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Anglo-Catholic priests in the north need more help from the C of E, says report

24 April 2020

Catholic parishes are ‘held back’ by lack of finances and people

Creative Commons

The Nave of St Luke’s, Wallsend, an Anglo-Catholic church in the diocese of Newcastle

The Nave of St Luke’s, Wallsend, an Anglo-Catholic church in the diocese of Newcastle

THE Church of England should do more to support “growth-minded” Anglo-Catholic priests in northern dioceses, who are often held back by lack of money and people, a new report says.

The report, Time to Sow in the North: Report on growth in churches of the Catholic tradition in the Province of York, is written by the director of studies at St John’s College, Nottingham, Revd Dr John Tomlinson, and includes a foreword by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North.

The report draws on confidential interviews with 23 Anglo-Catholic priests — both traditionalist and liberal Catholic — from eight dioceses in the Northern Province, and from survey responses from 370 members of the congregation in seven parishes, which were answered anonymously.

The report says that “growth-minded priests are an essential part of successful mission, but they are often held back by the lack of the resources of finance and people.”

The “major expense” identified by clergy who were interviewed was the parish share: “In the smaller churches this cost is proportionally high, and along with the maintenance of the building makes up the vast majority of parish expenses. In such cases, this leaves very little for spending on mission and development.”

It is also difficult to raise money through congregational giving: in the seven congregations surveyed, “there was a predominance of people under the national household income.” Furthermore, “only a small number of the parishes visited could rely on investments from property.” This was in contrast with Anglo-Catholic parishes in London, which were surveyed in a report from the Centre for Community and Theology in 2017, A Time to Sow: Anglican Catholic church growth in London (News, 8 December 2017).

Most of the priests who were interviewed also “spoke of a lack of capable people to support the mission and ministry of the parish”. One priest said: “We are good at attracting people who need help, rather than those who have a lot to give.”

The report says: “In such situations where the laity are not fully active, the danger in the catholic tradition is to revert to the priest-manager model where ‘Father knows best’ and the laity are encouraged to abdicate all their responsibilities to the clergy. However, this is contrary to the theology of lay ministry that is central to the catholic tradition.”

The report notes, however, that, in almost all the parishes visited, there was a range of liturgical and pastoral positions for the laity, including servers and the choir at mass, or being part of a baptismal-visitors scheme. These groups include men and women, young and old.

The report calls for lay apostolate: “All times of growth in the Church in the past, from the early centuries to the present, have involved the impetus of lay people and so it is not possible to grow the Church without them fulfilling their proper place in the life of the Church as disciples and as ministers in their communities.”

The report finds that priests have strong links with schools in their parishes: school masses are often well-attended, and priests are given opportunities to teach lessons, support staff, and serve on governing bodies.

Ministry to young people over the age of 11, however, is “much less apparent, actively pursued in a handful of parishes, but it is everywhere recognised as an area for development”.

In all the congregational surveys, youth work was identified as “the crucial need”; but lack of finance made it difficult for parishes to employ a paid youth worker.

The report identifies a desire among many priests to be properly supported and resourced to be parish priests. “We are bombarded with courses and initiatives, or new management schemes, when I know what I need to do,” one priest is quoted as saying.

Some priests interviewed were under strain from having to oversee increasing numbers of benefices. Thus, they were “finding it hard to reconcile their vision and training for parish ministry, predicated on the ‘one priest, one parish’ model, with the fact of ever extending benefices”.

Support networks are identified as vital for growth-minded priests. These tend to be stronger, the report says, among traditionalists: “Membership of chapters of the Society and of the SSC [Society of the Holy Cross] for some brings a very valuable fellowship of assistance, and in a few cases a degree of informal and useful mentoring. . .

“The association and support felt by liberal catholics would seem to be less tangible.”

The report calls for “a broader definition of growth” than simply Sunday attendance. “Most of those interviewed . . . were concerned to stress that growth may not always be expressed in an increase in congregational size at the main service. It may also be apparent in a faithful support for daily Mass, a call for more devotional services, an interest in seasonal study groups, a willingness to go on pilgrimage, a campaign for social justice, or a practical involvement in the community.”

It continues: “In those communities where extreme deprivation is a reality and the Church relatively underresourced, the very fact that the Church survives as a tangible presence can be seen as a mark of growth. With the general decline in congregations across the country in recent years, a local church in a challenging context which bucks that trend, even by just remaining the same size, is to be commended.”

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