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Leader comment: No threat to the parish?

17 September 2021

THE present Archbishop of Canterbury is not the first church leader to use exaggeration for effect. His assertion that “there is no threat to the parish” can be taken at face value, to the degree that there is no intentional threat from the Vision and Strategy process, or from the Myriad initiative. Both he and the Archbishop of York have been at pains to emphasise their commitment to supporting more front-line priests in an organisation that remains a Church for England. It is clear from our two-part feature, however, that threats do exist, and serious ones at that: from a lack of finance, from ageing congregations, from the absence of any sustained state help for buildings, from the difficulty of replacing the clergy who plan to retire shortly — and from many diocesan attempts to meet these threats, often in uncoordinated or faddish ways.

Archbishops tend to be criticised for their remoteness from parish life. It is not a charge that sticks with the present incumbents of Lambeth and Bishopthorpe. Conversely, however, their parish experience might have a disproportionate influence on their thinking. Archbishop Welby reckons that church growth occurred in his Coventry parish despite his own efforts. This idea of organic (“ecological”?) growth conforms with the view expressed by St Paul that God is responsible for growth. It does little to explain present popularity of new, well-resourced churches that are suddenly landed on a community, where numerical growth often comes at the expense of congregations, Anglican and other, near by. Archbishop Cottrell’s recent assertion that future church-plants would fit into the parish system, although it sounded more like a modification than a clarification, is, none the less, welcome; for resistance to new initiatives cannot be discounted as mere conservatism, given so much clumsiness in the past.

Archbishop Cottrell said earlier this year (News, 27 February) that most criticism of Vision and Strategy stemmed not from what was known about it but from its relative silence about buildings and budgets. There needs to be more candour, too, about projections of available clergy in the near future. It was not mentioned in this interview, but on many occasions Archbishop Welby has apologised for an early broadcast in which he made too close a link between church growth and the quality of the priest. As he was quickly informed, there are many circumstances in which such an equation cannot be applied — and he speaks candidly about doubting his own ministry because growth was too slow, as he perceived it. None the less, several dioceses have concluded that a clear link exists between church decline and no priest at all. Is it that dioceses do not speak to one another? Or do the dioceses engaged in decimating clergy posts believe this, too, but are forced to ignore it out of economic necessity?

This week’s collect seems apposite: “Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with thy perpetual mercy. . .”

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