“There are about to be General Synod elections. So, stand. Stand and write in your manifesto that you are standing to ‘Save the parish’,” writes the Rev’d Marcus Walker, Rector of the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great on the emerging ‘Save the Parish’ website. It is a distinctly latitudinarian and ecumenical initiative: “Stand whether you are an Evangelical or an Anglo-Catholic or a High Churchman. Stand if you’re a female priest or a woman who doesn’t think women can be priests. Stand if you want to save the parish, because these are your parishes and this is the only important question for the next five years. Stand because this might really be the last chance to save the church we love.”
This comes in response to the Church of England’s plan to create 10,000 new lay-led churches, which will be unfettered by the ‘key limiting factors‘ of ancient church buildings, stipendiary priests, and the long college-based training training which was once considered intrinsic to priestly formation.
“This is your church,” Fr Marcus continues indignantly. “This is not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, nor the House of Bishops’s, nor the clergy’s, not even the General Synod’s. It belongs, in a broad sense, to the people of England (regardless of your faith or lack of it — which is why parliament is still its ultimate decision-making body) and very specifically to the laity of the Church of England. You have a say.”
He is absolutely right on that “broad sense”, which is so frequently ignored and easily forgotten: parish churches do not belong to the Church of England plc, but to everyone who resides in a parish; to every Christian of every denomination; to every Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, agnostic and satanist. The Church of England exists for the people of England, and part of its mission is to forge a sense of belonging to a continuing and pre-existing social and spiritual order. This common life has traditionally been embodied by the geographical parishes, to which millions of people feel a profound affinity, particularly at certain times of the year and for key rites of passage — baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals. Parishes simultaneously incarnate, inculcate and perpetuate the nation’s history, traditions, culture and prejudice, which are the foundation of community social life and constitute an unwritten social bond – even a transcendental connection with the Church of England – Christ’s body in the nation.
There is a move afoot to ‘release’ the Church of England from this and all that binds it: the church apparently needs freedom to flourish, and the task of making Jesus known needs to be liberated from the ‘key limiting factors’ of Anglicanism. Writing in the Spectator, Fr Marcus observes:
At the absolute best, this is going to be the biggest exercise in displacement activity in the history of the church. There are currently 12,500 parishes in the C of E, which have taken 1,500 years to develop organically. We are talking about almost doubling that number in ten years. That’s three a day. If we take this seriously, every sinew of the organisational structure of the church will be dedicated to nothing else for a decade.
That’s the best-case scenario. The worst takes us back five months to The Spectator’s ‘rascally’ cover piece. The trigger for concern then was a leak to the Sunday Times of an internal church document of how to respond to the pandemic. It included this smoking gun: ‘Many diocesan leaders believe that the financial challenges being exposed by the pandemic mean this is the moment to embark on radical changes to reshape existing resource patterns and ministry structures.’ In the panic following the leak, the Archbishops gave a number of assurances, in which a certain sleight of hand could be discerned. The first was the denial of any national strategy. This is either negligent to a terrifying degree or totally disingenuous. The 2016 decision to move from the ‘Darlow formula’, which subsidised poorer dioceses, to ‘Strategic Development Funding’, which could only be spent on new projects, was a national strategy. The consequences were local, for example Chelmsford diocese being forced to cull 60 clergy (one fifth of their total), but the claim this was all down to local decision-making is just untrue.
The consequence is also that all over the country dioceses are desperately trying to create exciting projects and sexy management roles to attract SDF grants rather than support their existing parishes. If you’ve wondered why we are suddenly flooded by ‘Associate Archdeacons’, full-time area deans and ‘Directors of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation’ (yes, really), it’s because these can be funded from the magic pot of money while boring, snoring parishes with their boring, snoring local ministry cannot.
And a number of indignant letters have been written to various newspapers:
Parishes plundered and left without services
SIR – I am church warden of the mother church of a very rural benefice of six churches, which all share one vicar (“Bishops under fire for heavenly lifestyle as parishes near collapse”, report, July 9).
A small congregation works hard to give as much as we can as a Parish Offer to the diocese. As a result we have had a service every Sunday.
The incumbent vicar will be retiring soon. He will not be replaced. In return for our generous Parish Offer, a church with a 1,400-year history will expect to have a clergy-delivered act of worship once every six weeks.
I fear the end of worship is nigh, and I will become only a custodian and steward of an empty, soulless medieval building, haunted by the echoes and shadows of past congregations.
What has the Church of England come to?
SIR – Noel Hudson DSO MC, who was Bishop of Newcastle from 1941 to 1957, lived in a small Victorian terrace house close to the centre of Newcastle. He had one secretary. How times – and priorities – change.
Parishes with no clergy
SIR – The plan for lay-led parishes (report, July 6) is another ill-concealed attempt by the General Synod to neutralise and ultimately close down the traditional parish and its church.
Not all parishioners want to attend evangelical services, nor lose access to their churches by attending services in homes, as proposed by Canon John McGinley. The claim by Dave Male, head of evangelism and discipleship, that new groups “would be under the oversight of clergy even if not led by the parish priest” is also unconvincing.
I hold no brief for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, but it is interesting that it is during his sabbatical that Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, is making the change.
Can one detect a jockeying for power?
T J Tawney
The CofE’s own-goals
SIR – I do despair over the future of the Church of England: the parish system is being deconstructed, wokery is on the increase, stipendiary clergy are being made redundant and head office posts are proliferating.
Now we read of the plan to create 10,000 lay-led churches (report, July 6) to “attract” new members. If nothing else, the history of the Church since the late 1960s has been one of decline amid a plethora of liturgical reform, revised translations of sacred texts and the planting of new congregations. As the number of foot soldiers decreases, the well-remunerated generals multiply (report, July 9).
If you need medical attention, you are reassured by a person with a badge saying “paramedic”. At church, a dog collar tells you who the ordained person is. While wearing mine out and about, I have been engaged in conversation by hundreds of people.
So Christianity needs to proclaim the Gospel, build up the Kingdom, resource the parishes with ordained, trained and effective leaders (working with enthusiastic lay people) and spend money where results will be seen.
It will not be achieved by micromanaging what is left of the stipendiary cohort and replacing it with laity. Will these new churches replace parishes or be in competition with them? These proposals need to be properly thought out.
Rev Simon Douglas Lane
SIR – As the 20 per cent decline in church attendance is precisely because of the lack of proper, old-fashioned vicars, substituting more of them is unlikely to reverse it.
The Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser also warns: ‘The Church is abandoning its flock‘. And the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy writes of ‘The New Politics of Ecclesionomics for the Church of England‘ and ‘The Church of England’s Growth Fetish‘. You may not agree with their missiology, but their defence of Anglican ecclesiology and the parish system over “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich” is a mission worth preserving, for without it the Church of England ceases to be established and loses its distinctive raison d’être.
One can whinge and write articles, or one can do something about it. If you wish to stand for election to the General Synod under the banner of ‘Save the Parish’, please sign up, and someone will be in touch to discuss the process and how you could best make a difference in the Synod elections. Our buildings, stipendiary ministry, and the long, costly college-based training which underpins the parochial system of the Church of England are all worth preserving.