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All parishes need focal ministers — urgently

by
09 December 2022

Stipendiary priests overseeing multiple parishes require a secondary support system, argues Paul W. Thomas

I DOUBT that the decimal point will save our parish system. Reducing full-time posts to 0.5 or 0.2 (which then remain unfilled) only postpones the much harder decision to enlarge the parochial units and allow a full-time priest to be appointed. But if such appointments are not to be crushing and unsustainable, a secondary support system needs to be created. We need urgently, and almost universally, to establish a network of focal ministers.

Focal ministry means that, instead of a stipendiary priest who attempts to lead several churches at once, each church would have its own local leader who is the focal point of that settlement, and, being embedded within it, helps to preserve the ethos and effectiveness of parish ministry.

Bishop Stephen Pickard sees that ethos as essentially incarnational, offering to both church and community a “generous presence”. A focal minister, while not eclipsing or fully replacing the parish priest, would help a church to reap the fruits of that generous availability and visibility.

Members of the congregation can help to make this possible. Canon Paul Avis reminds us that, while discipleship often involves the spontaneous expression of compassion and kindness towards others, ministry involves the publicly representative expression of such compassion and kindness.

Both the regular churchgoer and the casual enquirer look, on occasions, for someone in that more “official” capacity, who is at the same time a person whom they know, who is “one of us”. Focal ministers could meet that need, and, when appropriate, provide a vital link to the priest.

 

THE 1990 report Faith in the Countryside paid lip-service to the possibility of lay teams’ working in rural parishes to strengthen their worship and witness. It wondered about giving more emphasis to the pastoral (and liturgical?) functions of churchwardens.

The then Bishop of Norwich believed that the “focal” work could be both corporate and ecumenical, “having as its aim that God’s love may become real for all those living in the settlement. . . Sometimes a priest would come and there would be a celebration of Holy Communion; sometimes a Reader, and a sermon would be preached. But the continuity, the regular worshipping life of the church in that place, would depend on local people who pray and lead their neighbours in prayer faithfully week to week.”

Such an arrangement would have its risks. An over-familiar leader could confirm a congregation in its narrow focus, closed to any alternative outlooks and resistant to change.

But, I hope, the oversight of the stipendiary priest would act as a corrective to any such development, underlining the fact that there should be a very clear sense of accountability between the focal minister and the stipendiary priest.

It also means that the right kind of person needs to be chosen to fulfil this position. Fr Vincent Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest who worked among the Maasai tribes, saw a vital role for the person who acted as “gatherer” of the community. The gatherer would be “the focal point of the whole community, the one who would enable the community to act, whether in worship or in service. He would be the animator of the individual members of the community, enabling them to make their various contributions. . . He would be the sign of unity that exists among them. He would be their link with the outside, the sign of their union with the universal Church.”

Fr Donovan helps us to see why it would not automatically be a churchwarden, a Reader, or even a retired priest, who fulfils this function. It need not be a person with official status, but one who is naturally recognised and respected by the local congregation, and who “gathers” and “animates” them for the essential tasks that belong to their worship and witness.

 

BUT should the title “focal” be used? Some fear that it sounds too much like another “order” of ministry — diaconal, priestly, and now focal ministry. Perhaps we might consider reviving the term “parson” — although in a different sense from that proposed by Bishop Richard Llewellin in these pages, who proposed a return to ordained local ministry, not focal ministers (Comment, 14 October).

“Parson” was used of the parish priest in previous times, a corruption of the word “person”. The priest was God’s person — the one who made the divine presence visible and accessible — and this is now the role being envisaged for the local lay representative or team of representatives.

In thinking about how such a calling might be encouraged, it is important to say that we would not be starting from scratch. There are already people playing this part. Some dioceses, such as Sheffield, have made a start in identifying them (Features, 10 September 2021); but there needs to be much wider recognition of how invaluable this form of ministry will be in the church of the future.

As Jill Hopkinson writes in Resourcing Rural Ministry (BRF, 2015): “The active involvement and leadership of lay people, with clergy offering a role of oversight, will increasingly become the norm. . . The ministerial role will still involve all the important aspects of leading worship, pastoral care and mission, but it will also involve sharing those roles and envisioning, enabling and equipping others to do the same.”

The ministry of focal ministers is one whose hour has come. I hope that the Church will have the courage and imagination to embrace it.

The Ven. Paul W. Thomas is the Archdeacon of Salop in Lichfield diocese.

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