Good Vicar, Bad Vicar

Rather a flutter in the doocot over some comments that Justin Welby made a couple of days ago in an interview on Radio 4 which is worth listening to in its entirety. The quote that has got people talking is this one:

The reality is that where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches.

[The Church] needs to be very flexible in how it engages locally and it needs to be very clear about it’s intention of growing its numbers. It doesn’t happen accidentally. All the research we’ve got is that if we don’t actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of God in Jesus Christ it doesn’t happen.

But before we get to that, there were two interesting things about the interview that most people have not picked up on. Firstly the number of times the Archbishop used the word local  in describing the Church of England. Then secondly he explicitly said that it was silly to compare the Anglican Churches to the Roman Catholic Church. Want to know why that is interesting – well check out this piece from Andrew Brown which appeared in the Guardian a few days before under the heading “The Church of England’s unglamorous, local future”.

So what the Church of England needs to do is to re-establish itself in the ordinary life of the country. Its instinct is obviously to do this with grand gestures, speeches, proclamations and debates, but this is entirely wrong. Instead of pretending it is a single coherent entity with clearly defined opinions and policies – something which simply isn’t true and never will be – it should just forget about the national level and get on with things locally.

This lesson has already been learned slowly and painfully at the international level. The attempt to present the Anglican Communion as a coherent church that could negotiate as an equal with the Roman Catholics has been an unmitigated disaster. When the resulting posturing was not vacuous it was poisonous, especially about gay people. The Anglican Communion is finished now. The schism happened and nobody cared. Individual churches have flourishing links in the ruins and this is a good and vital thing. But this is nothing to do with the Lambeth Conferences, any more than European trade was nourished by the Holy Roman Empire.

One would have thought, listening to the Archbishop’s interview that he had been scripted by Andrew Brown. Church is local – we are not the Roman Catholic Church seems to be the line of the week. I hope that someone gets the chance to press the Archbishop on the other elements of Andrew Brown’s thesis – that the schism has happened already and that disestablishment is already a reality.

But I digress, what about this business of Good Vicars leading to church growth?

The trouble is, the notion of a Good Vicar bringing about growth does tend to conjure up the idea of Bad Vicars leading to decline. Then people (by which I mean vicars, for vicars are people too, you know) get all upset because they presume that if decline is happening then they must by definition be Bad Vicar.

It is far too simplistic a way of looking at things.

It seems to me that what leads to growth is not simply a Good Vicar but good synchronicity between clergy and congregation. Sometimes a congregation gets someone with just the right skills for that moment and also is able to accept them, love them and allow them to lead. And sometimes that doesn’t happen.

If anyone knew the secret of making it happen between clergy and congregations then there would not be any decline in churches.

But then decline is caused by a lot more things than Bad Vicars anyway. Demographics are one of the big factors. If people move away from an area, the chances are that a church will suffer. If the people in an area are aging then the chances are that a congregation will be aging too. But, and it is a big but you also have to take into account different ways of thinking about locality and transport. If people are prepared to travel to get to the doctor, supermarket or hairdresser then we can presume that they will do that over religion. Add to that an increasing mistrust of denominations and you have a very complex situation. Bizarrely you still get lots of churches advertising the fact that they care about their denomination right up front on their websites when the truth is, people don’t care about that so much as whether they will find congenial company as they try to grasp the coat-tails of angels.

In the midst of the fluttering about all this today I’ve been interested in seeing someone teasing on twitter with the notion that there is going to be some new research published soon which appears to suggest that having one priest to one congregation is the most likely situation that will lead to growth. I’ll be very interested in that if and when it comes out.

And what of Justin Welby’s Good Vicar thesis? It is a surprising thing for him to have much to say about given how little vicaring he personally has done. More than that, it is a situation that is incredibly complicated and which isn’t just about being good or bad. Time, place, company and circumstance matter just as much as innate qualities. And yet….and yet, the truth is, I also know that within what he was saying was something rather important which is that vicars – clergy generally matter. Should they be miserable, unsupported, unloved and sad there is almost no chance of a church in their care thriving. Clergy matter an enormous amount and if one wants churches to grow one does need to think about clergy rather a lot.

The short version is, clergy matter. And so do bums on pews. The two are related. But oh, oh – it’s complicated.

Am I right?


  1. It is complicated, Kelvin, and I’m not entirely clear to this day what constitutes a ‘bad’ vicar!

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    I cannot but think that many clergy struggling hard in difficult parishes will feel this is a bit of a kick in the teeth, and it is certainly not the boost to moral which would help some of them become even better clergy.

  3. Eric Stoddart says

    Two things on the ABC’s good vicar = growth thesis…

    A. This logic might suggest that Jesus could not be classified as a good vicar – he lost a lot of disciples according to John 6:66

    B. Growth can easily be confused with transfer if careful studies are not made.

  4. Sometimes a congregation gets someone with just the right skills for that moment and also is able to accept them, love them and allow them to lead. And sometimes that doesn’t happen.
    This bit’s right. And I think there’s more to church growth than good vicars – unless, as you do, you lump the laity into the picture. Tired, bored, dispirited laity are as likely to stay away as a “poor vicar” is to drive them away.

