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The parish is not over: it just needs to evolve

11 October 2013

Former monastic approaches can provide models for running parishes and the ministry of priests, argues Stephen Spencer

SOME people argue that thousands of urban and village churches are on the brink of viability, as Canon Bob Baker wrote recently ( Letters, 23 August). Many churches are struggling to pay their parish share, but if this burden were eased by a reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy, would they still be unviable?

The clergy have been central to the continuing life of the Church of England over the past two centuries, since Victorian revival resulted in a paid priest in every neighbourhood. But if now there are not so many stipendiary clergy, and a different model of ministry is in operation, it prompts a question about whether all those churches would still face closure.

Some express it as a stark choice between maintaining the current parochial system and a "Tesco model" (to use Canon Baker's phrase), in which there are large, well-resourced centres of worship only in towns and cities.

Writing a study guide on church history has shown me that these are not the only options. Over the centuries, the Church has had a variety of institutional arrangements. Using a set of "organisational forms", as described in Helen Cameron's Resourcing Mission (SCM Press, 2009), my research suggests that, while at many points the Church has been a "public utility", a body geared towards providing rites for every member of a population (as in the parochial system); at other points, it has been a set of voluntary associations, set up for the benefit of its members, and run by them according to their own procedures (as is typical of Protestant Churches such as the Congregationalists and Baptists).

Then again, at other points, it has been much more informal, a series of friendship groups, open-ended in its common life (as in German Pietism, and more recently in house churches). At other points still, it has been a series of "third-place meetings", gatherings within another community, as was the case for the apostolic church meeting within the Jewish community of first-century Palestine.

Finally, at other points, it has been more of a "network resource", a number of bodies set up to facilitate a wider aim, as occurred in the early medieval period, when monastic houses spread to pray for the souls of the general population, and especially for their benefactors.

TO STUDY the practical alternatives to the current public-utility parish system in the C of E, I applied Dr Cameron's set of organisational forms to the local church scene. Looking at my home town, the results were revealing: four Anglican churches, two Methodist, one Roman Catholic, one Baptist, and one Salvation Army provided a picture of the Church as a set of independent voluntary associations, but also more than this.

While each has its own membership, drawn from different sections of the population, each is clearly committed to serving the town as a whole. The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches tend to do this through involvement in schools; the Methodists through supporting community groups and lunch clubs for the elderly; the Salvation Army through a food bank and shelter for homeless people; the Baptists through a counselling service, and so on. Together, the churches make an extensive and sustained contribution to the social life of the town.

Looking at the various organisational forms from church history, I had to conclude that the monastic orders of the early medieval period provide the closest parallel. These network resources were set up to serve the wider population, and they did so by building up a committed communal life of their own, the one to facilitate the other.

The churches of my town seem to be doing something similar, encouraging their own communal life not just for its own sake, but in order to resource their missional service of the wider population.

IN THIS complex ecology, the stipendiary clergy are no longer the sole or even the main channels of ministry: the membership of the churches as a whole now serves as this. The main function of both stipendiary and self-supporting clergy seems to be to provide oversight - an episcopal ministry like that of a monastic abbot - of encouraging and co-ordinating the people of the congregations in the outreach that they do.

This task is focused especially on Sunday mornings, when the people gather for worship and fellowship; but it also happens in all kinds of other ways during the week - pastorally, organisationally, and through prayer, depending on what is going on, and where support is needed.

This monastic form of ministry does not depend on there being a stipendiary priest in every neighbourhood, although it does depend on every neighbourhood's having access to a visible and welcoming church community. Fewer priests are needed, but they should be priests who know how to facilitate the ministry of others.

It, therefore, frees the Church from the burden of trying to maintain a paid priest in every corner of the country. It does, however, call on all churches to work in cooperation with one another, so that they may address as many local needs as possible.

One denomination is never going to cover the country, but all denominations and their congregations, working alongside one another and responding to different needs in different ways, encouraged and co-ordinated by resourceful clergy, might just come close to doing so. It would not be the end of the parochial system, but its evolution.

The Revd Stephen Spencer is the Vicar of Brighouse and Clifton, in the diocese of the Wakefield, and the author of the SCM Studyguide to Church History (2013).

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