A MOTION to welcome the emphasis on the revitalisation of the parish for mission in the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy was presented on Monday to the General Synod, who voted in favour.
Moving the motion, Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that the use of the word “revitalise” was “perhaps to acknowledge that some effort or some different focus is required, because there hasn’t been as much life as we’d have hoped.” If churches were to grow younger and more diverse, the Mixed Ecology approach would be “vital as we seek to meet people where they are”.
The parish system provided “a framework within which we can work . . . to ensure every single soul in the land is held within a system in which they matter and be known”. Growth must not only refer to numbers, but to depth and breadth, life and health. Also needed was a sustained focus on clergy well-being: “revitalised parishes will need clergy who are cared for, pastored and invested in.”
The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, said that there was a need for clergy who had “high morale”, and it was important to take “great care with language” to sustain it. As a parish priest, when the Fresh Expressions movement came about, he had been “led to believe that I was leading a ‘stale’ expression of church”. He had heard language used “frequently, that to support standard parish ministry is to subsidise decline”. Many leading rural parishes did not need “expensive new projects. We needed money to sustain existing levels clergy,” he said.
Diocesan boards of finance were having to make “very difficult decisions between increasing stipends or sustaining numbers of clergy”. One parish priest had told him that, during Covid, though not necessarily because of it, he had buried ten per cent of his electoral roll. Half the congregations in Hereford were aged 70 and over.
Sandra Turner (Chelmsford) said that the local church was at the very heart of God’s mission. “Sometimes, [God’s] work doesn’t seem that impressive from the outside. I love my small local rural church. We have no loo, no running water, poor heating, no WiFi, no staff team, just one faithful minister. We are an insignificant church whose strength lies only in the Lord Jesus. But God has been at work revitalising our parish.”
God had blessed them with gifted lay people, and mission and discipleship were priorities; there were ten home groups; youth groups were “thriving”; and she listed many community activities. They did not qualify for extra funding, had no written plan, and numbers had not grown much, but they had not declined, either. They had grown in unity in Christ, she said.
The Revd Dr Michael Brydon (Sodor & Man) was unsure whether he could back the motion, which, he said, implied that the parish was “lacking vitality. And it is a source of sadness to me to see the fading of parishes I once knew to be full of vitality.” Some had been unlucky, “but often as not it’s been the withdrawal of resources or the increasing stretching of resources.” The motion didn’t request any more “tangible resources for parishes”, but largely retained the status quo.
Robert McNeil-Wilson (Gloucester) then moved an amendment to replace “a central” with “the central”. He argued that no other element was on a par with parishes “in terms of their centrality and enduring presence”.
The amendment was carried.
The Revd Matt Beer (Lichfield) moved three amendments. The first asked the Archbishops’ Council to “bring a report collating the research that has already been in place to a future group of sessions so that the Synod might have greater confidence that church growth and revitalisation alongside other mixed ecologies of church are taking place in line with our six bold outcomes, enabling local churches to develop and implement local mission plans.”
The second replaced paragraph (d) with “welcome the Church’s commitment to increasing the numbers of ordinands, as well as increasing emphasis on lay ministry and the expansion of Licensed Lay Ministers in many dioceses” and “encourage dioceses to work in new and creative ways to increase lay and ordained vocations”.
The third replaced paragraph (e) with “encourage each parish and diocese to support a process of local missional discernment (Mission Action Planning) to enable greater effectiveness in parochial mission and put a plan in place to meet the discerned missional outcomes to be reviewed annually.”
It was not enough to sustain numbers of ordained and lay leaders, he said. “We need to increase them exponentially.” In his diocese, there was a deficit of clergy numbers of 19 per cent.
The amendments were carried.
The Revd Marcus Walker (London) then moved a detailed amendment requesting changes to the distribution of funds by the Archbishops’ Council. Lowest Income Communities Funding (LICF) should be spent “directly on covering one stipendiary post in each of the most deprived parishes”, while all Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment should be redirected into LICF. The Church Action on Poverty report in February had highlighted that significantly more churches had closed in low-income areas than in more affluent areas.
“If you are the spreadsheet person in the diocese looking at where cuts must happen because the budget is over-running you will cut the poorest parishes that do not send in the full parish share.” This was preceded by cutting clergy numbers, then merging churches. “I want the last church to be cut to be the poorest church.”
The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, opposed the amendment, while acknowledging that “the current system for funding parochial ministry especially in deprived communities is broken and unjust.” He observed: “Urban parishes take pride in being able to take responsibility for their own life. But this amendment will reduce urban parishes to dependency, a dependency they will find it very hard to break out of. It will create hundreds of unfillable posts, hundreds of tiny urban parishes that don’t justify a full-time priest. It will take us back to the bad old days of Darlow, which saw so much money used unproductively.”
It would also lead to “huge resentment, especially among parishes that are just outside whatever we decide constitutes deprived”. But he welcomed a debate “to build a juster Church”.
The amendment was lost.
The motion was then carried, as amended:
That this Synod
(a) welcome the emphasis in the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy for the 2020s on the revitalisation of the parish for mission as one of the six “bold outcomes”;
(b) affirm the parish system as the central component of the mixed ecology as we seek to offer a living and contextually appropriate expression of church for every person in England, and a vital means of fulfilling our calling to become younger and more diverse;
(c) note the research presented in From Anecdote to Evidence as well as other recent research which contributes to our understanding of the factors supporting church growth and vitality; and request the Archbishops’ Council bring a report collating the research that has already been in place to a future group of sessions so that the Synod might have greater confidence that church growth and revitalisation alongside other mixed ecologies of church are taking place in line with our six bold outcomes, enabling local churches to develop and implement local mission plans;
(d) welcome the Church’s commitment to increasing the numbers of ordinands, as well as increasing emphasis on lay ministry and the expansion of Licensed Lay Ministers in many dioceses; encourage dioceses to work in new and creative ways to increase lay and ordained vocations; and
(e) encourage each parish and diocese to support a process of local missional discernment (Mission Action Planning) to enable greater effectiveness in parochial mission and put a plan in place to meet the discerned missional outcomes to be reviewed annually.