We are a small church - small in number, that is - but
our building is not small. And we are under pressure from the
diocese to increase numbers to make ourselves more viable and
improve our building. Are we the only ones up against the numbers
IN THE past 20 years, the Church of England has been under
significant financial pressure, and this has passed from the Church
Commissioners to the dioceses, and, ul- timately, to the parish
churches. And there is, rightly, a sense that if you have a deficit
you can either decrease expenditure or increase income. But
expenditure continues to rise; so I suppose we have to increase
numbers to increase money.
But I think that the attitude to financial stability and local
churches is often - at least for smaller churches - part of the
problem. The gospel is not about increasing numbers so that we
churchgoers can be a little more financially stable and
sustainable. All too often the church functions as a club, out for
its own self-interest - not loving our neighbours as ourselves, but
loving them in the hope that they will help us keep our church.
What I am trying to say is that the financial-sustainability
issues are about supporting the life of the church, not directing
the way we go.
I think that there is far less strength in the preaching and
prophetic mission of the Church than there is in the "numbers"
strand of our life. We have spent far too much time in the quagmire
of issues, and far too little time loving God and our
For example, what does the parable of the lost sheep say about
numbers? It must apply to the resources of the church, and the
shepherd does not spend his time on the successful,
well-established sheep: he is out there, concerned with the lost
and the alone.
This is not a subject to which there is any easy answer; but I
think that it is a question for the Church at large for today. And
I suspect that many more of our successful, number-filled churches
could well adopt the parable and lend their support to the churches
where the two or three are sacrificing a great deal to maintain the
gospel in their parishes.
We had - do we still have it? - a theology of presence, of being
among people as an ongoing witness of Christ among and alongside
them, regardless of their ability to respond or contribute. In our
inner cities, where broken lives find discipleship the greatest
challenge, it is like being beside the pool of Bethesda and turning
away because those present cannot meet our sustainability criteria.
The gospel is simply being with them.
I am on the side of the small churches in isolated communities
(and not just the tiny rural parishes, but the deserts of the inner
city also) where the challenges and engagement are beyond possible,
and we have to depend on God. Those of us who remain in those
little places may find more grace in the theology of the Desert
Fathers than in the ecclesiology of success and numbers.
Let us find ways to make the gospel of grace, hope, and lost
sheep, or outsiders and the lonely, more important to us than the
finance and the numbers and the administration.
Let us accept help everywhere we can possibly get it, but let us
not lose our gospel imperative.