By J. Douglas Ousley
I have always been struck by a major difference between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church: the way clergy are paid. In England, all priests receive basically the same salary or stipend; there are minor increases over the base for bishops, cathedral deans, and archdeacons. This uniform wage is not high (roughly $33,500 plus housing and a few other allowances); a clergy family of four might have such a low income that they would qualify for public assistance. By contrast, the salaries in America vary enormously. Although a priest right out of seminary could earn less than English clergy, senior American clergy earn many times the English salary.
Despite the low stipends, many English clergy claim that parity is morally superior to the American scheme. They want to keep their system, even if it allows unproductive clergy to earn the same as leaders of large parishes.
But in a recent book, The Future Shapes of Anglicanism, the Very Rev. Martyn Percy claims that the Church of England would be rejuvenated if it moved toward the American system. He holds that parishes should be allowed to set salaries in order to reward initiative and creative ministry. “This would encourage a more realistic appraisal of many ministries, and allow congregations to value experience, responsibility, energy, challenge, and more besides.”
The moral sheen of the egalitarian formula is undeniable. But, practically speaking, giving all clergy a substandard wage buys equality without fairness — and it does little to recruit new young clergy, which the Church of England desperately needs.
Percy offers other pointed criticisms of his church. For example, he questions the way in which central authorities seem to be amassing more and more power. He traces this in part to the tendency in British evangelical circles to elevate leading clergy to superstar status.
Another object of Percy’s critique is the evangelical movement spearheaded by Holy Trinity Church in the Brompton area of London. HTB has planted several new churches and inspired many other congregations. It is also the originator of the Alpha course for parish renewal. One prominent former member of the parish is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Holy Trinity Brompton’s undeniable numerical success, at a time when overall church attendance and membership in England are in decline, reflects what Percy calls the “heroic leadership” of evangelical churches. But this leadership style is not an unmixed blessing. Percy claims that bishop-centered ministry has fostered a top-down management culture that undermines the local functioning of parish churches. Archbishops now come to be “supported and enabled by layers of executive managerial culture.”
Such a culture treats the Archbishops of Canterbury and York like the CEOs of the Church; bishops are like area managers in business; and priests are managers of local branches of the organization, the parish churches. In a Church Times opinion piece in 2014, Percy sharply criticized a recent national church plan to train 150 elite leaders who would become the carefully prepared bishops, archdeacons, and cathedral deans of the future Anglican church.
Such sentiments and others like them may not endear Percy to the church establishment, although as dean of the venerable Christ Church (Cathedral) in Oxford, professor of theology at King’s College London, and former principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, Percy must be considered part of the establishment.
Beyond these criticisms, Percy offers the positive model of the Broad Church as a standard for the church today. He claims that ordinary believers have nothing to fear from this model because it “tends to be entirely orthodox on creeds, doctrines (e.g., the physical resurrection of Jesus), articles of faith, liturgical proclivities, church polity, Christian practice, and canon law.” It is only heterodox or liberal regarding a few issues like support for same-sex relationships, and these are issues that are largely becoming settled in Western culture — although, of course, they remain disputed in most churches.
Percy considers broad to mean “the intentional cultivation of a breadth of perspectives” while remaining tolerant of differences. The broad, dispersed community “supports multiple forms of affinity (e.g., patterns of belonging, attendance, ranges of belief, etc.).” This is surely a good way to look at individual congregations; the parish offers numerous ways in which people can be part of the body of Christ.
While the Episcopal Church lacks the geographical parish system of the Church of England, our churches are also rooted in neighborhoods and villages and towns and cities. What Percy calls “affinity groups” expand the ministry of many parish churches on both sides of the Atlantic. While one of those groups — like a Boy Scout troop — might dissolve and be missed by a village, that loss would be minor compared to the closing of the church that hosted the troop and served as the center of community activity.
Another part of Percy’s constructive ecclesiastical vision, grounded in sociological study, is his claim that the local parish church is better seen not as an organization but as an institution. He points out that “The ‘organizational-activist’ model requires constant renewal; raising, indeed, newness and relevance to the level of apotheosis.” This remark might explain the way individual evangelical preachers and their churches grow quickly, only to decline when a rival church gains popularity.
Surprisingly perhaps, for someone who is active in the C of E’s primary liberal organization, Modern Church, Percy argues that “The ‘institutional-contemplative’ model roots charisma in unchanging and eternal truths, which are reified in music, liturgy and architecture.” Nothing for a traditionalist to disagree with there.
Admittedly, sometimes Percy’s rhetoric can be unduly harsh; he has rashly claimed that the Church of England is becoming a “Zombie Church.” And perhaps Percy is too sanguine about the stability of the parish church. He argues that because the parish church is rooted in the community, it will surely survive. Other observers worry that far too many churches are supported by small numbers of older people.
Percy is correct in claiming that membership is not the only criterion for success: “The mission of the church is a vocation to serve communities, not just to convert individuals to countable membership.” Nevertheless, membership is one indicator of ecclesiastical health; without people, you do not have a church.
Readers will find that Percy’s writings contain many wonderful asides from someone who is a careful observer. Percy drily remarks in a footnote: “At the time of writing, Lambeth Palace has announced that it has acquired a logo — a ‘gift’ to the church that was given at ‘cost price.’” Another comment makes the important but often overlooked point that many people join a parish for reasons other than becoming activists: “Not every person that comes to church wants to be dubbed an apprentice-evangelist, disciple or spiritual warrior. Some just come to feed, and be still.”
The Rev. J. Douglas Ousley is rector of Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan.