Vicar's Blog ~ October 2021: "Save the Parish" and the General Synod
“How did you go bankrupt?" Ernest Hemingway once asked. “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
As elections to General Synod approach many in the Church of England seem to be afraid that her decline is now entering this second sudden phase. Her numbers were already falling, and her congregations were already getting older. And then there was the Covid pandemic.
The Church is divided about how to respond.
On one side of the argument is Canon John McGinley of New Wine who spoke of about “key limiting factors” to church growth in an address to a church-planting conference: “When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church ... then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form.”
Draft legislation currently heading to Synod has been called a “Church Closers’ Charter”. The revision it proposes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure will make it easier and quicker for dioceses to close churches, make priests redundant, and evict them from their homes.
The draft legislation talks about the Church as made up of ‘tent people’ and ‘temple people’. The question then becomes, does the Church of England need “temple people” any more? Does it still need its traditional buildings and theologically trained clergy for its mission in the future?
Those who believe that the answer must be “Yes!” have organised a campaign called “Save the Parish”. They are urging clergy and lay members to stand under its banner for election to General Synod this autumn. It also plans parish-based efforts to fight church closures.
A keynote speech at the campaign’s launch event in August was delivered by Alison Milbank who is the Canon Theologian of Southwell Minster.
She argued that, since the 2004 report Mission-shaped Church, “the Church of England has totally capitulated to market values and managerialism... There has been a tendency to view the parish like some inherited embarrassing knick-knack from a great-aunt that you wish were in the attic.” She feared that the pandemic had been “an opportunity to expedite further the demise of traditional church”.
She warned that, “resources are being drained from the parish system”.
“We are at crunch time. Are we the C of E with its reformed Catholic character, its sacraments, orders, and liturgies, and its parish witness, or are we a Nonconformist sect? There are hard decisions to be made in a Church during a period of secularisation and atheism, but they should be taken by those who love the Church of England. Indeed, even marketing will tell you that you cannot promote a product in which you do not believe.”
She went on to outline the strengths of the parish system, a “flexible and diverse institution” that offered “a set of co-ordinates that enable us to orient ourselves in time and space... Its worship and pastoral care are offered to everyone, and it models an association of ages, classes, and cultures in a place, as the Early Church did.” Its theology spoke of “a God who is stable, inclusive, and caring, who is committed to his world”, and a parish church building “speaks in itself of other values than the mercenary and the utilitarian... The church is a kind of guarantor of the holiness of the whole area” ... “There should be collaboration and movement between parish and mission initiative, each supporting the other.”
She concluded: “What is it to be Anglican? The Holy Trinity, Brompton model that is so much in the ascendant could carry on its life in any Protestant denomination... Without that sense of a core Anglicanism owning a national mission rooted in place and offering pastoral care to everyone, what are we as a body? ...”
“We are in a period of decline at the moment, though our churches have been empty and, indeed, ruinous before, and may be full again. Christ’s gospel cannot fail. Our charism as Anglicans of the Church of England may, however, fail, and the benign sense of national identity as love of the local be replaced by quite malign forms of nationalism...”
“Although there are a host of reasons for the decline of religious practice ... one key factor in our decline is our lack of faith in the creeds, the worship, the practices of our life, the whole habitus. So much is done apologetically. Of course, we want to avoid being brash or dogmatic, but we lack the humble confidence in our own gospel and our Anglican charism.
“This may be a time, perhaps, to organise in larger minster structures, with fewer, truly peripatetic, walking and cycling clergy driving where they must, and modelling true parochial life and pastoral cover where we can. Some churches may, indeed, be shrines, and some churches have only the stone cross by which our Northumbrian Christian ancestors marked the holiness of locality. It is not the time, however, to asset-strip and denude ourselves and our grandchildren or our heritage, which could be our missional future.”
I encourage you to find out more about this debate, which may define the future of our Church.
I also encourage you to pray for our bishops and for all those standing for General Synod and those who must choose who to elect and the future they believe is God’s will for us.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson October 2021