Anglicans divided over shape of post-pandemic church life and ministry

The Church of England and the wider Anglican world are experiencing “accelerated changes” from the pandemic which may have serious consequences for “brick-and-mortar” church life after this crisis, according to reports. The Economist (June 4, 2020) reports that “Empty pews in the Church of England have been replaced by packed-out virtual congregations. A quarter of Britons have attended an online religious service since lockdown began, providing a boost to a faith that has seen dwindling church attendance.” The charismatic megaparish, Holy Trinity Brompton, which meets in four locations, has doubled its attendance to nearly 10,000. This new vitality is “exposing a gulf between clergy who think of online services as a necessary (and temporary) evil and those who want to innovate. The government has said churches should remain closed until at least July, but liberal vicars are keen for [such] change to outlast the crisis. Some even think churches, with their fussy hierarchies, get in the way of spreading the Lord’s message.” But conservatives are concerned that their liberal peers are exploiting the crisis to challenge the dominance of church worship in the Christian faith. Some conservative clergy are taking the government to court for keeping churches closed. Surveys find that church members agree, with one finding that two-thirds of regular churchgoers want churches open by July. In response, liberal priests are saying that if churches reopen, and innovations keep going, they believe they can attract more people to the faith.

An article in the conservative Anglican news service Virtue Online (May 29, 2020) cites a Times of London report noting that the switch to virtual services has convinced some C of E leaders to respond to the “massive shrinkage” in parish churches and dioceses that it runs. The incoming Bishop of York, Stephen Cortrell, has been appointed to review the future of the church’s 42 dioceses, with some sources saying he is willing to consider making dramatic cuts in the number of historical buildings. The rise of online services “has vastly accelerated a dramatic change in the way the Church of England will do its stuff because of declining attendance and declining reviews.” This includes rethinking about the upkeep of its 43 cathedrals and 16,000 churches, its large number of bishops, and merging diocese’s functions of administration, education, and theological training. The pandemic, in effect, has presented the church with a “blank sheet,” where it may be necessary to “define what we mean by ‘church.’’ I think for too long `church has meant a building and a vicar and possibly a geographic area to serve,” Cortrell said.

The call for radical change dovetails with a growing emphasis on “intentional discipleship” in Anglican churches around the world, which is now making its way into theological education, according to Stephen Spencer. Writing in the Journal of Anglican Studies (Online in April), Spencer notes that initiatives such as the “Season of Intentional Discipleship,” which is used in dioceses around the world, reflects a growing consensus that Christianity should be applied to all of life and not confined to church activities and those in ministry. That is not exactly a novel teaching, and the article adds that the turn to discipleship, which has been the theme of recent Anglican Consultative Council meeting and the communion-wide Lambeth Conference of 2020, is more about churches “returning to ancient ways.” Fears about the survival and growth of many Anglican churches has also revived a concern about fostering daily Christian living and the importance of sharing the faith with others.

But the discipleship theme is more challenging to bring into theological education, since seminary programs separate the potential clergy from laypeople and removes them from “a community of disciples.” Other forms of theological education are based on a university model where the emphasis is on theological learning and reasons and sits uncomfortably with discipleship and its emotional and relational approach to Christianity. These two kinds of training are also facing financial pressures, with students in the global South unable to afford traditional education at seminaries and theological colleges. Spencer cites the widespread effort known as Theological Education by Extension (TEE), which started among Asian churches as an alternative to traditional seminaries. TEE is a “holistic approach,” that allows churches to offer theological training to laypeople and emerging leaders. The program is based on individual learning but also students’ involvement in local learning groups, followed by some form of practical application. Typically, a course is completed in three months and then the learner proceeds to the next course, leading to diocesan or parish certificate or diploma. Some of these programs are accredited by denominations, but Spencer notes that TEE groups can reproduce rapidly, as they don’t require buildings, professors, or scholarships; group leaders are more mentors than teachers. The shift from students to apprentices in this model fits well with the new emphasis on discipleship, though this “flipped” classroom approach still needs the expertise and support from traditional theological educational institutions.

(The Economist,; VirtueOnline,; Journal of Anglican Studies,