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Shrug off the instinct for safety

26 June 2020

Ministry: The crisis is showing patterns that can enable the Church to recapture imaginations with the gospel, says Philip North

elisa cunningham

CRISES reveal truth. They lay bare weaknesses, they expose dysfunctionality, they magnify pre-existing problems, and they show up the holes in systems and structures. You cannot lie to a crisis, and you cannot hide away from it. So, what is the coronavirus crisis telling us?

First, it is revealing something about our national life, and any attempt to rethink the ministry of the Church of England must begin with an attentive listening to the culture that it is our task to transform in Christ. I believe that we are seeing the unpicking of the lie that people today are not interested in the gospel. We have, instead, a nation relearning how to pray, looking to us for answers to the big questions, and accessing church life through online means in a way that we could not have imagined possible six months ago. Some studies reckon that one in three of the population have attended online worship since lockdown began. One Sunday, the Christians crashed Zoom.

At the same time, we are called to serve a nation on the brink of the most serious economic catastrophe in peacetime. Foodbank use has spiralled, unemployment is likely to reach levels unknown since the early 1980s, and the closure of schools is having a profound impact on the well-being and prospects of the most vulnerable children. The hollowing out of local government and the voluntary sector through ten years of austerity gives churches a huge responsibility to serve the neediest.

We are at a point in history when the nation is crying out for the ministry of the Church. But are we ready? Are our patterns of ministry robust enough to grasp hold of the biggest evangelistic opportunity that any of us will ever know?

Here, again, truth emerges under crisis. After the pandemic, some parishes and Fresh Expressions will go to the wall, never to be seen again. Others will flourish, and will emerge stronger and larger. The reason for this will not be wealth, context, or tradition, but the quality and agility of the lay and ordained ministry that has been offered in the past few months. Churches that have gone to sleep will stay asleep. Those that have risen to the task will be ready for service and proclamation.


SO, WHAT has been revealed by this crisis which may enable us to see the future shape of ministry? Let me make four suggestions.

First, we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of lay leaders. Since we had to close church buildings, people have had to learn to pray at home, and, in many cases, have been well-resourced by their clergy to do so. When people start praying, God’s call is heard.

In Blackburn, one parish has set up a pastoral visiting group, which has brought a whole new group of laypeople into active ministry. More than half the members of a congregation in Preston have been volunteering actively in a range of social projects under the banner “Love Your Neighbour”.

Across the country, new lay leaders are emerging in a way that no number of diocesan initiatives or officers could have imagined possible. What is more, in most cases, these new leaders are much younger and from different demographics than the stereotypical Anglican volunteer.

We cannot go back to how things were. We now need to be ready to honour and acknowledge this new generation of lay leaders who have learnt how to use their gifts in Christ’s service, and who will not be happy to be mere consumers again. While this will pose a huge challenge to church leaders, the potential for confident ministry in the community and the workplace is vast.

Second, we have seen the centrality of the parish as the core unit of mission. For decades, it has been fashionable to run down the parish and make out that it is all part of that furniture of “inherited church” which we need to ditch. This has damaged the morale of many parish clergy, who can feel undervalued and extraneous.

But, in this crisis, the parish system has demonstrated why it has lasted for so many centuries. In Blackburn diocese, our parishes and their clergy and lay leaders have risen to the task with a speed and energy that are breathtaking. They have fed the hungry, made contact with the lonely, built partnerships, streamed, Zoomed, adapted, led their people, and done so with a rich gospel vision.

Of course, this fresh confidence cannot be used as an argument for stasis. We will need to reform the heavy and complicated legal structures that make it so hard to reorganise parishes. We will need plants and pioneers where church life is weak. But Anglican life requires the bedrock of robust and stable parish ministry. It is time to end our ambiguity about the parish and take a fresh pride in the way it can serve a nation.


THIRD, we have seen the need for a priesthood which is both agile and sacramentally confident. These are sometimes seen as opposites, but they should not be.

This long period of enforced eucharistic fasting has been incredibly painful, and has demonstrated in most Christians a deep sacramental yearning. If God’s people are to be fed, equipped, taught, and sent, we need to cherish the gift of priestly ministry. It is a vocation that we should delight in, without shame or apology.

But, while confident in the sacramental ministry that has been given to it, we also need a priesthood that can continue to demonstrate the adaptability and flexibility that we have seen in recent weeks. Ministry will change post-Covid, but less because of a lack of money than because of a different evangelistic setting.

We need priests — and bishops — who see themselves not as functionaries of an organisation, but as free-roaming evangelists in the style of Aidan or Cuthbert. We need priests with an entrepreneurial heart, whose passion is for the conversion of souls, who will take risks for the gospel, who are deployable, and who will take responsibility for their own ministries.

And, fourth, we have seen the need for leadership models based on release, not control. This is true in a church for any clergy wanting to build up lay leadership; but it is a principle that we need to apply more widely.

There has been a strong temptation in recent years to dioceses to centralise, build ever-larger central staff teams, seek to manage ever more tightly the life of parishes, and impose rigid (and usually unrealistic) deployment strategies. This arises from an understanding of the diocese as an organisation, and its bishop and clergy as no more than “leaders”.

But a diocese is not an organisation. It is a communion: a network of sacramental relationships flowing from the bishop, which together make up part of the body of Christ. Rather than draw everything into the centre, perhaps we need smaller, looser, central structures, which trust the local and encourage resourceful leadership; a bishop would offer oversight, but not control.

This would mean giving parishes much more responsibility for their own financial viability, and so supporting only those in the poorest areas. It would mean allowing parishes to fail, and being ready to close and then plant back much more often. But such permission-giving will incentivise growth, whereas centralisation merely functionalises and builds resentment.


IF A nation is, indeed, turning again to its Church, now is not the time to withdraw and manage decline. This crisis is showing us patterns of ministry which can enable us to reconnect to the culture and recapture imaginations with the gospel.

We need to shrug off the instinct for safety and be ready to risk everything — even our bank balances — in the mission that Christ calls us to share with him. But, then, since Jesus has already won the victory, what have we got to lose?



  • We need to foster and encourage the new generation of lay leaders which crisis is forming.

  • We need to trust the parish as the core unit of mission, and develop a generation of priests who are both agile in their practice and confident in their sacramental identity.

  • We need to adopt leadership patterns in parishes and dioceses based on release, not control, shrink the centre, and return power and the responsibility that comes with it to the local church.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley in the diocese of Blackburn.

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