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What future does the parish have in the 21st century?

13 October 2017

Ed Thornton reports on a lively exchange of views at St Mellitus this week


THE Grenfell Tower fire and the Parsons Green Tube bomb showed that if the parish system did not exist “you’d sure as heck want to invent it,” the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said on Monday evening.

He was taking part in an event at St Mellitus College, in London, organised jointly by SCM Press and the Church Times, which tackled the question “The Parish: Has it had its day?” (Features, 15 September). The evening was chaired by Baroness Sherlock, a Labour peer, and she marshalled a panel, of which Dr Tomlin was a member, who cross-examined a panel of “expert witnesses”, in the style of the Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze.

Dr Tomlin noted that the fire and the bomb, each of which occurred in his episcopal area, although “very different”, both had “parish churches just a couple of hundred yards away”. St Clement’s, Notting Dale, opened its doors at 3 a.m. on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire, and “became a great centre for gifts, for respite for people who had been evacuated from the surrounding blocks and the tower itself”. In Parsons Green, the parish church, he said, “was a place in which people could go, sit quietly, take a breath when they were panicked as a result of this event.

“And that spoke to me volumes about the significance of local parish churches, in the sense that if we didn’t have the parish system, you’d sure as heck want to invent it, because the fact is you have parish churches very near to almost anything that happens. And, so often in our country, we often think the parish church is always there, we can ignore it, we take it for granted. But those two events highlighted the fact that, when we need it, it’s there.”

Dr Paula Gooder, the director of mission and learning development for Birmingham diocese, offered a biblical perspective on parish ministry. Tracing the growth of the Early Church through the Acts of the Apostles and St Paul’s epistles, she said, “the really striking thing is that all of the early gatherings of Christians — I hesitate to use the word ‘church’ too early — are all located, and they take on a sense of the location in which you find them.”

The Church of England was, by its nature, a parish-based system, she said, out of which “new expressions” grew up. These included formal Fresh Expressions of Church, and church-plants. Such expressions were not necessarily “cutting across the parish system”.

“Part of our challenge in our modern world is to work out what locality means in the 21st century. . . And, then, how do we use the parish system to the best of its ability to help us in that notion?”

The Revd Dr Calvin Samuel, a Methodist minister and Principal of the London School of Theology, brought a different perspective. Methodists and other Free Churches still had to contend, as John Wesley had had to, with “the challenge of working with the boundaries of the parish”. Advocates of the parish system needed to ask themselves: “Where do your ecumenical partners fit into that vision?”

Canon Jessica Martin, a residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral, described the challenges of being Priest-in-Charge of a multi-parish benefice, consisting for most of the time of three churches, although at times as many as seven.

The benefice consisted of communities that had grown up organically, and were “utterly distinct from each other”, which meant, she said, that “I couldn’t do the presence ministry in several places at once. So what I found myself doing was a series of duplications that were not helped by the fact that the clerical model with which I was working was also clericalist, in a way, and had this idea of sovereignty: if you get a visit from anyone but the vicar, then it’s not really a visit.”

Priests who tried to be “very obedient” about the lectionary found it “extremely difficult to teach people”, especially those who attended just once a month at most. “They get a snippet of this, and a snippet of that, and a snippet of the other, and they’re a bit too busy to join groups. So how do you do that sustained teaching, and how do you start in a place that they’re going to respond to and understand, when you’re keeping all the rules?”

The research director of Theos, Nick Spencer, said that it was time “to get real” about the parish. “The parish, as we know it, was designed for an agricultural, pre-mobile, geographically defined society. We live in a post-industrial, highly mobile, and socially defined society.

“At the moment, it is paid scant attention to by very many people. Two per cent of the population will attend an Anglican church on a Sunday morning, and those that do cross parish boundaries willy-nilly.”

The parish was also, in some instances, “an active impediment to mission”: fear of “treading on toes” made parishes less inclined to try things out. “The parish system as we know it has had its day.” The future might lie in a return to “the late Anglo-Saxon minster system, which had much larger parishes, collegiate ministries, and, above all, was missional in focus”.

The panel then cross-examined several “expert witnesses”.

The first of these was the Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey, Team Rector in the Oxted Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese, and the author of Parish: An Anglican theology of place (SCM Press, 2017) (Features, 2 June, Book reviews, 21 July).

Dr Gooder recognised a romantic strain in Dr Rumsey’s writing. How should parishes in “less romantic” places be understood?”

“I don’t think there are any non-romantic places,” Dr Rumsey replied. “The book arose mainly from urban ministry in places where you wouldn’t naturally imagine that the classic parochial model persists.”

He continued: “Part of the danger is for the Church, in the present time, because it’s got this huge trailing tail of tradition, to operate only in a present, strategic mode which doesn’t quite understand the depths of, or the riches of, the inheritance that we’ve got.”

