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Parish clergy are at the heart of any new strategy, Archbishop of York insists

12 July 2021

YouTube/Church of England

The Archbishop of York, introducing the Vision and Strategy debate on Monday morning

The Archbishop of York, introducing the Vision and Strategy debate on Monday morning

THE Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, has insisted that the Church of England has no plans to dispense with the parish system, even as it embarks on ambitious targets to launch new worshipping communities, many of which would be lay-led.

Presenting an update on the Vision and Strategy proposals during the General Synod’s online meeting on Monday, Archbishop Cottrell said that he was “dismayed” by how many parochial clergy seemed to have believed that the programme that he led entailed abandoning traditional parish ministry (News, 9 July).

Yes, ambitious targets’ being set, and chaplaincies, church-plants, fresh expressions, and more would be a large part of the “mixed ecology” of the future C of E, he said, but all of that would “flow from parish churches serving local communities”.

And those initiatives that were lay-led would remain at all times under the oversight of an incumbent cleric, whose cure of souls was shared by the bishops, and governed by canon law.

Other figures joined Archbishop Cottrell’s defence of the parish during the debate, including the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, who attempted to reassure those worried by the language of the new vision that it was not tribally Evangelical or a threat to the traditional model of parochial ministry.

He remarked that the Anglo-Catholic tradition had a long history of church-planting itself, and that the Church must not fall into the trap of presuming that a “one-size-fits-all, parish-mass-or-bust approach” would work in every context.

This was not enough to quell the discontent of several members of the Synod, however. Before the debate on the Vision and Strategy report got under way, Sam Margrave, a lay representative from Coventry diocese, sought to adjourn the discussion entirely with a point of order.

“I am aware the bulldozers are waiting outside many of our parishes, waiting to tear them down physically or spiritually,” he warned. “If we pass this report, we are handing a gun to the dioceses to kill off the Church as we know it.”

This was echoed later by the Revd Andrew Lightbown, from the diocese of Oxford. He said that parish priests, “some of the most remarkable and selfless people I know”, had been ridiculed and demeaned as “limiting factors”.

He had been in touch with both Archbishop Cottrell and his own diocesan bishop to demand assurances that any new initiatives flowing out of the Vision and Strategy work — or from the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication’s independent Myriad project to plant 10,000 new lay-led churches over the next decade — be firmly ringfenced by Anglican polity and predicated on protecting the parish system.

Prudence Dailey, a lay representative of the diocese of Oxford, also said that she could not even agree to take note of the Vision and Strategy report unless those behind it gave more evidence that they treasured the parish system.

She argued that having a church building in every community, with a eucharistic congregation led by a priest, was exactly the kind of ministry that the Church must continue to support across England. Even if there were no intent to sideline parishes, all the time, effort, and money poured into new worshipping communities would inevitably entail the neglect of traditional parochial ministry.

Responding to the wave of criticism, Archbishop Cottrell once again promised that no such neglect was envisaged or intended. If he thought for a moment that the Vision and Strategy process would undermine the parish system, he would himself refuse to vote for it, he said.

He insisted, on the contrary, that he was in agreement with Miss Dailey: it was all about releasing the clergy so that they could revitalise the parish. As a “fairly unreconstructed Anglo-Catholic”, he also emphasised that there were many ways to be a mixed-ecology Church through parishes.

In the end, the Synod took note of the report by 285-8, with 17 recorded abstentions.

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