Linda Woodhead: Plans for CofE shake up are wrongly focused

The proposed remedies for the numerical decline of the Church of England are "too clerical and too congregational" according to a leading academic.

Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster university compares the Church to a chronically ill person who puts off seeing a doctor until it is almost too late.

"It has been declining for more than a century, and yet attention to the problem has been endlessly deferred," she writes in The Church Times. "Denial and distraction reigned: dreams of union with Rome; fantasies about the Anglican Communion; agonising about women and gay people; endless commissions and reports."

While it was "heartening" to see last week's tranche of reports urging reform in the run-up to General Synod next month, she says the hard questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined.

The portrayal of society as secularised and materialistic culture desert for the soul was a "paranoid and unevidenced projection" and the assumption that improvement depends on more and better clergy was also flawed, she adds.

She argues that the proposed reforms are in danger of taking the Church away from a traditional model that engages with society into a more congregational form.

"The reports just assume that the only way in which the Church can continue to fill its cof­fers is to stock the pews with a new generation of givers, but there are many additional ways in which a societal church could raise money. They include better-organised fund­raising for particular causes, an annual membership charge along the lines of the National Trust, and competitive charging for some aspects of the Church's work. The reports are wrong to let the current funding tail wag the ecclesiastical dog," she continues.

"How different it would have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but 'partakers in the divine nature', capable of having 'the mind of Christ'."

She calls for a more honest diagnosis of what has gone wrong and a greater openness to existing wisdom. "There is a bigger, better, and more exciting Church of England out there, waiting to be born."

The latest report, from the Faith and Order Commission, on leadership, warns against generating "an atmosphere of performance anxiety".

It examines whether the virtues being demanded of senior leaders today sit well with the virtues of discipleship. "A Christian leader is, after all, a disciple first and a leader second, and that means that he or she is and remains a follower even while being a leader."

It warns: "Some current models of leadership do not seem to place much emphasis on patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control." It notes Canon law, which sets out a bishop's duty as to promote and maintain "quietness, love, and peace among all".