save the parish marcus walker
Mission

Does it matter if Church of England parishes wither on the vine?

At the inaugural meeting of ‘Save the Parish‘ this week at Great St Bartholomew’s in Smithfield, London, the Rev’d Marcus Walker was animated and agitated. Time is short, he told us. The ancient parishes of the Church of England are in peril from the plan to establish 10,000 new ‘Fresh Expressions‘ of church, the funding of which (and the mission focus of which) is leading to the de-funding of parish churches and the diminution of parochial ministry. The objective of ‘Save the Parish’, he explained, is for concerned clergy and laity to assert their ownership of the Church of England, which belongs to all the people of England, before it is too late.

The evening began with prayers for Archbishops Justin and Stephen, followed by addresses by the Rev’d Prof Alison Milbank (Professor of Theology at Nottingham University and co-author of For the Parish), and the Rev’d Stephen Trott (Rector of All Saints’ Church in Pitsford in the Diocese of Peterborough; Church Commissioner and member of the General Synod).

You can read a summary of their addresses on the Church Times website, or listen to them in their entirety:

It essentially boils down to subsidiarity: no-one disputes that there are different models of mission and different ways of doing and being church, but all those models agree that that which can best be done at the local level should be done at the local level, and that which is best done from the centre should be centralised. We can cavil about which primatial powers need to be exercised above the diocesan, provincial (and national) levels; and on which occasions and for what causes it is appropriate for the ordinary jurisdiction that normally belongs to a parish priest (or diocesan bishop) to be exercised by a superior ordinary, but the experience of history and the reality of ecclesial theology is that the more centralised a church is, the less ‘contextual’ it will be. It is simply not possible for Church House or Lambeth Palace to monitor and direct the missions of 12,500 parish churches; and it is not preferable for 44 dioceses to chip away at parish autonomy to herd every town and village congregation into a particular model of mission. The more the Church of England is centralised and ‘managed’, the more distant it will seem to its parishioners.

If one parish church wants to open a coffee shop on the High Street and offer childcare with prayer, that is perfectly fine. ‘I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.’ And if another wants to rent a room in a pub every Sunday and offer Bible study over a pint, that is also perfectly fine. ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’ But if three churches in a united benefice are already struggling to attract 20 people to gather for corporate worship on a Sunday, it is very hard to see why their resources of time and money should be channelled into a diocesan vision to establish a ‘fresh expression’ of church to meet weekly in their local school hall, which can only have the effect of spreading the vicar a little more thinly, and exhausting the laity who are already doing all they can to sustain what they have.

This is not, of course, to say that all they are doing is the best that can be done: it is an observation that the vision for a variety of ‘fresh expressions’ will only lead to a vibrant ‘mixed ecology’ of churches when the framework and methodology of effective church planting includes a little more sensitivity toward parochial ministry, and some understanding of how much better the parish church could be.

There is certainly a place in the Missio  Dei for the planting of churches in pubs, schools and people’s homes, but it is not particularly the Anglican way, which is distinct in its ecclesiology and liturgy, and ever mindful of deeply-held religious, cultural, geographical and historical roots. If the Church of England is planting 10,000 new lay-led church fellowships ‘in partnership’ with the parish, in what sense are they distinctly Anglican? Don’t the Baptists and the Methodists and the Pentecostalists all do this, and, indeed, do it rather well (if not better)? In our Anglican ecclesial communion we work together ecumenically with a number of other churches, but what will be the relationship of a lay-led church plant gathering above the local Chinese takeaway to the congregation of a parish church? Indeed, will this new church be a ‘plant’ or a ‘graft’? Or will it be a ‘partnership’? Are all ‘fresh expressions’ of church a ‘church plant’? To what extent are they autonomous ecclesial communities?