Dr Rumsey acknowledged that “the structure is ailing and . . . is broken in many places. So I’ve got colleagues in the West Country who’ve got 15 parishes, 15 Grade I listed buildings, 15 congregations with a dozen people, 15 PCCs. It’s ridiculous, and utterly unsustainable. . .

“However, we therefore have to find ways of changing the structure, but without abandoning the parish principle.”

The next witness was Captain Andy Milne CA, a Church Army evangelist and founder of Sorted, a group of Fresh Expressions in Bradford. He spoke of the challenges of working with young people from “tough families” with no church connection, and how they sometimes clashed with the existing church culture.

“We always try and keep a group for people who have never been before, because if they come into the worship setting straight away, some of them like it, but then they come back the following week and it’s too structured for them.

“So we need something that’s much looser, much more flexible to who they are, and where they’re at, in that moment in time, but gives them the opportunity to take another step, and perhaps explore faith in another environment. People in those groups are often the best evangelists to go and reach their peers.”

Efforts were made to “build connections” with the wider Church, but they had to take a “careful approach”.

Mr Spencer asked him how he went about persuading young people, who lived for much of the time in online “virtual communities”, that “embodied, physical communities matter”?

Captain Milne’s Fresh Expression did try to develop online groups to engage with young people. But it had also found some young people spurning the Xbox (saying “We do it all the time at home”) for a game of football or hide-and-seek. “So, in some ways, we provide an alternative.”

The next witness, the Revd Dr Alison Milbank, an associate professor in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, was asked by Dr Tomlin whether the parish system was “effectively something built for Christendom” which is “slightly static”.

Care should be taken not to fantasise about the past, Dr Milbank said. “The Church has gone up and down. . . The idea that everything was wonderful in the past, and now it’s hard for us: that’s not true.”

Evangelicals brought “wonderful energy” to the Church, she said. But she had seen research (not yet published) which suggested that Anglo-Catholic churches in London were growing. “How have they done it? Doing very traditional things well; engaging with the community; trusting in what they’re doing. And Evangelicals, they trust in what they’re doing. And, for me, part of our problem is that we [Anglo-Catholics] have lost faith in the project.”

The final witness, the Revd Dr David Goodhew, director of ministerial practice at Cran­­mer Hall, Durham, feared that some in the C of E had “a Miss Marple notion of parish”, and were ignoring “the huge demographic change” in the UK.

“If you think about Milton Keynes,” he said, “50 years ago, it basically wasn’t there. It’s now bigger than towns like Southampton and Norwich, and that means the parish has to freshen up. . . The main way is to get a bit more humble. This implied that territorial imperialism — ‘It’s my patch’ — is for the birds. We’re in post-Christendom now, and, actually, it might be a bit more relaxing if we accepted that. And that means, for instance, multiple forms of church and, rather, seeking to say: ‘How can we make the blessings of God most readily available?’”

Dr Goodhew, however, was “not a total fan of Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry”. “Some of it is brilliant, some of it I’ve got questions about.” The key was to be “in it for the long haul”.

Much discussion of the parish, however, “can have a rather idealised view of parish, which doesn’t allow for innovation. I’m hugely fed by traditional choral music . . . but the choral tradition in Anglicanism is hard-wired into white middle-class Britain. And if it’s going to live in 50 years’ time, it’s got to run out of that somehow. And there’s a deficit of innovation, not a surfeit.”

A time for questions included several from serving parish priests as well as from lay people. One priest, who had spent nine years as a vicar in the diocese of Durham, and had ministered in pit villages, asked how young people could be persuaded to worship there rather than head for the thriving city-centre churches in Durham.

“Open a café in the church,” Mr Spencer replied. This would provide “a liminal space, in the church but not of the church”, and be a service to the village.

Another questioner, a parish priest in the diocese of London, asked about the C of E’s leisurely approach to vacancies, which disrupted the parish’s rhythm and regularity of services.

Dr Tomlin defended interregnums. One benefit, he said, was that they allowed the memory of the last incumbent to “fade just a little bit”, and lay ministries to emerge. “There are some statistics that suggest sometimes churches thrive more in interregna than they do when the vicar turns up, which is a slightly worrying statistic; I don’t think that’s always the case, but there are examples of that happening.”

Concluding the evening, Lady Sherlock commented: “What we heard tonight showcased the very best of the Church in all its forms and all its manifestations. One of the things we need to take away from this is that there is joy and passion for the gospel, and passion for communities, in every part of the Church. . .

“What it [the parish church] does so often is to hold the heart of the community. And that, in whatever form it takes, is something that is our sacred duty in the Church, and long may it carry on, by the grace of God and a great deal of prayer.”


Listen to the event on the Church Times Podcast here. Watch at https://youtu.be/sxJamz1vU0Y


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