Multi-Congregation Ministry: Theology and practice in a changing Church
Canterbury Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
MORE than 70 per cent of parishes in the Church of England are now amalgamated in a wider benefice, team, or group. So the single-church parish is now exceptional beyond the diocese of London or some of the (usually wealthier) parts of our conurbations. Malcolm Grundy’s latest book addresses a highly pertinent theme, and does so with his characteristic clarity, charity, and gentle challenge.
“Watching over one another in community” characterises the sort of oversight of congregations which Grundy commends. He illustrates what this means from a variety of sources, both biblical and historical, including a telling reference from Jonathan Sacks, who said we need to “break away from the hierarchical relationship of leaders and followers and build on the Hebrew concept of collective responsibility”. Anyone seeking an account of the most seminal writing on ministry during the past century (from Roland Allen onwards) would do well to consult this book. It would save their buying many others.
It’s easy to tell that Grundy was an archdeacon, since real parochial life cuts through the theorising frequently. He recalls someone in the Yorkshire Dales interrupting an explanation of the parish-share system with “What you mean, Archdeacon, is that you want us to pay more for less!”
Elsewhere, the strengths and weaknesses of various models of multi-parish groupings are explored, but it is the character of what it means to “watch over one another in community” which matters. It is not that structures aren’t important, but the quality of relationships within them is the key to building Christian community and sustaining it. John Drane once said that it was bad relationships between members of congregations which was the main reason people stopped practising their faith rather than poor liturgy or bad preaching, unhelpful though such things are.
I gained much from this book, but it left me with some questions. That may well be its strength, of course. The first is that it speaks of multi-congregation ministry rather than multi-parish ministry. How many people do you need to have a congregation? Many multi-parish benefices include tiny communities where the regular congregation is no more than five or six people. That level of fragility in a congregation is a problem, especially where the parish church itself may still be a significant carrier of identity for the community around (and full at funerals and Christmas).
Second, this book, like many on ministry, seems devoid of wider context. There is little reference to the distrust of institutions, and the inroads the New Atheists have made on Christian confidence, let alone the trauma of clerical sexual abuse, hostile media, and the changed character of Sunday. These are often the clouds that hang over us all, and have serious impact on the quality of “watching over” our congregations.
The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.