: Responding to Martyn Percy’s Critique of Renewal and Reform
by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury
Last week I attended my first meeting of the new Archbishops’ Council. We met for two days, first to establish relationships in preparation of five years’ working together, and secondly to begin to pick up the ongoing threads of the Council’s work, especially the programme of Renewal and Reform (R&R). This extensive programme of change – fostering vocations, developing discipleship, prioritising lay leadership, resourcing ministerial training, redirecting diocesan finance and simplifying our cumbersome legislation – seeks to respond to the reality of numerical decline that is projected to become precipitate in the coming years and to refocus the church on numerical and spiritual growth. It is an attempt to shift the institution of the Church in a missionary direction. In as much as there is a centre in the Church of England, R&R is the centre doing its bit to reverse that decline.
But not without criticism. Most trenchantly, Professor Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, writing for Modern Church, has attacked R&R as based on “secular reasoning, business-think, spiritual zeal and passionate intensity”, lacking in “ecclesial comprehension, spiritual vision and theological depth.” He describes the church R&R attempts to create as a “Zombie church”.
The space allotted to Via Media articles doesn’t allow for a full response to Martyn’s criticisms. His insight merits proper consideration, once the regrettable polemics have been acknowledged. In this short article, however, it seems appropriate to offer a more balanced perspective as a critical friend of R&R.
Professor Percy is undoubtedly correct to say that there are insights from the secular and business world present in R&R. There are also undoubtedly passionate, committed Christians with a zeal for mission and evangelism, lay and ordained, committed to the work. None of this should surprise anyone. It is difficult to understand how this should present a concern to Martyn, whose own ministry as a Principal of a theological college and now as a Dean of a Cathedral, will have and will require all of these elements in the mix of institutional life.
Had such insights been all that Renewal and Reform was about, as it seems Martyn wants to claim, we should naturally be anxious. Were there no understanding of the nature of the breadth of the Church of England, were there no prayerful and contemplative elements, were there no theological commitments driving the work, then perhaps we ought to be worried.
But this is palpably not the case. To witness Archbishop Justin at work in Lambeth Palace will see him in a praying, thinking, reflective community of leaders and advisers is to see it challenged. Initial experience of the Archbishops’ Council (including theologians, parish priests, lay leaders and mission practitioners, and a variety of appointed members whose experience and commitments are grounded in the reality and breadth of the Church of England), does not suggest this is a body to be easily-steamrollered into a sort of City-driven groupthink. And the House of Bishops, whose own lack of university-based theologians does highlight the never-wider gap between the Church and the Academy across which Professor Percy speaks, nevertheless are more aware than most of the cultural and missiological challenges facing the contemporary Church of England and the need to speak the Good News of Jesus Christ with many and varying voices in our society – from healthy, vibrant parishes to imaginative “Fresh Expressions.”
So there is plenty of that which Professor Percy claims is absent in Renewal and Reform and I am hopeful in the coming months we shall see a more explicit theological narrative and spiritual resourcing. These are there already; but I agree with Martyn that it needs to be more visible and, for many, it needs to be seen to be driving the agenda more. If Renewal and Reform can help us all to dream dreams and to catch a vision for the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church, and to help us to live the “hope that is set before us” it will have done all it sets out to do. Good communication, however, is essential.
What cannot be doubted is that Renewal & Reform is a huge cultural change in a Church whose approach to change can be generously described as ‘leisurely’. What I hope its detractors and its supporters can share in is a commitment to the first of the words in its title – to Renewal. Whether or not the statistics stack up, whether or not the decline of the Church of England is imminent, we can all share in a desire to see the Spirit at work transforming lives and communities. The Holy Spirit changes lives and hearts before the Spirit changes institutions. As my sub-title suggests, those whose primary commitment is theology and those whose primary commitment is institutional change, could both be helpfully reminded that change – sanctification to give it a more theological slant – is at the heart of what we long for. Perhaps we can unite around that.