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?