The impact of resource churches
Sir, — In his article “What I learned touring resource churches”, the Revd Richard England (Comment, 22 November) mentions a diocese that could list 80 parishes with congregations of fewer than 30 members. He coyly doesn’t mention which one, but, if it is the diocese I call home, then seven of those congregations will be mine.
When I get 20 people in church on Sunday from a community of 364, however, I don’t think I’m doing too badly. Another of my churches regularly has as many as seven people, from a village of fewer than 70 souls; so my faithful seven represent more than ten per cent of the population. How many parish priests in town or city yearn for such riches every week!
I am thankful that my diocese recognises the potential and has entrusted me to train a curate here, and continues to meet our stipends and house us. But I’m most thankful that I’m made of stern stuff: otherwise, the constant clamour of people from across the Church of England desperate to pour money and resources my way to help me spread the gospel on these lonely moors would be unbearable.
NAME & ADDRESS SUPPLIED
From the Revd David Ford
Sir, — I almost choked on my glass of Pinot Noir when I read the Revd Richard England’s arrogant assertion that younger people and families will not join congregations of fewer than 30 members aged 60 and over.
My experience of resource churches is almost zilch, but my experience of parish ministry — city-centre, working-class urban, rich rural, and now very mixed town and suburb — is broad. Younger people and families will and are joining small churches where the welcome is positive, and where the existing congregation is open to being changed by the presence of new faces.
One of the unspoken assumptions of much (but thankfully not all) of the SDF-funded experiments is that modern congregations need to be large to be sustainable. That is only true if your minister is an accountant; the Holy Spirit has a broader understanding of what is both possible and desirable.
Very many Christians prefer smaller congregations where they can be known, appreciated, and understood. And, however attractive and engaging large-venue worship will be for some, I am not convinced that it holds within it the seeds of anything that will stand in continuity with the Prayer Book and Common Worship as the future foundation of English Anglicanism.
As dioceses up and down the country struggle to reconcile the risk-orientated Holy Spirit with the cautionary tale of many a balance sheet, may I make a plea for dioceses to make serious investment in parish ministry by training our congregations to be ministers. I’ve been ordained for only ten years, but in that decade, I have learnt that what really makes a difference is the home visit, the hospital visit, the school visit, the workplace visit, the visit to the homeless shelter and to the foodbank. . . We don’t have to sacrifice traditional parish ministry because the parishes cannot afford the stipends; we simply have to teach our congregations how to do what we have until now made the preserve of the clergy.
Some bishops will worry that weakening the position of the clergy will weaken the power of the episcopate, and we’ll only have to blink twice and lay presidency will be seriously discussed in the General Synod. I am not sure that I’ll live long enough to see that, but I’d love to.
The Vicarage, 15 Finstall Road
Bromsgrove B60 2EA
From Mr Donald Rutherford
Sir, — I read with great sadness your article “Mission — but at what cost?” (Features, 22 November). It is amazing that a mega-rich London parish church, Holy Trinity, Brompton, should campaign to impose on the Church of England’s dioceses a non-denominational Evangelical Church. This Church within a Church has no respect for church buildings, has abandoned approved liturgy, and downgraded the ordained ministry.
There is no respect for churches as sacred places with Christian artefacts to aid worship and encourage prayer. In place of a liturgy soaked in scripture, with vital elements, including confession and absolution, we have singing sessions with a sermon imposed on the service rarely following the Christian year. Instead of appropriately vested ordained clergy, we have casually dressed worship and other leaders.
This state of affairs would never have happened if bishops had rigorously applied canon law. All this permitted upheaval has achieved little, apart from abandoning the riches of Anglicanism.
133 Dalkeith Road
Edinburgh EH 16 5AH
From Mr Ben Whitney
Sir, — Your report on the “progress” of the £136-million Strategic Development Funding, intended to address the longstanding decline in church attendance and boost individual discipleship, is deeply depressing. Just the same old wine in recycled wineskins! Where is the analysis of why most people no longer see Christian faith and practice as relevant to their lives? Has anyone bothered to ask them? If a product isn’t selling, it is not wise to blame the potential customers.
What is the good news that we should hear? I include myself, even though I am still hanging on, if only by the skin of my teeth. Fun activities for children or meeting in a pub do nothing to address the underlying fact that many of us no longer believe in the existence of an interventionist God or feel the need to be “saved”. The ancient doctrines no longer speak our language. The elephant in the room is that there is no evidence of any elephant!
Where is the genuinely new theological rethinking in the light of what we now know to be true in the 21st century? Good and caring people would rather spend their time addressing some of the world’s ills than worrying about their eternal destiny. What is a religion for if not to help us to live well and discover our full humanity? Otherwise, why bother?
Perhaps this very large sum of money might be better spent on actually doing something useful to help fulfil Jesus’s manifesto in Luke 4.18ff rather than just on hoping to fill the pews. And, even if that is achieved here and there, is that really as far as the vision goes?
