“SAVE the parish” is a headline that has deservedly come to prominence in recent months. The movement that bears this name is spearheaded by some high-profile clergy and laity, with considerable courage, a strong central message, and a flair for communication. Their aim of fending off assault from centralising diocesan apparatchiks, such as machiavellian archdeacons and managerialist bishops, has resonated in many parts of the Church.
The concept of the parish church is, of course, integral to our Anglican identity, especially in this country. Our churches exist to serve not only the particular group of people who worship in them, but the whole of the geographical locality in which they are set. In carrying out this responsibility, parish churches witness in a wonderful way to the words of the Psalmist: “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24.1).
This corresponds to the importance of the local church in the New Testament itself. As the influential 20th-century theologian J.-M. R. Tillard, argues, when St Paul writes, for example, to “the Church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1.2) or “to the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1.2), his presupposition is that the whole Church — the universal Church — is focused in each particular place: “The whole Church is in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Rome. Its extension does not change its essence.” (For Tillard, it should be noted, full communion between local churches is also vitally important.)
Moreover, at the deepest level, the parish is important, because Jesus Christ himself took on a local identity: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14). Christ’s universal ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King is rooted in a local earthly ministry to groups and individuals in the towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee.
I believe, however, that the arguments of this timely campaign might be strengthened by attention to some points of nuance. Here are three examples.
FIRST, the stated ambition of the movement — “a stop to parish mergers” — is one that, in many ways, I applaud. I rejoice that in my own diocese we have been able to avoid monster benefices in which one incumbent is responsible for a huge number of parishes. Pastoral reorganisation will never in itself bring life: only the Holy Spirit can do that.
In situations where there are very weak churches or depopulated villages, however, it can sometimes be the best hope for keeping alive a local Christian presence. More positively, we sometimes see that such reorganisations bring gifts that enhance apostolic life: the sharing of resources, full-time ministry, and mutual encouragement from a wider group of people.
Second, Save the Parish helpfully put a figure on the proportion of parish share that should be spent on “central” diocesan costs: not more than 15 per cent. I share their scepticism about the dangers of burgeoning numbers of advisers, enablers, champions, and so forth, and am glad that, in my own diocese, this figure, at 19 per cent, is not too many miles away from the one that is advocated.
There is another side to this, however: if parish churches are to fulfil their ministries effectively, they need to be properly advised and supported, especially in a society that often exacts heavy penalties for failures in compliance. Strong departments dealing with areas such as buildings, education, and safeguarding can and must free local churches for the local ministry to which they are uniquely called.
A final piece of the jigsaw is the perception that the Strategic Development Fund (SDF), which draws on the funds of the Church Commissioners, has diverted much-needed resources away from the parochial system. Like the leaders of Save the Parish, I have questions about the way in which this programme seems often to have been used to replicate one particular understanding of church life — and, indeed, of church growth. It also seems to be excessively based on targets, spreadsheets, and bureaucracy.
As one of our former MPs memorably put it, however, there is no magic money tree. If the Commissioners were to spend their money on giving us all an enormous parish-share holiday, this could last for only a short space of time before we were back to where we started, but without the ongoing support that they, in various ways — and not just through the SDF — are able to provide.
SO, FINALLY, will Save the Parish succeed in saving the parish? I fear that there are no guarantees. On the one hand, I believe that we should try to avoid the nervous anxiety about the future which has been so prominent in recent years. The Lord Jesus himself has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16.18). This does not, of course, guarantee the future of our own particular form of the Church, however important may be the things that we love and value about it.
But, as we have recently been reminded, the ascending Lord promises his disciples the Holy Spirit, and instructs them to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24.49): to hang on in the local Christian communities, and wait for a power that will be given, and will exceed our greatest expectations.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester. This article is an adapted version of his recent Charge to churchwardens when admitting them to office.