By Mark Michael

An ambitious target of planting 10,000 new, predominantly lay-led churches by 2030 headlines the recommendations of a briefing paper issued by the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy group in late June. The church-planting initiative’s leader, the Rev. Canon John McGinley of New Wine, touched off a firestorm of criticism when he labeled stipendiary clergy, church buildings, and theological college training as “limiting factors” for growth at a recent church planting conference.

“I have never seen this level of fury from within the church during my 25 years as a priest,” said prominent social commentator the Rev. Giles Fraser in a July 8 UnHerd essay, which cast the plan, code-named Myriad (Greek for ten thousand) as “the latest Great Leap Forward for the C of E.”

McGinley outlined the vision for Myriad at the online MultiplyX 2021 church-planting conference hosted in early July by the Gregory Center for Church Multiplication, a Church of England-based group led by the Rt. Rev. Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington. The target of 10,000 new churches, he said was provocatively large, to “cause us to plan and pray, and work differently than if we think we just need to do a little tweak or add a few extra things on the side.”

The Church of England, McGinley added, needed to learn from the more flexible lay-led models of church planting that have enabled rapid church growth in parts of Africa. He pointed to a number of churches planted by Wole Agbaje, a lay leader in his own home diocese of Leicester who also serves as an advising “associate” of the Gregory Center as an example of the model at work in an English context.

The effort would be fully voluntary, McGinley said, not a required initiative. The Rt. Rev. Emma Ineson, who was recently appointed Bishop to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, concurred with him in her talk at the conference, noting that “numbers should be seen as an inspiration rather than a pressure.”

McGinley said that most of the church plants would start small, and some would remain groups of 20-30. All would be held to a “tight” definition of church, being committed to proclaiming the Gospel, gathering regularly for sacramental worship, being open to everyone, and comprising more than 20 people. Median church attendance in the Church of England parishes currently stands at 31, and a quarter of parishes average just eleven on a Sunday.

“When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly, college-based training for every leader of the church… then we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting there are no passengers,” McGinley said.

Fraser said that he found the criticism of “passengers” to be “the most sinister phrase” in McGinley’s talk. “If you go to church to sit at the back, say your prayers, listen to the sermon and receive the Eucharist, or if you are bruised and just looking for a place of healing, that means you. If you are not a part of the great push forward, you are just so much baggage.”

In an article in July 10 issue of The Spectator, “Is This is the Last Chance to Save the Church of England,” the Rev. Marcus Walker, rector of London’s Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, suggests that untrained lay church planters would be unprepared for the pastoral challenges of contemporary ministry: “Thank God for our theological training. Where is God in a pandemic? That’s the question so many have asked me since last year, and I could only stumble towards an answer because long ago I had studied the theology of the cross and the Book of Job. This plan isn’t just rude, it’s dangerous.”

Walker also said that he expects the proposals will amplify the shift from supporting poorer dioceses to funding new projects that is already driving the Church of England’s Strategic Development Funding system.

“The consequence is also that all over the country dioceses are desperately trying to create exciting projects and sexy management roles to attract SDF grants rather than support their existing parishes. If you’ve wondered why we are suddenly flooded by ‘Associate Archdeacons’, full-time area deans and ‘Directors of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation’ (yes, really), it’s because these can be funded from the magic pot of money while boring, snoring parishes with their boring, snoring local ministry cannot,” he writes.

Critics of the proposals have started Save the Parish a group aimed at supporting candidates for this fall’s General Synod elections who promise “to defend the parochial system of the Church of England.”  The group’s webpage urges, in Walker’s words, “Let us be a ‘key limiting factor’, not to the growth of the Church of England but to the emergence of a church we do not want and we do not need.”

The controversy will likely complicate the discussion of the vision and strategy group’s work at the summer session of the Church of England’s General Synod, which is set to meet remotely from July 9-12. Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, the group’s chair, will address synod on July 12, and members are scheduled to debate the proposals.

The lay-led church planting proposal is one part of the proposals for restructuring the Church of England to become “simpler, humbler, bolder” that the group has been developing since the fall of 2020. The briefing paper outlines three strategic priorities flowing from the overall vision “that we become a church that is centered on Jesus Christ and shaped by Jesus Christ through the five marks of mission.”

The priority “to become a church of missionary disciples,” the group says, “will require a renewal of worship and formation in every church community; and will overflow with blessings, service, and challenge to the world.”

They also urge the Church of England “to become a Church where mixed ecology is the norm,” with evangelistically driven communities formed around associational networks in homes, work and educational settings, social groups, and digital platforms operating alongside parish churches. The group notes that existing diocesan plans already call for 3,500 new communities of this kind, and that the churchwide target of 10,000 communities by 2030 would build on this, so that “most churches and all dioceses would start something new to reach people in their contexts.”

The Church of England, they say, should also “become younger and more diverse,” with increased investment in youth and children’s ministry needed as well as “a much more diverse and inclusive and reflective leadership and governance that promotes justice.” Simplifying governance structures and sharing resources more effectively, they add, will help focus attention on these priorities.

The controversial church planting initiative is one of six “bold outcomes,” which also including developing “up to 3,000 churches across England to become worshipping hubs for children and young people.” The group notes that only 900 of the Church of England’s 16,000 parishes currently have more than 25 young people in them, and that “an 80-year-old is eight times more likely to be in church than a 20-year-old.” The paper points to the opportunities presented by the Church of England’s 4,700 schools, which educate around a million pupils, as an important resource in this work.

Perhaps anticipating the resultant controversy, the briefing paper lists first among “10 things that must be constantly kept in mind,” that: “The clergy, stipendiary and self-supporting, and the lay leadership of the Church of England are among our greatest resource. Our plans need to support them in their ministry and help them to decide how and where they put their time and energies. We will continue to work and pray for an increase in vocations to ordained ministry and licensed and authorized lay ministry.”