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Letters to the Editor

by
18 March 2022

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Ministry areas are no success story

From Clare Vickers, the Revd Nansi Davies, and others

Sir, — Your headline “Ten years on, Harries review has changed Wales” (News, 11 March) is correct — but not in a good way. The Harries report called for “honesty”. In our experience, the bunching of parishes into ministry areas (MAs) or super-parishes, which the review recommended, has only deepened the “crisis” in the Church in Wales which the review identified.

Even the Church of England’s 2021 paper GS 2222 acknowledged (para. 35) that “Anecdotal evidence from Wales suggests a super-parish type model has not worked well.” It added “but there is an absence of hard data.” Where is there any empirical evidence that mega-parishes are more viable and sustainable than the local parish system?

There do not appear to be publicly available statistics on overall church attendance in Wales since 2017. Nevertheless, here, for example, are some church-attendance figures, provided by the diocese of St Asaph, for the Denbigh MA and the Maelor MA. The attendance figure in Denbigh (pre-Harries report) was 358; in 2019 (after its implementation), attendance there had plunged to 245. Attendance in Maelor, in the same period, dropped from 186 to 143. This is hardly an endorsement of the MA system.

Town and larger churches saw the most sizeable drops in attendance. This contradicts the Harries report’s recommendation, as you reported, that “A few large churches in urban areas might remain viable as single entities, because they had large congregations and were financially self-sufficient.”

Your article quotes an MA leader who claims to seek “low control and high accountability”. The MAs are achieving the reverse effects. At grass-roots level, we see clergy retiring early because of the onerous amount of paperwork. Recruiting new clergy is proving difficult. Since PCCs no longer exist, decisions are taken by the Mission Area Conference, whose members vote on matters concerning churches miles away and possibly never visited. This has reduced accountability.

The Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, is quoted as saying that there is a “burgeoning of volunteer support”. Yes, lay leadership has increased, but because churches are being told that, if they do not have a worship leader among them, services will be greatly reduced. Church members feel pressurised into (inadequate) leadership training, just to help keep their churches open. It is getting harder to find churchwardens.

Bishop Cameron claims that the “communitarianism” of MAs is “enriching” and that “I don’t think we can afford individualism any longer.” Faithful, long-serving members of our congregations are now being laid to rest by clergy who did not know them, or what they did for their church.

The depersonalised MA now comes across as a finance-focused business, led by its CEO/administrator. This is not enriching. What people wish to support is their own “individual” church, parish, and vicar. Basic psychology suggests that only more local clergy “on the front line” can reverse decline at the local level.

The Church of England’s study From Anecdote to Evidence has been proved correct: that amalgamating parishes leads to their decline. The evidence that we see, both anecdotal and numerical, that the Harries report and the MA model have hastened decline in the Church in Wales seems clear.

You quote the Archbishop of Wales as speaking of “paralysing” localism. Many Welsh churches have managed to sustain themselves for hundreds of years. It is precisely because of the lack of local clergy, under the MA system, that they are now struggling. The deference to the leadership of the Church in Wales, which the Harries review identified as problematic, has certainly been reduced as a consequence of MAs. Instead, people feel a lack of trust in the Church.

CLARE VICKERS (St Asaph), NANSI DAVIES (Monmouth), HYWEL DAVIES and DUNCAN FITZWILLIAMS (St Davids), GWYN JONES (St Asaph), FAY ADAMSON (St Asaph)
c/o Tai Newydd
Groesffordd Marli
Abergele LL22 9EB

 

Strategic? Just replace that with ‘short-term’

From the Revd Paul Bradbury

Sir, — Your report on the independent review of the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) (News, 11 March) provided data that shed light on some of the perceived biases in the way in which the fund has been distributed. SDF is itself, however, set up to create perfectly another significant bias — towards pragmatic short-termism.

The fund’s preference for performance indicators in terms of attendance and new disciples within a five-year timeframe naturally biases towards models of mission and church which will “work”. By “work” we mean create rapid numerical growth in the projects funded, contribute toward the reversal of church decline, and bring in much-needed finance for the diocese.

There are contexts in which this approach has “worked”, and for that we should give thanks. Nevertheless, the cultural context of the 21st century requires far more creative imagination and experiment if we are to engage with it authentically.

This requires some longer-term risks and investment. It requires missional leadership that will be given not just the investment of money, but the investment of time and trust, in some cases perhaps ten years, or a generation, really to journey with a community toward a flourishing and sustainable community of faith.

I would like to think that second- and third generation initiatives from some of the first SDF funded projects might demonstrate this kind of investment. But we are still blinkered into impatient short-termism by our own anxiety, blind to the fundamental cultural change that we are experiencing, still thinking that a model that has worked one way or another for 500 years will serve us well in the future.

May I suggest not only an SDF — Short-term Development Fund — but an LDF —Long-Term Development Fund: a fund that invests for the long-term health and vitality of the Church’s witness in a community or context, trusting that with such an investment “all these things will be given to you as well”?

PAUL BRADBURY
Leader of Poole Missional Communities; General Synod member
43 Green Road
Poole BH15 1QH

 

Post-modern frustrations of lay church-planters

From Dr John Williams

Sir, — I was interested to read that research into Myriad found that many designated church-planters felt frustrated by “structures of oversight and accountability that felt heavy and ill-fitting for the agile and responsive models of mission that their teams wished to express” (News, 25 February).

Sadly, this outcome ought to have been foreseen. Church structures are generally a response to cultural and historical factors, furnished only later with the theological justifications that have the effect of conferring a spurious immutability upon them. For example, the parish system, with its patronage, livings, and freehold, located the clergy very precisely within the stratified structures of feudalism. Synodical government emerged as an ecclesiastical version of modern parliamentary democracy, although (tellingly) retaining a separate House for the Bishops.

