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‘Save the Parish’ campaigners have Synod in their sights

04 August 2021

YouTube/St Bartholomew the Great

The Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, the Revd Marcus Walker, addressing the gathering on Tuesday evening

The Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, the Revd Marcus Walker, addressing the gathering on Tuesday evening

A CAMPAIGN to elect members to the General Synod under a “Save the Parish” banner was launched in London on Tuesday evening, with a warning that this was “the last chance to save the system that has defined Christianity in this country for 1000 years”. The move was welcomed by a Church of England spokesman.

In his remarks at the campaign launch, in St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London, the Rector, the Revd Marcus Walker, spoke of the need for a “co-ordinated campaign” that would unite Anglicans across traditions, transcending debates about women’s ordination and same-sex marriage.

A keynote speech was delivered by the Revd Dr Alison Milbank, Canon Theologian of Southwell Minster, who drew on the book that she co-wrote with Canon Andrew Davison, For the Parish (SCM Press) (Books, 26 November 2010). She argued that, since the 2004 report Mission-shaped Church, “the Church of England has totally capitulated to market values and managerialism. . . There has been a tendency to view the parish like some inherited embarrassing knick-knack from a great-aunt that you wish were in the attic.” The pandemic had been “an opportunity to expedite further the demise of traditional church”, she feared.

Although, in theory, a “mixed ecology” was operating (News, 30 May), “resources are being drained from the parish system”, she warned. Most of the Strategic Development Fund money had gone on resource churches, “without any appreciable benefit or sharing with the parish around”. (A General Synod question last month revealed that about 30 per cent of funding had gone to churches supported by the Church Revitalisation Trust, a charity based at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London).

“We are at crunch time,” Canon Milbank said. “Are we the C of E with its reformed Catholic character, its sacraments, orders, and liturgies, and its parish witness, or are we a Nonconformist sect? There are hard decisions to be made in a Church during a period of secularisation and atheism, but they should be taken by those who love the Church of England. Indeed, even marketing will tell you that you cannot promote a product in which you do not believe.”

She went on to outline the strengths of the parish system, a “flexible and diverse institution” that offered “a set of co-ordinates that enable us to orient ourselves in time and space. . . Its worship and pastoral care are offered to everyone, and it models an association of ages, classes, and cultures in a place, as the Early Church did.” Its theology spoke of “a God who is stable, inclusive, and caring, who is committed to his world”, and a parish church building “speaks in itself of other values than the mercenary and the utilitarian. . . The church is a kind of guarantor of the holiness of the whole area.”

Most Fresh Expressions were parish initiatives, she argued, but there was “an ideological attempt to keep Messy Church and other mission initiatives separate from parishes that prevents their full missional potential. . . There should be collaboration and movement between parish and mission initiative, each supporting the other.”

She concluded: “What is it to be Anglican? The Holy Trinity, Brompton, model that is so much in the ascendant could carry on its life in any Protestant denomination. . . Without that sense of a core Anglicanism owning a national mission rooted in place and offering pastoral care to everyone, what are we as a body?. . .

“We are in a period of decline at the moment, though our churches have been empty and, indeed, ruinous before, and may be full again. Christ’s gospel cannot fail. Our charism as Anglicans of the Church of England may, however, fail, and the benign sense of national identity as love of the local be replaced by quite malign forms of nationalism. . .

“Although there are a host of reasons for the decline of religious practice . . . one key factor in our decline is our lack of faith in the creeds, the worship, the practices of our life, the whole habitus. So much is done apologetically. Of course, we want to avoid being brash or dogmatic, but we lack the humble confidence in our own gospel and our Anglican charism.

“This may be a time, perhaps, to organise in larger minster structures, with fewer truly peripatetic walking and cycling clergy driving where they must, and modelling true parochial life and pastoral cover where we can. Some churches may, indeed, be shrines, and some churches have only the stone cross by which our Northumbrian Christian ancestors marked the holiness of locality. It is not the time, however, to asset-strip and denude ourselves and our grandchildren or our heritage, which could be our missional future.”

The next speaker, the Revd Stephen Trott, Rector of Pitsford, in Peterborough diocese, and a member of the General Synod since 1995 and a Church Commissioner since 1997, advised the gathering on how to use the General Synod to effect change.

“I think we are at a crossroads in the history of the Church of England, and I think its future may very well depend on us here tonight,” he said, comparing the gathering to that of the Life and Liberty campaign, a pressure group begun by William Temple in 1917 which led to the establishment of the Church Assembly (Features, 6 December 2019).

