Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

The Church of England’s General Synod is due to meet on 15th February, and some bizarre preparations are being made.

This post is about a long document, Setting God’s People Free, written by the Archbishops’ Council. On behalf of Modern Church I have written a response, much shorter but still over 4000 words, Setting God’s People Free to Do What They are Told.

The Archbishops’ Report aims to generate more active engagement by lay churchpeople in church affairs. Part of it aims to improve the relationships of lay people to their clergy, which is certainly needed.

However the proposals for encouraging evangelism and ‘whole-life discipleship’ by lay people in their daily lives and occupations is another matter.

Far from setting lay people free they would impose extra burdens on them. Instead church leaders should focus on improving theological resources for the laity. And for the clergy too, come to that. People can then make their own judgements.

The Report presupposes a uniform Christianity which does not exist, as though all Christians believed the same things. It does not discuss the content of Christianity. Instead, we at Modern Church have always (since we were founded in 1898!) believed that church leaders should encourage open debate between different views. Not only ordinary Christians but church leaders – like bishops - should feel free to debate ethical issues without agreeing with each other. Until a generation ago this was a characteristic role of bishops. It would help people to develop a more realistic understanding of their faith and make their own decisions.

The Report rightly states that Christian mission is not a matter of rescuing souls from a degenerate world, but the case would have been more convincingly made if it had not used the language of dualistic and other-worldly cliques. It is full of cliquey, in-house jargon: ‘vibrant relationship with Jesus’, ‘follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life’, ‘gathered and sent church’, ‘how God has worked in their lives’, being ‘fruitful (in missional terms)’, ‘the missional opportunity’, ‘whole-life discipleship and formation’. This is not language that ordinary people use.

In a strange amalgam this in-house jargon is combined with generous use of management-speak. In order to ‘set God’s people free’, it spells out plans for more surveys and information-gathering. This will provide information to church leaders, who will then be better equipped to make decisions. Centralised, top-down decision-making.

Instead we think decisions should be made at the most local practical level. National church leaders should resist the temptation to give more instructions to local parishes than necessary.

The Report proposes to invest more heavily in artificial evangelistic projects. It is well known that these practices often give Christians a bad name by requiring people to talk about their faith to people who are not interested. Instead the Church should focus on providing theological resources to help Christians understand the different versions of their faith traditions. They will then be better equipped to develop their own beliefs and talk about them intelligently as and when they judge it appropriate.

Philosophically the Report is a muddle. Three theories of humanity are combined with no awareness that they conflict with each other.

The management-speak, like most management-speak today, is a direct descendant of secular nineteenth-century positivism. In their hurry to deny the existence of God, positivists insisted that there are no unobservables and all behaviour is determined. Therefore they thought it should be possible for social scientists to find out how to control us for our own good. Social engineering! It seems odd that the Archbishops’ Council has bought into this so enthusiastically, but they have.

The nineteenth-century religious revivals were largely a reaction against this bare, determined account of human life. Church leaders stressed the richness of spiritual life beyond the reach of secular science and measuring techniques. This is the origin of the other-worldliness the Report rightly laments, while in effect affirming it by making full use of its cliquey, counter-cultural, dualistic language.

Of course there were nineteenth-century Christians who resisted these trends; indeed, Modern Church was founded to represent them. So when the Report states that Christianity is not a matter of rescuing souls from a degenerate world, they are right. Unfortunately it is written in such a way as to give a strong impression that the authors did not understand what it means.

If they had understood what it means, they might have made the following observations. Firstly, because they rightly believe that life has spiritual dimensions that transcend all secular measurements, they should not have been so enthusiastic about surveys, data-gathering and top-down decision-making.

Secondly, because they rightly believe that Christianity is about how we live our lives here and now, they should have directly addressed the questions of here and now, using here-and-now language.

We don’t need to be micromanaged. The proper role of church leaders is to tell society about God. Who made us? For what purpose? How has God designed us to live? About these questions, they disagree with each other. So let’s hear the disagreements, publicly debated, and be allowed to make up our own minds.