In stark contrast with all such structures, respondents in the Myriad research spoke of “informal pathway[s] of ministry opportunities”, having “no formal training . . . nothing but a heart to have a go”, without “proven credentials”. They saw “a significant place for parish churches and the clergy” within their initiatives, but “serving as champions, mentors, and “permission givers”’, a very different role from any that those traditions of ministry would normally expect to fulfil.

The planters are at home in the post-modern environment where structures are provisional, identities are fluid, leadership is dispersed, and learning is responsive to contextual practice. No wonder Canon McGinley speaks of “nervousness” in the “recognition that this feels different and challenging”.

Over the past 20 years or so, similar fears and frustrations have beset innovations such as ordained local ministry, Fresh Expressions, and pioneer ministries. In view of this, the Church now urgently needs to find a means of approving designated zones of experimentation in which all inherited ministerial structures can be relaxed for an extended period as new ideas are trialled and monitored. Once it is possible to make a fair and detailed assessment, the experiment can be either ended or validated, where necessary by changing the legislation governing church structures to accommodate it.

This will be controversial, but for too long the Church has been all in favour of change as long as it doesn’t make any difference. Those innovators who “expressed frustration at not being able to administer the sacraments within the communities they led” deserve better than to be told “You can’t do that.”

JOHN WILLIAMS
Visiting Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies, York St John University
75 Quarrydale Road
Sutton in Ashfield
Nottinghamshire NG17 4DR

 

Common Awards boost the distinctive diaconate

From the Revd Gill Kimber

Sir, — The article on training for ordinands (Features, 4 March) assumes throughout that all ordinands are priests. There is a collective amnesia in the Church of England about the fact that deacons are also ordained, are an ancient ministry, and are the third order of ordained ministry. Your excellent piece on the Revd Liz Carrington (Features, same issue) illustrates where the distinctive diaconate differs from the diaconate of those on their way to priesthood.

Although much training for distinctive deacons is necessarily generic and alongside priest ordinands, there is usually nothing to help them to inhabit and develop their own vocation and ministry. That is now starting to change, as online resources are at last being made available through the Common Awards educational hub. We look to theological-education institutions to be aware of, contribute to, and use these as a way of meeting diaconal training needs.

And those wondering where distinctive deacons belong in the mixed economy of ministries are invited to our next national online conference, “The Place of the Diaconate in the Diocese” (details here) with the Bishop of Carlisle.

GILL KIMBER
National Coordinator, Church of England Network of Distinctive Deacons
10A Belle Vue Court
Belle Vue Road, Paignton
Devon TQ4 6ER

 

Single-sex youth work for boys faces prejudice

From the Revd Geoffrey Squire SSC

Sir, — As one who has worked and ministered to young people for most of my life, I found your article on boys and manhood (Features, 11 March) most interesting.

Youthlink has mixed-gender groups and groups for boys only and for girls only, but it is the groups for boys that are bringing the best results. The main reason for this is that, while there are many groups for girls or females, there is now nothing for the boys to call their own, and this is more notable now that the former Boy Scouts and Cubs admit girls and female leaders.

As many who start boys’ groups will know, however, while groups for girls and young women are quite acceptable, those who seek to set up a group for boys or young men will often encounter great hostility from those who claim to be champions of equality. One leader of a girls’ group even went as far as to write a letter to her local newspaper claiming that single-gender groups for boys or young men encouraged homosexuality and paedophilia. This caused its members to be called names like “poofter” or “faggot” and nearly caused it to close down.

Even so, there is growing awareness that some single-gender groups for boys and for girls fulfil a real need and attract many members.

GEOFFREY SQUIRE
Administrator; Youthlink (England and Wales)
Litchdon House, Litchdon Street
Barnstaple EX32 8ND

 

Time to unite around adjustable organ benches

From Dr John Kitchen

Sir, — I refer to the item “We just want to reach the pedals” (News, 25 February). This campaign, to encourage the introduction of adjustable organ benches in as many places as possible, is attracting widespread publicity in various newspapers and magazines as well as on radio and online. Much of this success is due to my friend and colleague from the Edinburgh Society of Organists Marion Lees McPherson (whom you mention).

Nevertheless, while I am in sympathy with the laudable aim of the campaign, I would respectfully point out that organ benches that are too high or too low are not a problem faced only by women, but by us all from time to time. It is not just a “women’s issue”.

JOHN KITCHEN
Edinburgh University and City Organist and Director of Music, Old St Paul’s
27 Minto Street
Edinburgh EH9 1SB

 

Output of the Ropes

From Mr Garry Humphreys

Sir, — I was pleased to see in the extract from his book Victorian Stained Glass (Features, 4 March) that Trevor Yorke mentions the remarkable number of women stained-glass artists of the period, including Margaret Agnes Rope.

He implies that when she became a Carmelite nun her productions ceased. But, during her time in Church Street, Woodbridge (1923-39), she produced at least 35 known windows, for installation in this country and abroad, with more perhaps still to be discovered. Eventually, the impoverished community became largely reliant on the income from her work for its support.

After the convent moved from Woodbridge, her work continued, but because of ill-health, this eventually dwindled, and she died in 1953. Her younger cousin, Margaret Edith Rope, enjoying a much longer career, produced more windows (around 100), but Margaret Agnes, at about 60 windows in total, was not so far behind as Mr Yorke implies.

GARRY HUMPHREYS
9B Church Street
Woodbridge IP12 1DS

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