I'd heard a lot of this before and my main impression was how agreeable it was to be listening to people who were talking optimistically and enthusiastically about the ways church communities can go about being more deliberative and definite about what they're trying to do evangelistically, within a framework of understanding that we're not really doing it very well at the moment. That's quite refreshing.
I haven't read a great deal of the research, or looked at the glossy and impressive accompanying website, in much detail: I tend to be a bit sceptical about this sort of thing. Nevertheless, it seems no more than obvious that, at the very least, being deliberative, open to change, welcoming to different groups of people, and providing opportunities to grow in discipleship will all maximise the chances of a church being able to maintain its viability, to say nothing about fulfilling the Great Commission given by Jesus to the Apostles, regardless of the statistical basis for the FETA documents.
As it turns out, that statistical basis may not be terribly sound. The concept is reasonable enough: some churches grow, some don't: identify the factors that connect them and you have a basis for action. However, this analysis suggests that identifying which churches are growing is not as obvious as it might seem: the original research relied a great deal on self-reporting by clergy, and it hardly takes a genius to work out that this may not be the soundest methodological approach. I've mentioned before the almost impossible questions the Diocese asks me about ‘joiners and leavers’ over the course of the year, and the difficulties deciding who fits into what category, and some of the work was apparently based on such estimations. Even I'm probably inclined to overestimate church attendance, though I'm sure that the overestimation doesn't affect year-on-year comparisons. Worse than that, both FATE and FETA have taken the nuances of the original, unpublished report on the statistics, and exaggerated its positive findings, simplified its conclusions, and misreported its language. There is no mention, for instance, of the fact that a very significant degree of numerical growth in churches results from people moving between congregations, rather than moving in from unbelief.
The practical outcome is that the documents overstate the effect an individual church can have on its fortunes, completely missing out those larger and wider factors which work powerfully to vitiate the laudable efforts of local church communities. It suggests that the Church of England can be saved by those local efforts without answering the question of how best to structure a national Church to carry out God's work in this time and place.
I can't do anything about those great structural issues: my job is to make it easier for souls in the parish of Swanvale Halt to discover God, and at the moment it looks as though that's compatible with at least maintaining the parish church of Swanvale Halt as a going concern. I have no illusions as to whether that's really the case, or whether our activity will actually result in growth. FATE and FETA are not a blueprint for making local churches work, still less for re-evangelising the nation.
Despite the implications of its marketing, this process won't save the Church of the present, or bring into existence the Church of the future, but it may be the first steps we have to take to create the conditions for the Church of the future to emerge. Local churches have long since known what the problems are, but haven't had any idea what to do about them; FATE and FETA give some pointers towards moving towards a new way of doing things that may prove fruitful. And that's about as positive as you can be. I just wonder whether, although the Church as a whole is at last facing up to the truth about its decline, it still doesn't seem quite able to face up to becoming something different, and implies instead that a little more work will keep the show as it is on the road.