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Archbishop Cottrell speaks of ‘sleepless nights’ over parish-system accusations

28 September 2021

The Archbishop speaks of unity in a lecture, ‘The Dream for the Church’, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, on Monday


ACCUSATIONS that the leadership of the Church of England is seeking to dismantle the parish system have given the Archbishop of York “sleepless nights”.

In a lecture, “The Dream for the Church”, delivered in St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, on Monday, Archbishop Cottrell said: “I, too, want to save the parish. But the best way to save the parish is to grow the Church. And the best way to grow the Church is to proclaim the gospel. And the best way to proclaim the gospel is to so live your life in Christ that the beauty and radiance that we see in Christ shines in our lives and makes a difference in the world; it is the pursuit of holiness and the transparent, transformative indwelling of Christ that will save the parish.

“Though we will need to ensure that the necessary resources and back-office functions of the Church are also focused to serve that same single purpose of making Christ known through his Church, that is through us. . . All this is happening in the life of our Church at the moment, and the things that are happening in the national Church and reviews into effectiveness and governance, are seeking to support it.”

Archbishop Cottrell went on to say that it had given him “a good many sleepless nights” to see that “the things that I have been associated with which only want to support, uphold, build, and sustain local church and parish church (and more of it) in all its manifold forms have somehow been interpreted as quite the opposite”.

He pleaded for those in the Church to stop “talking about ourselves so much”, but instead to speak out “against the injustices of the world”, such as the abolition of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit (News, 10 September), the lack of movement towards a green economy, and “the madness of spending millions on bombs when people starve”.

He continued: “Our nation doesn’t want to simply go back to how things were. We want a vision of hope — hope for everyone, particularly in some of the left-behind and neglected communities of the north where I now serve. Churches here are in the front line. Our parishes and chaplaincies are lifelines of hope. I dream of a Church where the hope we have in Christ inspires our nation and our world.”

While he was “hugely relieved” that congregations were once again meeting in person, he argued that the Church’s presence needed to extend beyond the parish, “through developing a presence in all the places where people actually live their lives — a worshipping presence and a serving presence — and this isn’t just the home and the neighbourhood, but also in education, at work and leisure, and in people’s online as well as their off-line lives”.

The “real meaning” of a “mixed-ecology” Church, he said, was “not abandoning or dismantling one way of being the Church to develop another, but taking hold of the historic vocation of the Church of England to be the Church for everyone everywhere, and pay greater attention to the different ways and the different places in which people actually live, then grow the Church accordingly. It is about adapting to the challenge of changed circumstances. That is the best way for anything to grow.”

This should be “led by bishops and priests who share a cure of souls”, he said, but it would “require a vision of ministry where, because of our baptism into Christ, ministry belongs to the whole people of God and where lay ministry flourishes under the oversight of the Church. It is a generous Catholic and apostolic vision, rooted in that inheritance of faith that we have received as the Church of England.”

To achieve this vision, unity would be vital, Archbishop Cottrell said. “I think we underestimate the damage our disunity does to our credibility and witness. If we are the one charged to preach a gospel of reconciliation, how come we are so unreconciled ourselves? . . .

“Unity will be achieved because it is the prayer and the heart’s desire of all of us. St John tells us that on the cross not one bone of Jesus’s body was broken. Yet in his body the Church, we’ve broken every one. And we don’t seem to mind that much. And the echo chambers of social media only distort and amplify our suspicions of each other.”

The Church also needed to be “younger and more diverse”, the Archbishop said. “The average age of people in our congregations is 61 — that is 21 years older than the average age in the population. Many of our congregations don’t look like the communities they serve. We need leadership in the Church that is more diverse, inclusive, and representative. . .

“I do dream that we will put more energy and resources into working with children and young people, and schools and families, and that we will find resources to combat racism, support racial justice, and enable the Church on earth to look more like the Church in heaven, and serve those diverse communities that make up the smorgasbord of British life today.”

In an interview with the Church Times this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury also sought to allay fears that there were plans to dismantle the parish system. “There is no ‘threat’ to the parish. . . There is no conspiracy to abolish the parish,” he said. (News, 17 September).

Read the full text of Archbishop Cottrell’s lecture here.

Information about the St Martin-in-the-Fields autumn lecture series can be found here.

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