I was in the thick of a meeting where we were trying to imagine the future of the Church of England might look like. Generally speaking, if you ask a C of E parish what they want for the future, they will try and envisage something rather like what they are now, but with hopefully some more new keen people who will help to make it happen. There might be a reluctant admission that they may have to share a vicar at some future stage, and under no circumstances would most congregations countenance the thought that their building might close.
So what might the future actually look like? The trends would suggest that there will be fewer clergy, general numerical decline in congregations, but with notable exceptions. We will probably see growth in non-conventional gatherings such as Messy Church and Café church. At some point, many churches may be forced to abandon their buildings by the cost of operating them, or adapt them substantially for shared use to share and/or offset costs.
My own hunch is that by the time I retire we will have substantially fewer communion services. Even now, many parishes have 2 or 3 on a Sunday plus at least one midweek. As the number of clergy authorised to officiate diminish, that will have to change. The only alternative is burn out the clergy (please don't), or authorise other people to officiate (controversial). We probably need to move to thinking of ensuring that there will be one service in reasonable range of everyone (e.g. within the distance people travel for shopping) each Sunday at a limited number of locations each week across a Deanery. They could move around each week, and at other locations a simpler act of worship / Bible study / Messy church etc could be taking place.
Church venues will change too. There will still be big specialist centres, which still attract significant numbers for high quality choral or formal worship - such as cathedrals, minsters and priory churches, or for contemporary worship with quality PA and musicians. Other church buildings will be doubling up as community centres, or other use, only hosting worship on Sundays and other arranged timings. Smaller congregations may have abandoned highly expensive buildings altogether and will be meeting in homes or hired rooms. Other churches popular for weddings/baptisms, etc may well still be thriving by focussing on that ministry. Yet other locations may still serve as sacred spaces or destinations for pilgrimage, and places for peace, quiet and prayer.
I don't think the C of E will have died out. Its expectations for the future and people's expectations of it will have to change and so will the clergy. We may even need some legal changes to free us to do what is necessary in terms of buildings and boundaries. But none of this need be fatal; in fact it may be liberating and help us to move forward in new and radical ways. The question is whether those who have the power to make real change have the courage to do so.
Anyone else up for it?