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Deaneries’ moment of truth has at last arrived

by
02 October 2020

It is time that they replaced parishes as the locus of the Church of England’s mission, argues Paul W. Thomas

A BISHOP used to joke with me that a deanery synod was a group of well-meaning Anglicans waiting to go home. He saw every aspect of the rural or area deanery as a waste of time, and was firmly in favour of its abolition. The parish was at the coalface of church life, he insisted, and the diocese could provide any external support that it needed.

I disagreed with him. The deanery supports parishes by encouraging interdependence and in affirming a central tenet of Anglican polity: “to include all its members in the discernment of Christian truth and in the government of the Church” (Synodical Government in the Church of England, the Bridge report, 1997). The 2004 report Mission-shaped Church added a further benefit: “Once the need of a network approach is recognised, the deanery becomes an essential unit for mission.”

The deanery acts as a middle brother to the parish, specially when the diocese is perceived as Big Brother and dispensing unhelpful demands. To change the metaphor, if the deanery conducts the “orchestra” of parish churches, it does so not from a grand rostrum, but from within the violin section, as in times past.

Canon John Tiller, in his report A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry (for a precursor of the Ministry Division, ACCM), saw the value of the deanery as long ago as 1983. He argued that ministry would be most effective if we regarded the deanery as the local church.

With that wider perspective, the possibilities for mission are viewd more clearly than from a parish. It also encourages parishes to pool resources rather than duplicate them or suffer a depletion of them. Tiller suggests that the diocese should deal with finance, the parish with worship and pastoral care, and the deanery with mission.

 

THERE are, of course, risks in any plan to transfer mission strategy from the parish to the deanery.

The main one is the creation of distance. It is part of the Anglican ethos to provide a generous presence to the nation through its parochial system. Both the clergy and the laity together have seen to it that even the smallest of communities has had access to the Church’s worship and ministry. They have known where to find us. If we lose that, we lose something vital to our identity and mission.

The other risk of shaping mission at deanery level is loss of authenticity. When those who stand outside the immediacy of a situation and say something like “We know exactly how you feel,” it has a hollow ring. We need to be rooted and embedded in a context if our voice is to be respected.

So careful and constant attention to communication will be required. We live in a digital age in which social media can often help to replace physical proximity. Alongside this, listening will be of paramount importance: to laity who live “inside” situations, and to groups and secular partners who share our concern for communities.

But, if there are risks in widening the scope of mission and ministry, there are also gains.

It will mean that the Church can plan its outreach not on where people sleep, but on where they live, work, and play. It will allow greater flexibility in deciding where to concentrate resources rather than being restrained by parochial boundaries. Mission often needs to focus on people groups or specialised spheres (such as gyms or cafés), which are dotted both in and beyond discrete geographical units of church life, such as parishes.

It could result in “rewilding”, as we cease to manage the pastoral care of communities as tightly as we have, and lead not to spiritual barrenness, but renewed bountifulness, as Steve Aisthorpe shows in his book Rewilding the Church (New Titles, 14 August).

One further advantage would be sustainability. In the rural context particularly, church groups or activities often lack critical mass. This could be overcome if we were not so precious about parochial boundaries. It is high time that the old ceremony of “beating the bounds” became “blessing the bonds”, as we swap an emphasis on separation for an affirmation of togetherness.

 

IN DOING all this, I hope that we can escape the illusion that we are making the Church successful, in any sense of that word. Rowan Williams recently wrote that “the fundamental model of the New Testament is that God’s way of changing things is failure.”

We have chased the alternative too often and for too long, but now we are experiencing a real measure of weakness. The old systems, built on power and prestige, are fast collapsing; but, before they either disappear completely or turn into something almost unrecognisable, we need to salvage what has been valid and verifiable in them.

For the time being at least, the deanery is ideally placed to perform that task.


The Ven. Paul W. Thomas is the Archdeacon of Salop in the diocese of Lichfield.

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