“NO PROGRAMME can bring positive and lasting results unless it is well anchored in the cultural norms and values of the affected society.” So said the World Faiths Development Dialogue in 2001. That may have been 20 years ago, in the context of international development, but this is a lesson that the Church needs to learn as it seeks a sustainable model for resourcing parishes.
In 2001, I was working in a small charity in the field of culture and development. Increasingly, I see the threads that God has woven between that time and my life in Anglican ministry, between the international development community’s learning to apply a cultural lens then, and to the Church’s learning to apply that same lens today.
The management consultant Peter Drucker once said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” No strategy or programme — as discovered 20 years ago in the international-development sector — can make a difference unless it is engaging with local culture. This is as much true of cultures and communities in the UK as overseas. This is why strategies driven without reference to the local context will, in my view, alienate and disengage people: witness the Save the Parish campaign and the disgruntlement at the grass-roots of the Church of England.
Programmes driven by high-level strategic objectives, rolled out nationally, may be efficient in management terms, but, unless they connect culturally, they may be counter-productive in getting results. The C of E has pumped money into programmes that seem to replicate models, such as fast-food franchises, regardless of local fit. But are these making the Church more sustainable?
People love their local context. As Canon Paul Hackwood has noted, “the places where they live, and the communities in which they live, are important to them” (Comment, 7 January). It is in this cultural landscape, in these church buildings, in these communities, in weeping and rejoicing, that Christians have heard God whispering, drawing them into the Kingdom. They long to see the Church grow and develop, but not at the expense of “slipping off their cultural moorings”, as the UN Development Programme once put it.
THE challenge is how to enable a cultural lens to be applied to the Church’s thinking and planning.
In recent years, I have fallen in love with interim ministry, because it offers a toolkit that has been tried and tested over 40 years and that encourages prayerful dialogue at a local level, and enables a process of transition which is woven from the history, Christian identity, and “call” of God in people’s hearts. Having learned this approach in Chelmsford diocese (Features, 14 May 2021), I am currently (ambitiously!) attempting the simultaneous transition of six rural parishes in the Church in Wales.
What might it look like if we developed a national approach based on greater participation and involvement, which rewarded dioceses for developing strategies for transformation and growth based on cultural fit, local needs, and engagement with local people?
I saw the seeds of such an approach in Chelmsford’s Transforming Presence process, in which representatives from all levels of the diocese listened to one another at parish, deanery, and diocesan level. Oxford diocese, too, has been adopting an interesting approach in its Parish Planning Tool. In such approaches, listening to inform the doing is the key.
AS THE Church enters Lent, a season of repentance — a time to reflect and change our minds — it should consider how its structures and systems might be reimagined so that it can follow better God’s initiative of transformation, which is always “to make all things new” (Revelation 21.5).
We need to find ways to re-engage and empower the hearts and minds of congregations. Given the chance to reimagine their churches and influence diocesan and national strategies from the bottom up rather than be “done to” from the top down, they may feel that their Church is working for, not against, them.
The Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould is a transitional priest-in-charge in the diocese of St Asaph, and a professional transition specialist accredited by the Interim Ministry Network of the United States. She was a co-founder and director of Creative Exchange, an international network for culture and development.