Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Women Bishops and Church Growth


Today was the day the Church of England narrowly turned down a proposal that would allow women to become bishops. Clearly this made headline news in the UK, especially as it had been widely anticipated that it would be passed. One may wonder what having women bishops has to do with church growth and why I, as a mathematical modeller, should deem it worthy of comment. I think the reason I feel the need to say something is precisely because it does not have much to do with church growth! If the church were to face the serious issues that would help its survival, future growth and ability to carry out its mandate to evangelise the world, deciding on women bishops would not be on the priority list.

Perhaps what intrigues me is the underlying reason as to why this bill for women bishops is being opposed, and I think the same reason why people now want to bring it in. It is that reason which has everything to do with church growth, or the lack of it. And I don’t mean all the arguments from the Bible and tradition for and against, or the need to be modern and relevant. Strip all that to one side and what is happening is that a centuries old tradition that has forced everyone to accept women cannot have the leadership position of a bishop is being replaced by a rule which now would eventually force everyone to accept that they can. That is, one type of uniformity is being replaced by another. Uniformity, or the lack of diversity in church life, is to me the underlying issue to the debate on women bishops and the issue that affects church growth.

There is a marked contrast between the USA and Europe when it comes to church growth. In the USA the churches are generally strong and many are still growing. In Europe churches are declining fast and have been since the Second World War.  The reason put forward by many sociologists of religion is that Christianity is established and regulated in Europe, whereas in the US there is no established church and a “free market” in religion operates. As such the US has a much greater degree of competition as reflected in the highly diverse nature of churches. Church leaders can be innovative without any over-arching body to insist on single uniformity.

This is where my modelling comes in. It is that freedom to compete and innovate that allows enthusiasts to flourish and generate more enthusiasts. Enthusiasts are the drivers of church growth. Uniformity, and the regulation that comes with it, stifles enthusiasm, restricts enthusiasts, and ultimately quenches growth, the work of the Holy Spirit, and revival. In the debate on women bishops it is that desire for uniformity that bothers me, rather than the issue itself. Allow both to coexist side-by-side, and if necessary compete. This will make for stronger churches.

Of course some diversity does exist in the UK as there are many denominations. People are free to start churches, and the rise of many new and independent denominations such as New Frontiers and Vineyard, continues. These will no doubt be the main denominations of the future when many of the older ones have run their course. (Ironically neither of these have women leaders! Although they do allow married couples to lead together.) There is certainly some innovation in the Church of England, it was an Anglican congregation that brought about the Alpha Course, the one initiative that has probably had more impact than any other in last 20 years (or more!). And there are many other examples.

But the majority of the C of E remains untouched, as do many older denominations, because there is not the expectation among the people or ministers that diversity and competition are healthy and to be encouraged. Somehow the spirit of 1662 lives on in the UK. That was the year of the act of uniformity which brought to an end a generation or more of experiment and innovation in church life and worship. It was also know as the great ejection when many ministers were forced to leave the church as episcopacy and the prayer book became compulsory. The effect on the church’s mission was disastrous and it did not start to recover until the Methodist revivals 70 years later. 

I can’t imagine constructing a model of the effect of introducing women bishops on the growth of the church. But I am working on models of the effects of uniformity and the stifling of enthusiasts. Hopefully I will be able to bring some insights into the positive effects of allowing diversity, de-regulation and competition on the growth of the church and making it better able to take the world for Christ.

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