Justin Welby Save the Parish
Church of England

Welby: there is no need to ‘save the parish’; there is no threat to it

The Archbishop of Canterbury recently made a very subtle intervention in the process of elections to the General Synod. Indeed, so subtle was it that absolutely nobody noticed. Just as ballot papers and personal statements were landing in the inboxes of the deanery electorates (the CofE is not ‘one member one vote’), including a new raft of candidates for the ‘Save the Parish‘ initiative organised by the Rev’d Marcus Walker, Justin Welby gave an interview to the Church Times in which he said there is absolutely no need for ‘Save the Parish’ because the parish doesn’t need saving from anything: there is no threat, no challenge, no conspiracy, and no desire to see it harmed, compromised or diminished in the spiritual life of the nation.

So don’t waste your Synod vote on a group of “rascally voices” that screech about an imaginary struggle against an apocryphal plot to dismantle the parish network.

A few people responded:

welby save the parishwelby save the parish

The second comment was expounded by Emma Thompson in her Spectator article last week: ‘The Church Closers’ Charter must be torn up‘, in which she explained the significance of draft legislation currently heading to Synod:

It has the unsexy name GS 2222, so I call it the ‘Church Closers’ Charter’. Its introduction is written by someone whose job title is Head of Pastoral and Closed Churches, and she writes that the purpose of the legal change is to simplify existing legislation so as ‘to manage the disposal of churches no longer needed for regular public worship’, for which there needs to be ‘faster processes which would allow for an increase in closures over time’. The need for simplification, she says, was identified ‘after discussion with dioceses’.

The Church of England’s comms teams have mastered the art of shrouding significant changes in bureaucratic language so dull that few bother to read on to discover what is actually happening — hence GS 2222. The proposal made its first General Synod appearance in July. It is now at the stage of public consultation (which ends on 31 October) before it goes back to General Synod in February. A close reading of the document shows that it very much does not just propose to simplify existing legislation. It is an un-transparent, anti-democratic piece of proposed legislation which will, if implemented, shift power from the local (parishes) to the centre (dioceses). It is a stealthy power grab.

…The document reveals that the Church’s dioceses are, collectively, considering tripling the rate at which churches are closing. It confidently earmarks up to 356 (unspecified) churches for closure, and implies that dioceses may have their eyes on many more. It also envisages more clergy dispossessions (dismissals) and considers ‘possible limitations of rights of representation or appeal’. The dioceses, in other words, would be made less accountable, just at the moment when many wanted to hold them to account.

So the Archbishop is undoubtedly right when he says there is no threat to the parish, if by ‘parish’ you understand a territorial sub-division of a diocese for the purposes of ecclesiastical administration and the cure of souls. And being the Established Church, this is a service of faith, love, hope and compassion for everyone in the parish community. But if you understand ‘parish’ to be the worshipping community in the parish church, which is responsible not only for the essential mission of making disciples, but also, through the parochial church council, for the finances of the parish and the care and maintenance of all church buildings and their contents, then there is a very real threat, if not quite a conspiracy.

Although responsibilities for church buildings and their contents are executed by the churchwardens, all PCC members share in the oversight. They are guardians of history and tradition: their task is to ensure that people hear the gospel, and that there shall be a place consecrated for the service of Almighty God to do so. The parish church is sanctified and made holy by its use for preaching and the administration of the sacraments, and it belongs not to the priest or to the worshipping community but to the whole parish community, regardless of faith or belief.

If GS 2222 becomes law, the authority of PCCs will be diminished, and some of the historic property rights of the parish community will be negated, including those of consultation, representation, and appeal. It means that ‘the diocese’ will have greater power to close churches and dispense with their contents. It means ‘the diocese’ will have greater authority to appropriate the proceeds of property and fabric sold. It means ‘the diocese’ will have greater ease in sacking vicars and flogging buildings, with parishioners left waving their arms and tweeting their disgust, but really quite impotent to do anything about it.

