The Archbishop of York, the Rt Rev’d Stephen Cottrell, has told the General Synod of the Church of England that the Church Commissioners will dedicate £3.6bn over the next nine years to “making Christ known”.
“These are substantial sums of money, they will make a difference, ” he said. “We’re putting our money where our missional mouth is.”
And then we read:
Priorities for the spending include £190m to help the Church of England transition to net zero, £20m on work to promote Racial Justice and £400m over the next three years towards achieving the outcomes and priorities that flow from the Church’s Vision and Strategy for the 2020s.
£3.6bn is an awful lot of money. It would easily pay to put a dedicated priest into every parish. In fact, it would give every parish in England (all 12,500 of them) £32,000 a year for the next nine years. But they don’t want to save the parish as much as they want to reach net zero with racial justice.
Quite how many people in England will hear the good news about Jesus through net zero isn’t exactly known. And spending money to put a Racial Justice czar into every diocese with a mission to forge ‘racial networks’ will bear nowhere near as much fruit as giving more money directly to parish priests to do this themselves. Isn’t that what parish priests are for? Don’t they tend to know their flocks rather better than the pen-pushers and bean-counters in diocesan bureaucracies?
£3.6bn is an awful lot of money. It would easily cover the debts of every parish still burdened with the financial costs of the Covid lockdown; and relieve those rural churches faithfully supported by 12 pensioners of having to find £40,000 a year to pay their ‘parish share’.
£3.6bn would revitalise local ministry by increasing clergy numbers, allowing them to serve and minister with a committed regularity which would lead to real church growth. The evidence is a clear, and it’s a point made by the Rev’d Marcus Walker in The Critic magazine: “We know what leads to growth. The church’s own 2016 report, Going Deeper tells us: ‘An increase in clergy is associated with the likelihood of growth, while a decrease in clergy is associated, on average, to a decline in attendance.'”
Yet he must warn:
But I fear the national church isn’t listening. The archbishops have just announced the budget for the church for the next three years. They promise that they have learned the lessons of the catastrophic failure of their Strategic Development Fund plan.
They promise that it will be more broadly spread across churchmanships, where the previous fund went almost exclusively to charismatic evangelical projects; that it can be spent in rural areas (alleluia) and it can be spent on pre-existing projects.
But. But, but, but … it has to fit with the central church’s current Vision and Strategy (a document which has never been passed or approved by any representative body of the church and is filled with tiresome elements that will have the church chasing its own tail for years).
Furthermore, it can only be spent with the approval of, and at the application of, dioceses (some of which, like Leicester, have already promised that they will not use it to support parochial ministry). It is top-down, it is centre-led, it is vastly expensive and it will fail again, and all the while churches will be closed and merged and the fading faithful few will be told that “There is no alternative.”
In the essential mission of “making Christ known”, there is no better strategy than dwelling amongst a community and gradual inculturation into its customs, routines, obsessions and mores. If the parish priest has time to sit with single mothers pulling their hair out surrounded by screaming babies, or go to the pub with newly-redundant steel-workers and point them toward a pinhole of light, then Christ may be seen and heard and made known among them. But if the parish priest is pulling his own hair out having to sustain and sprawling united benefice and preach in three churches and attend a myriad of parish meeting all fretting about where on earth they’re going to find £40K this year to pay their ‘parish share’ to the diocese, then Christ gets smothered by the barnacles of bureaucracy.
There is making Christ known through loving and serving and having the time to do both; and there is making Christ known through contending and striving and having little time to love and serve because the money is paying for net zero and racial justice. Loving one’s neighbour will always involve understanding and empathy, and those who are called to minister and pastor must be freed to witness by understanding complex communities and empathising in cross-cultural contexts. The parish church which has a dedicated shepherd will be a better bearer of that parish’s culture simply because the priest who has to tend five flocks has little time to differentiate the sheep from the goats, let alone guide them to green pastures beside still waters.
In the Early Church, Jews, Greeks, barbarians, Thracians, Egyptians and Romans were able to feel welcome and at home. This was because Christianity was an adaptable and accommodating faith, and their leaders had eyes for the truly local and regional situations. The Church of England is equally adaptable and accommodating — if only the Holy Spirit were not bound by the macro-cultural strategies of secularity; and the local parish community were not ‘contaminated’ by the world’s obsessions.
If the ‘Vision and Strategy’ is of God, it will prosper. If it is not of God, it will be a waste of £3.6bn.
And that’s an awful lot of money.