  5. Midgedancer says

    The subtlety in his comments was his line before the sound bite – that it is about context and leadership. He then couldn’t resist dumbing it down to the ‘good vicar’ comment. Context and leadership, both put together, unpacks to the whole business of clergy morale, training, demographics etc.m complex as it is…

  6. I won’t pretend to have an opinion on the good & bad of vicars, having, on average, been fairly fortunate in my choices, and, on such occasions as I’ve found a church unsuitable, it’s not normally been the head-honcho’s fault.

    However, what does strike me is the sentence “It doesn’t happen accidentally”. It doesn’t, but that’s only half the story – there must be space for serendipity and authentic substance, too. I’m thinking of that “no we don’t need to dump the organ in favour of a music group – churches should do what they do best, be themselves” blog article that did the rounds a year or so ago.

  7. Excellent piece, Kelvin. What we shouldn’t ignore is the extent to which the Church and any of our denominations are not identical. The reality is that in England there is very substantial church growth taking place, but mostly outside any of the historic denominations. We’re into another period, like that of the evangelical revival and the growth of Methodism and Congregationalism, during which the CofE’s share of church-going shrank to about half, when the nature of the Church is changing.

    One of the things this reminds us of is that the Church is constantly changing and the place within it of all its institutional forms changes with it. The temptation for the national churches (CofE, CofS) is to pretend to be The Church, which they are not and never will.

    If the AoC speaks about Church growth and ignores church planting and the new forms of church then what he says will inevitably get him into some difficult corners, as this “good vicar/bad vicar” thing definitely does.

    I’ve been thinking about related stuff in a United Reformed Church context, where similar things are being said, with even less real justification.

  8. Robin Usher says

    In this context can we, dare we, should we, also be talking about ‘good bishop’ and ‘bad bishops’?

    • We can certainly talk about good decision making processes and bad decision making processes. Within Anglicanism, we might also talk about what makesa diocese a good one to work in.

      • Robin Usher says

        I suppose we are all, in part, what our decisions make us.

        I have worked in the same diocese for almost 40 years, but I feel less a part of it than I did when I arrived – I can’t quite put my finger on why that is (could be subjective – me, or could be objective – the diocese and/or bishop(s)). It’s a bit like living within a metropolitan borough: I live within it, and within the constraints it imposes upon me, but it doesn’t inspire or motivate me much.

  9. FrPip says

    Interesting piece – and I agree that it’s not as simplistic as “good vicar = growing church”, and I suspect that Welby will be keen to nuance that some time. However, there is undoubtedly a correlation between priests who want to grow churches, and growing churches. I think there’s also a correlation between priests who are mentally and spiritually healthy, and growing churches, albeit one factor among many significant ones.

    The “right fit” question is a hugely important one, and for me it raises questions about how clergy are selected for charges – which is another minefield in itself.

  10. Andrew Brown says

    For what it’s worth, two sidelights: when I interviewed him while he was Bishop of Durham, I didn’t get the impression that he thought church growth was a particular problem – “do baptisms, weddings and funerals right and people will come” was how I interpreted his attitude. Since this was a phone interview and mostly about money I don’t have a verbatim quote but I don’t think this is unfair. Later, and in another context, he suggested that what was really necessary was prayer.
    If infant baptisms are down to 10% of the population, relying on hatch match and dispatch is not going to do the trick – that’s clear.

    • Thanks Andrew.
      Though I think it is important to do hatch, match and dispatch really well, I have to admit that I struggle to think of many people who have found a way into church life though it. It does happen but not nearly as regularly as, for example, teachers of liturgy might think.

      • You are right about this issue being more complex than “Good Vicar”.
        You also need “good people”…and many just want simply to be left alone. Or are not terribly Christian.
        You also need good Bishops, and you are right to make the observation that still many of those who get to the bench seem to lack ‘local’ experience.
        I am always bemused about those who say the Church (in what ever manifestation) is ‘over’. History would seem to suggest otherwise.
        One would have thought this time last year the RC Church was committing suicide…and then in March 2013 a new Pope seems to have been used to reenergise in a way that would have been unthinkable.
        Of course what most media analyses don’t factor in (or begin to comprehend) is that we Christians don’t just think of the Church as an ‘organisational model’ but rather a work of the Holy Spirit

        • Sorry my reply seemed to get put in the wrong place.
          I think it is important too to do hatch match and despatch well.
          Have never really thought this is about getting people to come to church, if they do then good. But frankly sometimes church is too embarrassing to risk the sensitive souls

    • BTW, Andrew, I’d call out one error in your article on this. It’s not the Anglican Communion that is “finished.” It’s the foolish attempt to recraft the Anglican Communion into world-wide curial Church by means of the appalling Anglican Covenant that’s finished. The Anglican Communion has survived Rowan Williams’s well-intentioned but fundamentally destructive attempt to centralize authority in the Anglican Communion Office and the Standing Committee. The Anglican Communion survives in the Cntinuing Indaba, in the countless Companion Dioceses relationships and in the personal relationships at all levels across provinces.