And ‘the diocese’ is in inverted commas because there is some dispute over the status of this administrative entity vis à vis parishes and the legal authority (and pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical mission) of PCCs. If a faceless diocesan board or one of its sub-committees is intent on selling a parish church against the will of its ‘unviable’ worshipping community, then whose interpretation of ‘mission’ prevails? That of the parish, or that of a board in ‘the diocese’? Currently the diocesan board of finance has power to ensure the proper administration of parish property, and in particular to protect that property against the possibility of a decision by the PCC which is inconsistent with the duties of the PCC as trustee. GS 2222 proposes new powers for a diocesan board of finance to override the views of the PCC when apprehensions of those duties conflict. This isn’t just a “stealthy power grab”; it is custodian trusteeship grab.

There is still time to object to GS 2222 (consultation closes, somewhat ironically, on the Eve of All Saints’ Day, 31st October 2021). ‘Save the Parish’ have prepared a helpful ‘How to object‘ document, which might assist in the formulation of argument, for those who care.

There is also a QC’s legal opinion of the proposed measure, which may also be of interest. A key paragraph:

So far as both theology and law are concerned, this is a building and a place which has been dedicated to God for the worship of God by the people of a particular locality, the parishioners. Although vested in the priest, it is their church. It has been maintained, extended, repaired, enlarged, ornamented and loved by their generosity and their commitment to it. It is morally and legally the property of the local church, by which I mean here the people of God in that place. They must continue to have the final say over it, and if it is to be replaced by a new building, they must have the right to retain the value of any sale which takes place in order to fund their new facilities. It is their asset once it is consecrated for their benefit, along with any successor church building.

‘Save the Parish’ write:

If you feel strongly that this is a mistake, please act. All you need do is to send an email to mpm2011review@churchofengland.org by 31st October, stating that, with regard to diocesan church closure plans, you object to any reduction in the rights of PCC and local people to be consulted and to appeal.

If you have time to do more, you can fill out the whole consultation document; please use the documents above to object in greater detail.

Please do object strongly – and please forward this on!

This appeal coincides with a letter to the Telegraph yesterday:

St Peter and St Paul Church Weston-in-Gordano Somerset

These may be the pews in question, though they are actually stalls with misericords. Either way, something ancient has manifestly been lost forever.

St Peter and St Paul Weston-in-Gordano pews

St Peter and St Paul Weston-in-Gordano pews

Setting aside the legality and morality of their destruction, this is what happens when a parish church with a small and elderly worshipping community can no longer care for the fabric of their ancient building. Proponents of GS 2222 will say the church is ‘unviable’: they can’t pay their ‘parish share’ or fulfil their mission to the community, and so it needs to close swiftly, to save further expense. It can be cared for by Friends of Friendless Churches, or perhaps converted sympathetically into flats.

Supporters of ‘Save the Parish’ will argue that there needs to be an immediate crowdfunding campaign, and that this small and elderly but devoted worshipping community needs to be supported and loved, not shunted off to worship in a ‘fresh expression’ of church over the local Chinese Takeaway.

But what, then, does ‘the Diocese’ do when the elderly, church-going congregants of St Peter and St Paul in Weston-in-Gordano don’t manage to raise the necessary £50K to fix their dry rot, and four more of their fellowship have died in the process? What should ‘the Diocese’ do when the worshipping community’s view of itself is that it is “Serving our community with tradition and beauty”, but the reality is thus:

St Peter and St Paul Weston in Gordano

If, as they say, their Grade I-listed building is “much loved in the village and beyond”, why has the non-churchgoing community not chipped in to save its medieval pews from the bonfire? Don’t they appreciate it as a place of solace and reflection? Don’t they at least value it for their christenings, weddings and funerals?

What does ‘the Diocese’ do when the worshipping community consists of seven or eight pensioners, and the priest also serves two other larger churches in a united benefice, and all mission efforts seem to focus on raising money to sustain the crumbling fabric while souls are being lost?

As Emma Thompson writes, the demise of the parish system is not inevitable. But, my word, you need a big vision for its future and a credible plan for its viability. If the revolution is really coming in Synod, does it not need to be accompanied if not preceded by revival in the Spirit?