There is a delicate balance in Anglican ecclesiology between top-down governance and bottom-up authority and accountability. The Supreme Governor of the Church of England is the Queen, a lay woman; and the General Synod consists of three ‘Houses’ of ‘parliament’: Bishops, Clergy and Laity. If clergy and laity aren’t in agreement with an episcopal plan, then Synod is the place where it may be scuppered. ‘Save the Parish’ doesn’t seek to scupper mission; it seeks to ensure subsidiarity, in the hope (and prayer) that hundreds of struggling parishes do not feel devalued by the latest shiny new vision of evangelisation.

But does it matter if thousands of struggling parishes wither and die?

Some have already died, and the monuments to their former glory are being lovingly restored and cared for by Friends of Friendless Churches. But this is an expensive business: Friends of Friendless Churches pour £100,000s into restoring these architectural gems, yet they get vandalised again and again because they don’t have enough friends to guard them night and day. Others parishes have merged their missionary efforts, becoming part of a ‘united benefice’ where one priest has oversight of two or three churches because none has the financial means (or bums on pews) to sustain their own ordained minister. And in some cases it is far worse: Baroness Morrissey tweets: “I had a conversation with my extended family in Chichester this past weekend who told me about vicars on low stipends now responsible for 5 churches! It’s untenable & the church is top heavy with “leadership” and command & control. It’s sad.”

Simon Knott adds: “Indeed. And they’re looking after twelve or more churches in some benefices in Norfolk and Suffolk.”

How can one priest on a meagre stipend possibly lead three churches effectively, let alone five? And to be expected to lead 12 and to nurture their congregations in discipleship seems an impossible task. How can a priest make disciples in a dozen villages if there’s a constant worry of who will clean half-a-dozen toilets, where they can dig the next four graves, and how they might keep the lead on the roofs of their ancient church buildings?

How can ‘Save the Parish’ save a parish if its parishioners can’t be bothered to save it? Is it not then preferable to have a more ‘contextual’ expression of church which people want to attend rather than no church at all? Is it not better to build vibrant new church communities than preserve musty old buildings that few want to attend? Is it not more fruitful to be seen to be spiritual and loving in the village Coffee Shop Church than religious and aloof in St Mary’s-on-the-Hill?

It is easy, of course, for those who love their parish church to insist that they are not ‘religious and aloof’, but we are dealing with people’s perceptions and prejudices. Contextual theology demands contextual worship, and some people are far happier exploring the Bible in a marquee on a farm in Buckinghamshire than they are standing and sitting and kneeling in accordance with centuries of liturgical tradition while bathed in the light of 15th-century stained glass. What, after all, is authentic mission if the aspirations, hopes and language of the local culture do not shape what the church does?

Is it not preferable to preach the gospel where people might hear? Is it not desirable to seek and debate scriptures in ways that people might understand? Is it not more valuable to make disciples above the local Chinese takeaway than to seek new converts among the same 12 old ladies who gather in the parish church week after week? Is it not better for a journey of faith to begin where the people gather than to try and draw them to where they do not want to go? The answer to these questions must be ‘Yes’, but the next question must then be: ‘What does God want to do?’ or ‘How does the Holy Spirit want to lead?’

And the answer will not always be: ‘Through the parochial system of the Established Church.’

It may, of course, be precisely that in some contexts; where there are pastoral means and missionary values dedicated to a strategy of incarnation. It is ultimately through inculturation – which some parishes practise and manifest in abundance – that people come to hear and understand who this Jesus is. But such a strategy emanates from the parish and goes up to the deanery and diocese: it won’t be the calling of the diocese imposed upon the parish via the deanery. It is the Holy Spirit who has primacy in mission; not the diocese or deanery. And the gospel has many clothes, which some parishes wear quite well, while others are rather ragged and more holey than holy. And it is in these parishes, where divine activity has all but ceased and the congregation is no longer able (or willing) to grapple with the cultural barriers of (post)modernity, that the message of salvation is muted. In such contexts, a ‘fresh expression’ of church is not only desirable, but necessary. The labourers, which are few, have allowed their parish to wither on the vine, ‘And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.’