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It’s all about the parish

28 February 2014

We need to hold on to parish-centred ministry that has education at its heart, says Alison Milbank

IT IS ironic that, at the very time that market-forces, bureaucracy, and even the weather make the need for intermediate institutions ever more necessary, the parish is under threat as a costly, outmoded model rather than an inestimable and flexible resource.

In the recent flooding in Muchelney, Somerset, the parish church has provided support and liturgy; and in the city it continues to be a refuge for the homeless and the immigrant. We all need community, and especially one rooted not in utility, but in relation to the final ends of human life. What else can include us all, simply as people?

The parish I dream of in the future will be utterly outward-looking, opening its doors to the needs of all local people of every creed and background - library, kitchen, credit union, cinema, advice centre, and social meeting-place - but also richer in terms of prayer, theological study, and Christian formation.

Parishes succeed where the clergy and the people believe in what they are doing, and trust the gospel of Christ as truly compelling. A vaguely apologetic approach to the faith has yielded us nothing but drift, and has allowed the secular world to infect us with its own nihilism. Those who fantasise that the parish is out of date evade the fact that this is because Christianity itself is being rejected.

We are in a war, and the battle must be fought with all the resources of intellect and imagina-tion that we can muster. Art, poetry, drama, dance, and music of the highest quality must be used to make our liturgical life deeper and more sustaining.

ABOVE all, we need education at every level - from toddlers to theological colleges - that is grounded in scripture, Christian philosophy, and the riches of our Hebraic and classical tradition.

This will make us more effective evangelists and critics of social injustice, and, paradoxically, more able to deal with future challenges. I have seen a mixed group of people utterly gripped by the applicability of the Didache, and Athanasius, to their own lives. Theology in the pub has also been shown to work.

Many in our own congregations are denied the food that would sustain their faith at work, and at home. The truth is that they have lost credal belief, and no longer understand that to be a Christian means being inducted through the eucharistic representation of the incarnation into a participation in the life of the Trinity. Only when church members have been empowered with the gospel can outreach have meaning.

I long for openness and hospitality combined with a recovery of theological poise. A consistent but variegated programme of Christian habit and beliefs should infuse every Anglican school, college, and institution.

We need churches that act as the sacral focus for a specific place, and represent it in both strong intercession and practical action. Money and people will never come - and, indeed, will drain away - unless we have confidence in the Church as our salvation.

The Revd Dr Alison Milbank is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in the department of Theology and Religious Studies; Priest Vicar at Southwell Minster; and co-author of For the Parish: A critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM 2010).

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