      • Andrew Brown says

        Malcolm, thanks for this. I am happy to admit all the disorganised things you talk about. But the “curial” model of the Anglican Communion has been around since at least 1988, when I first went to a Lambeth Conference. Rowan wasn’t making all that up. It was the implicit justification for both the LCs I went to (I took care to spend the most recent one in Lapland). If the Lambeth Conference had no authority, what was the point of it? This was certainly the view taken ecumenically.

        • When the Canadian bishops first proposed a synod of all the Anglican bishops in the world, back in the 1860s, that was their intent, certainly. But that’s not what the Archbishop Of Canterbury gave them. In calling the first Lambeth Conference he was very explicit that it did NOT have synodical authority. There were periodic attempts at the first few Lambeths to claim such authority by resolution, each one soundly rejected. What authority Lambeth resolutions had was purely moral, not juridical.

          Neither Lambeth nor the Anglican Consultative Council nor the Primates Meeting have any jurisdiction. As much as some wished it were otherwise, the claim that Lambeth 1998-1-10 (or at least the bits of it the reactionaries liked – they happily ignored the bits about listening to the experience of gay people), the claim is pure revisionist claptrap of Orwellian proportions.

  11. Being a good vicar to stony, unreceptive hearts might require a pickaxe to reveal gemstones within. It must be tough to minister to jerks and meanies, no? We lose faith in people easily – I certainly do. But a good vicar – a loving parent – doesn’t give on up one’s children.

    A good vicar might depend on the eye of the beholder. Whether you believe vicars and congregations are intrinsically good or evil might get you called a Pelagian or an Augustinian depending on who you ask. Faith in the work of a vicar or the reception of the congregation depends on good faith and co-operation – what then do we place our faith in? Hardly Protestant thinking, when faith is dependent on work, manifestation, and epiphany. A bad vicar might be sent to good people. A good vicar might be sent to bad people. Whether a vicar or congregation is subjectively or objectively good is a difficult question to answer.

    It is then that I prefer to see both the vicar and congregation not as “good” or “bad” but rather as equally “beloved”. However large the congregation, or even the vicar’s skill shouldn’t matter then. But that raises the question: Who then do we love if we are so beloved by God? Perhaps love might be the answer. A vicar and congregation who sees and knows themselves as equally and lavishly beloved of God will love each other. Love makes congregations meaningful and precious, no matter how small they might be.

  12. And if I might add to my previous comment – And love also makes vicars meaningful and precious, no matter how small the congregation might be.

  13. Rosemary Hannah says

    Yes – things which make the practicalities of small congregations include:
    the laity in most senior positions find it hard to see the inclusive love of God and to see the value of prayer and spiritual exercises, a shortage of laity with administrative abilities, a tiny handful of parishioners prepared to insist on unhelpful things all the time (the oldest liturgies every week, the kind of behaviour small children cannot sustain all service long, particular dress in those at church on Sunday to name but a tiny selection). In a larger church these things can be contained (one nasty comment for lady x outweighed by five or six lovely ones or simply finding somebody to be treasurer who can cope with the job). In a small church, however good the vicar, the nasty comment carries more weight, and the sorting out of the finances may take days of clergy effort. It is always hard to get from a tiny congregation to a large one.

    That said, I have sat through sermons so mind-numbingly boring and inappropriate that I have actually moved to another church.

  14. Paul Waddington says

    If one looks at the larger picture, the Archbishop’s optimism seems misplaced.

    According to the 1851 census, about five million people attended a Church of England service on the census day (a Sunday). The population of England and Wales at the time was about 17 million. These are round figures and I know that there were difficulties with the religious census, but they are good enough to demonstrate my point. Roughly speaking, about 30% of the population attended a CofE that Sunday.

    Recently published figures estimate average Sunday attendance at CofE churches at about 900,000. That is about 2% of the population of England. Wales is now excluded.

    So taking the long view, the trend is rather depressing for the CofE. Compared with 1851, fourteen out of fifteen no longer attend church regularly.

    As an aside, the 1851 census indicated a church attendance for Catholics of about 350,000. That is about 2% of the population. I understand that the current figure is very similar for Mass attendance is also around 900,000 or 2% of the population.

    Other recent research has indicated that the age range of CofE congregations is skewed towards the upper end. Certainly in my local parish, it is unusual to see anyone under the age of 60. I do wonder how many there will be in, say, 15 years time.

    • Thanks Paul – I find that bishops generally tend to accentuate the positive when it comes to thinking about numbers in church. Whether that is because they only go to events that are comparatively well attended or whether it is actually because it is their job to be upbeat about possibilities is not clear to me.

  15. It is complicated – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – poor adjectives. The rector is the leader of the congregation and needs support and trust. But, I think, no longer is the vicar held in such esteem as not to have to earn that support and trust. A good thing, mostly. Churches grow for all sorts of reasons – the level of involvement with non-believers, a prominent noticeboard and outstanding bikke and slice-makers all help.

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