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Priests and bishops a ‘given’ in Myriad’s vision for lay-led churches

23 July 2021

Bishop of Islington apologises for hurt caused by ‘limiting factors’ suggestion

The Bishop of Islington, Dr Ric Thorpe, speaking at the Islington Gratitude dinner 2020

The Bishop of Islington, Dr Ric Thorpe, speaking at the Islington Gratitude dinner 2020

THE Myriad initiative, which envisages the planting of 10,000 lay-led churches by 2030, is shining a light on what is already happening in the Church of England, the Bishop of Islington, Dr Ric Thorpe, said on Friday.

In a personal statement issued in response to concerns about the initiative (News, 2 July, 9 July), Dr Thorpe — who leads the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, home to the Myriad church-planting initiative — apologised for the “hurt and frustration” caused by communication of the work.

He referred to the phrase “key limiting factors”, used by Canon John McGinley, who leads Myriad, in a conversation about lay leadership (“When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form”). The context to this had been lost, Dr Thorpe, said.

“I am so sad that this has happened. It is the opposite message to what we were trying to communicate and it didn’t come across as it was intended to. I am deeply sorry for the hurt and frustration that people have experienced.”

He went on to say: “What we are for is parish. It is at the very heart of our mission and our call. We are for parish priests who have been working in such challenging conditions and we deeply value them. We are for the Reformed, Catholic tradition of the Church of England with its clear understanding of the role of priests in proclaiming the gospel, teaching the Apostolic faith, and administering the sacraments of holy communion and baptism. We are for good governance and safeguarding.

“But we are also noticing the growing number of new congregations and lay-led worshipping communities around the country that are extending the reach of our parishes, that are connecting with new people in new places in new ways. For us it was never either/or but both/and. This is already happening in the Church in so many beautiful ways. With Myriad we simply want to shine a light on these things and we want to join in with what I think God is already doing.”

On Friday, Canon McGinley said that he had been “saddened and surprised at the reaction”.

“We love the Church, and we were just offering something to the Church that we felt was lining up with the signs of what God was doing among us and something of what the national leadership of the Church was leading us into,” he said. “We are not trying to impose this where this isn’t welcome or isn’t appropriate. We are just looking to work with the people who were sensing a similar call and wanting to explore the question and these possibilities.”

The response had “raised something of the complexity of it, and something of the sense of this being very personal for people,” he said. “We then need to pay attention to the fact that this needs to be done carefully and with thought and theologically, and with a sense of a shared learning journey — and that’s really what we want to enable to happen.”

A statement from the Myriad team on the Gregory Centre website says: “We do not think that priests or parishes are limiting factors, and we are not proposing that we divert resources away from them. In fact, the proposal that lay people can be supported in leading new worshipping communities relies on ordained leaders with theological and pastoral understanding.”

Canon McGinley echoed Dr Thorpe’s point that the lay leadership of congregations was already under way. From the Autumn, Myriad would be enabling conversations with lay people who had already planted churches. There were training programmes and centres in this area “all over the Church of England”, he said. “Yet they genuinely don’t know about each other, and they haven’t had a place or permission to really explore this publicly, because it has been under the radar and almost hidden.”

In partnership with St Hild College — created in 2017 by the merger of the Yorkshire Ministry Course and St Barnabas Theological Centre — Myriad would be offering an “exploring church-planting course”, including sessions on church history and biblical studies, “to really think carefully about this and not just deal with the practicalities”.

Myriad would also be offering sessions on oversight ministry for ordained leaders, he said. This did not entail a “fundamental change” to the role of the priest. “I think it’s just an extension of the equipping and enabling role of priests for the laity, to enable them to fulfil their priesthood of all believers . . .

“This is just a further extension of that to enable them to lead congregations, but priests haven’t had resources or training in how to conduct that oversight ministry, to think it through theologically and spiritually — or just practically, in terms of skills of supervision and healthy models of accountability and delegation.”

Lay-leadership of churches was already happening, he reiterated: “There are small communities of believers being led by other lay people, and so that leadership is being recognised and received. Jesus’s most simple definition is ‘where two or three are gathered there I am amidst,’ and so someone who is leading and facilitating that community is enabling those people to be the Church, the gathered people, with Jesus at the centre.

“But for it to be recognised as an Anglican church it needs to have the oversight of a priest authorised by a bishop, so that will need to be part of the developing pattern of ministry. . .

“I think our failing was that that was taken as a given for us. It wasn’t that we were then saying ‘all these lay people are going to go off and lead churches without any reference to priests and bishops and they will do the sacraments themselves and we just need to get on with it.’ We are not saying that at all. We are saying this is a partnership and we are not presenting a model of this yet.

“We are saying that we have some models that have developed in different dioceses, and we want to enable there to be an ongoing exploration and discussion of what that might look like as this develops in the future.”

This had already been discussed in conversations with the C of E’s diocesan bishops, he said. “There were really different approaches to it. There isn’t a straightforward way of working it out, but I think there are a number of different possibilities. . .

“There are two alternatives for us as a Church: one of which is something that is a little chaotic and anarchic as people begin to do this, as people express church and the need for ministry in different ways; or we can do something that is much more careful and thoughtful and connecting the learning and the exploration that is going on — and that is really all that we are trying to do to enable that to happen.”

While some had criticised Myriad as a middle-class initiative, Canon McGinley said that lay leadership was most evident on estates, giving the example of the Antioch network in the diocese of Manchester (News, 14 December 2018). “They have got ten churches in their network and they are passionate about them being Anglican, not only in managing how they do the sacraments but paying parish share,” he said.

“When we talk church planting, people hear ‘HTB resource church’. What we are talking about here is deliberately trying to say: ‘No, church planting can be expressed in many different ways.”

 

DIOCESAN strategies illustrate that a move towards lay and unpaid leadership of worshipping communities, with stipendiary clergy serving in oversight roles, is already under way, given the backdrop of financial constraints.

The diocese of Canterbury’s strategy, launched in March, for example, refers to a “historical over-reliance on stipendiary clergy”, and looks towards “less paid ministry and leadership, better equipped ministry and leadership”, and “valuing and equipping lay and self-supporting ministers”.

“The model of one parish with one church and stipendiary priest is no longer realistic,” it says. “It is largely recognised that the role of stipendiary clergy will be to provide leadership and oversight which equips the whole People of God for mission.”

A national discussion paper circulated to all bishops and diocesan secretaries at the start of the year noted that “dioceses are making provision for reduced numbers of clergy in almost all cases” (News, 1 February).

Canon McGinley acknowledged that the Myriad initiative was taking place in a context of anxiety about the Church’s financial situation, and expressed empathy for other parish priests. “It feels now that we are at the point where dioceses are talking very seriously about people’s roles ending and people not being replaced, and that does make everybody very anxious and I think it also disempowers people,” he said.

“It feels like: ‘I am not being empowered to choose my future, to choose the development of my ministry.’ It feels like: ‘I am going to be asked to do more with less so I am under more pressure.’”

His comments about “limiting factors” had been “personalised”, he said — but it was not about priests and parishes but about “what dioceses are looking at, which are buildings and finance”.

Support for Myriad has included a financial component — individuals have already donated £100,000, and last week the Allchurches Trust announced that it had provided a grant of £350,000 over three years.

It will fund the creation of new posts at the Gregory Centre: a training coordinator, a relationship/network manager, a programme manager, and a prayer co-ordinator. Myriad would not be providing director financial support to churches, Canon McGinley said. But acting as a “one-stop shop for what you need if you are planting a church and leading a church if you are a lay person” — from advice on PA systems, charitable status, safeguarding, worship, and mission.

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