14 Balfour Crescent
Wolverhampton WV6 0BJ
Shame the politicians into electoral reform
From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan
Sir, — We are approaching a General Election that bids fair to be a farce, and appears likely to deliver either a hung Parliament or an unwanted Tory majority. The Church of England has, of course, a well-kept secret of its own — namely, that we elect our General Synod and its derivative committees by the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
This simple mechanism means that the people elected genuinely represent those who elected them — and it saves all the nonsense that people have to stand down as candidates lest they “split the vote” (as is happening now with the Brexit Party, in not standing against sitting Tories, and with the smaller parties whose candidates are standing down in some seats in favour of other parties).
It precludes the whole (destructive) business of “tactical voting”. It means that somewhere over 80 per cent of the voters have a real say in who gets elected, instead of the miserable 30 per cent-35 per cent who actually elect anybody under the present system; and it ensures there are no “safe” seats where parties can return their chosen members without the experience of a real contest.
So I ask: why is our secret so well kept? How can we subscribe to a mark of mission which calls on us to reform the unjust structures of society, and still meekly go along with our present unjust voting system? You, sir, went near to denouncing the system in a recent editorial (15 November), and we would be much helped if you kept up some pressure. But it is grievous to hear prominent Christian leaders telling us to consider the parties carefully, to weigh up the candidates, to vote responsibly, even to hope for a particular change of government, but rarely, if ever, helping the nation to see that we are caught in a damaged unfit electoral system which inevitably produces random results.
Of course, actual change has to stem from the very MPs who have been glad to be elected the way that they have been; but could not responsible citizens — and not least the Church of England, which holds the high moral ground on electoral systems — at least pressurise, and perhaps also shame, those who are elected next week into seeing themselves as the beneficiaries of an unjust and unrepresentative system?
We are in a dreadful electoral plight; can we please hear a voice of protest on behalf of justice in representation? We can see the speck in the American eye. Can we not discern the plank in our own?
21 The Drive
Leeds LS17 7QB
C of E should back abortion decriminalisation
Sir, — I feel bound to express my concerns about the letter to The Times on Thursday of last week from 383 signatories concerning the manifesto pledges on the decriminalisation of abortion (News, 29 November), and what it suggests about the Church at large, the care and support of women, and the gospel in to the poor.
As the law stands, women who lack access to a safe and legal abortion may be at risk of prosecution should they in desperation turn to abortion pills or other avenues that are considered illegal. This heightens the danger that women either risk unsafe and potentially life-threatening methods of termination, or suffer significant mental-health, economic, and personal difficulties if they are forced to continue a pregnancy.
I can say with complete confidence that no woman wants to have an abortion, the procedure is harrowing, the lasting effects are difficult to deal with, and the stigma surrounding abortion can lead to guilt and mental-health issues.
Many women, however, need to have a termination. Until society has created better sex education, has developed a better understanding of consent, and has dealt with the ongoing poverty issues throughout the world, abortion is needed. It is, therefore, dangerous and irresponsible for the Church to alienate and potentially damage women who have already had to go through something traumatic.
The arguments that decriminalisation will lead to an increase in terminations or women using abortion as contraception is without factual basis. Similarly, the suggestion that more women will procure late-term abortions is inaccurate, as the We Trust Women organisation states.
Women are not procuring abortions lightly. No one would put herself through such a procedure without deep thought, or repeatedly put herself through terminations rather than use birth control.
The Church has historically perpetuated a patriarchal narrative in terms of women in leadership, women priests, historic abuse of women covered up or allegations not believed, and in terms of women’s rights. This, I wholeheartedly believe, is changing. Women are being valued in the Church in ways that they have not been before; for the Church to align itself with a letter that opposes a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, her authority as a person, and her ability to make a reasoned and rational decision is, quite frankly, disappointing and frustrating. It is returning to a patriarchal and misogynistic model.
It is our calling as Christians to protect, love, and support the most vulnerable in society. One in three women has reportedly had an abortion. This figure suggests that in most congregations there are many women who have had to go through this; from a pastoral perspective, I ask, what, then, do those women in the pews feel when they are berated publicly for their choice?
There are, of course, women who have signed this letter — as is their right to do so. But the overwhelming number of men who have responded perpetuates the fact that the Church has spent many years speaking for women. It is time for this to stop.
For those who require an abortion, decriminalisation will make a huge difference. They will be able to procure a termination without the stigma and guilt attached; they will be less likely to risk unsafe procedures; and they will not be told repeatedly that they are “less than” because circumstances have brought them to this juncture.
I implore the Church and the House of Bishops to realise that it is unacceptable for an institution to speak on women’s bodies, disregarding their lived human experience, and adding to the stigma, fear, guilt, and shame that surround what will have been a difficult and harrowing decision made by any woman who has needed to procure an abortion.
NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED
Shock at plans for Whitechapel Bell Foundry
From Judith Robinson
Sir, — I am devastated by news of the erroneous decision to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel, and the insult that tops it all: a café that is an imitation bell workshop (News, 22 November).