The parliamentary vote on Measures passed by the General Synod meant that “we already have a mechanism available, if only we used it and exploit it to protect our parishes. . . It is to Parliament that we must appeal as the guarantor of our ownership of our churches and of our church life.”

He told the gathering: “The fundamental principle at stake, it seems to me, is ownership. Who owns our parish churches?. . . Are the churches not vested in the incumbent rather than the diocese or some national body?”

The Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976, which provided for the transfer of glebe land from the parishes to the dioceses for the benefit of diocesan stipend funds and for clergy housing and pensions, was a failed experiment, he said. “It seems to me that we have been losing ground ever since.” He noted the decline in both stipendiary priests and church attendance, and parishes’ being “mined for their resources” to fund “new activities”.

“We need to find a better way to run the Church of England,” he concluded. “The reality is that the whole system is fading away. It has a top-heavy management which it can’t afford, and which is not contributing effectively to the life of our churches [Comment, 10 July 2020].”

He went on to offer advice on how to get elected to the General Synod, warning that “nothing will change unless the grass-roots ask for it. . . If enough of us commit ourselves to this, and work hard, and, above all, canvass hard in these elections, we can get a significant number of people elected who will challenge the drift, the trajectory, which is towards the centre taking ever more control of the local — precisely the opposite of subsidiarity.”

Fr Walker concluded the gathering with a warning: “This is probably the last chance that we have to stop this drift that has been discussed and save the system that has defined Christianity in this country for 1000 years.”

A “co-ordinated campaign” was needed, whereby candidates included on their election manifesto “Save the parish” as a signal to voters. A “how-to” pack was being prepared. There was a need for people who would “say no” during General Synod debates on budgets and Measures, he said, referring to one concern, the revision of the Mission and Pastoral Measure (News, 2 July).

The “key limiting factors” referred to by Canon John McGinley (“a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church” (News, 2 July)) would underpin the campaign, he suggested: they were “actually quite good things to say that we are going to support”.

He envisaged “a whole gamut of people from across the Church, with different roots and different views, coming together to save the parish and to save the Church of England”.

Canon Dave Male, director of evangelism and discipleship for the Church of England, said on Wednesday: “It is really heartening to see people coming together with a passion and concern for the parish, which is a precious inheritance at the heart of every community in England and the core of the Church of England.

“The Vision and Strategy paper from the Archbishop of York at the recent General Synod makes it clear that a key part of that strategy is to revitalise the parishes and churches up and down the country [News, 16 July].

“There is no doubt that the pandemic and other longer running trends have put increased pressures on the whole of the Church of England, and that includes, of course, parishes, and so it’s important we all play our part in strengthening and revitalising the whole Church.

“Of course, although the Church of England is made up primarily of parishes, throughout our history there have always been other forms of churches alongside and within them — from cathedrals and chapels to Fresh Expressions and church-plants. All of these come from and are part of the parishes.

“We need them all. We want to reach everyone in England, in all our communities — whether geographic communities, institutional communities (such as workplaces), and now also online communities — with the good news of Jesus Christ, and to be there for all people, in good times or bad. We need thriving parishes to do this.

“As Archbishop Stephen told Synod last month, our prayer is that the parish system of the Church of England will be revitalised in such a way that we will all discover the part we have to play in God’s mission, and find new ways of serving our nation with the gospel.”

Responding to Canon Milbank’s comments about Messy Church and parish services, Lucy Moore, team leader of Messy Church, said: “In most parishes, the newer — maybe numerically bigger — Messy Church congregation works in glorious symbiosis with the other congregations of that local church.

“It’s not in competition, but draws gratefully on the resources of faithful laypeople’s gifts and wisdom, the hospitality of the building, sometimes a budget to draw on, and vital processes like safeguarding.

“It offers back new hope through the presence of newcomers young and old, new opportunities for sharing the love of Jesus in the neighbourhood in the name of the local church, new confidence that local people want to belong to their church, and, tentatively, new ways to learn and worship together that might enrich other forms of worship within that Christian community.

“The newer form of church can be fragile and vulnerable set against the seemingly monolithic and indestructible ‘main service’,” Ms Moore continued. “It is often misunderstood as a ‘feeder’ into the only service that matters — and dismissed when, surprisingly, nobody from Messy Church wants to worship in the way the existing congregation worships.

“But where the parish has taken the trouble to research the potential and the limitations of a Messy Church model, where everyone values it as you might value a baby being born into the family — not for its earning potential or its size or maturity, but for the joy of its present existence and the promise it holds of a hope and a future — when it’s ‘our Messy Church’, the parish is a wonderful mustard-seed tree for nurturing the flocks of birds that it will attract.”

Watch the “Save the Parish” launch event here

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