Before I married a foundryman, I was ignorant of the whole foundry process. To learn from him of the talent, skills, precision, metallurgy, processes, and danger involved was a revelation. But then my husband described the further skills of those who worked in a bell foundry, his awe, his respect for their expertise and specialism, and his grief at the loss of their craftsmanship, especially that of Whitechapel, its 500-year worldwide history gone for ever. How insulting can Tower Hamlets Council be?
I hope that this decision can be reversed, and the structure turned into something worthier of Whitechapel’s contribution, venerating the craftsmanship: a homage to those who have made it famous, and a creative learning resource, to enable our children’s children to love and respect the oldest firm in Britain, whose bells will still be ringing.
20 Lewis Way
Peterchurch HR2 0SE
Travelling expenses for crematorium ministry
From the Revd Alan Forsdike
Sir, — Further to the letter (29 November) about charging mileage for transport to crematoria: it is the responsibility of the funeral director to transport the minister to the service. In practice. that means paying a mileage allowance (which is, of course, legitimately passed on to the funeral family as a disbursement). The cost of transport does not fall on the parish.
In this diocese, we have an excellent system whereby the parish sends a fee request to the diocese for fees (which includes mileage) and the diocese sends an “invoice” to the funeral director.
Hill House, 2 Henley Road
Ipswich IP1 3SF
Caveats about supernaturalism in spiritual care
From the Revd Dr Philip Goggin
Sir, — There is a perplexing and disturbing emphasis on the supernatural in your article “Don’t ignore spiritual well-being” (Comment, 22 November).
In one sense, everything that cannot be reduced to a scientific rule is supernatural, and on that basis it would be a trivial point for most people that the supernatural is a facet of well-being. But, for general usage of the term, something to do with the miraculous or even the occult is implied. Repeated use of this term (the word appears three times) skews the argument in a direction that seems unlikely to lead to the constructive dialogue between spiritual-care departments and mental-health professionals which is sought.
It is really frustrating to read the three examples provided of issues to be explored: how clinicians “incorporate a belief in the supernatural within the care of a person”; how they “respond to an understanding of evil spirits”; and how “traditional healers are to be included in mental-health care”. Is it surprising that the writer has found that “spiritual and religious beliefs are often perceived as pathological” by mental-health professionals?
In passing, it is worth noting that the thrust of therapeutic work with people who hear voices (whether or not from God) is not to take the easy option of dismissing them as irrational, but, rather, to find ways of understanding what lies behind them and/or helping patients to live with them and control them.
Where, then, would be the ground for constructive dialogue between spiritual-care departments in NHS trusts and mental-health professionals?
Surely, it is in the way in which a spiritual or religious dimension can give a person a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose, and some religious practices such as prayer or singing of sacred songs can help people cope with stress, and provide comfort and forms of community support. At the same time, there would need to be a willingness to recognise that some forms of religious or spiritual practice may foster guilt or low self-esteem, and that there is an ever present risk of abuse in various forms, and in various senses.
St Peter’s Vicarage
Crewe CW1 4RD
The art of successful failure does not exist
From the Revd Donald Reeves
Sir, — I find it difficult to recognise “the art of successful failure” (article by the Bishop of Penrith, Dr Emma Ineson, Comment, 29 November). As a peacebuilder in the Balkans for 20 years, I, with my colleagues, experienced failure in the projects that we helped to set up. I have learnt three things.
First, examine carefully with those whom we work with what went wrong: then always someone will say, “OK, what do we do now?” Then, second, leaders need to stop thinking about themselves and learn from the courage of their colleagues, sometimes risking everything, even their lives. And, third, peacebuilders need to go about their work with a strong hope that is fuelled by an imaginative eschatology. Failure does not have the last word, but it is not an art.
Director, The Soul of Europe
The Coach House
Crediton EX17 2AQ
Bishops, employment legislation, and rights of access to the blue file
From the Revd Alec Mitchell
Sir, — Paul and Joanna Clifford (Letters, 22 November), in their supportive words for the Revd Sue Parfitt, make a passing reference to the “blue file” and wonder what it may be.
It’s a file about you, if you’re an ordained Anglican, and it contains information about what you’ve done, or not done, that may, as the saying goes, be used in evidence against you! It is kept by the Bishop, and it’s difficult to get to see what’s in it.
Employment law ought to be observed in an exemplary manner in the Church of England, but many priests can testify to the ways in which it is knowingly bent, conveniently ignored, or even completely flouted. If I may quote from a Unite the Union Helpline organiser (an MBE and a JP, as it happens) who recently helped me; “bishops are a rule unto themselves, and we are not protected from [them] by employment law. . . you can ask to see your blue file by making a subject access request, but bishops do not like subject access requests. . .”
Personally, I have no complaints about my former diocesan bishop; however, my advice to every deacon and priest is to join a union as soon as possible, if you are not already in one. As the African proverb has it, walk gently, but carry a big stick.
ALEC MITCHELL (retired)
Ffynnon Cybi, Stanley Crescent
Caergybi, Ynys Mon
Cymru LL65 1DD