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Book review: The Once and Future Parish by Alison Milbank

15 December 2023

Paul Avis endorses a crushing analysis of the direction of C of E travel

ON 2 SEPTEMBER 1939, in the House of Commons, as Neville Chamberlain’s government dithered about whether to declare war on Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland, Arthur Greenwood rose to speak for the Labour Party. At that moment, Leo Amery called out to him, “Speak for England!” — a cry that was echoed by many voices in the House. Alison Milbank (Feature, 27 October) here speaks for England and for the Church of England. Her concerns will be applauded and supported by many at this critical time in the fortunes of our Church.

Milbank is based at the University of Nottingham and at Southwell Minster, where she is deeply engaged in Christian adult education and Christianity and the arts. Her pastoral instincts are sound and profound. She is a founder and driving force of the Save the Parish campaign. Reader, if, having heard vaguely of “Save the Parish”, you felt that it sounded rather shrill and alarmist, read this book, and you will think differently. Milbank’s arguments are not shrill, but measured and reasoned and supported by evidence. With many disturbing local examples, accompanied by eye-watering financial statistics of misspent funding, she exposes the assault on the integrity of the English parish, especially in the countryside, which is taking place under our noses, though veiled by disingenuous rhetoric to the contrary.

Milbank’s main targets are: the disparaging and patronising language in public church discourse of “inherited church” and “traditional church” in favour of “fresh [expressions]” and “new [Christian communities]”; the deliberate draining of clergy from rural parishes and the consequent closure of churches with the merging of parishes and of PCCs; the drive to insert church-plants in places where they are neither needed nor wanted (so schismatically); and the creation of megaparishes and of distant, impersonal, and expensive “resource churches”.

All these steps serve to increase the distance between the faithful and the means of grace. Combine the undermining of local priestly presence with the centralisation and consequent bureaucratisation of the Church of England, nationally, and in some dioceses with consequent swollen diocesan staffs; spurious notions of “leadership”; and the ultra-vires grab for executive authority by senior persons, and you have a recipe for accelerated decline. Uninhibited by misplaced deference, Milbank is not afraid to name “the archbishops” and “the Archbishops’ Council”, which has the power to direct vast sums of church money, as the moving spirits.

Milbank dissects the plethora of reports emanating from the “hierarchy”, which “offer a queasy mixture of missiology and management-speak in every report” (xix), promoting a very different Church from the one that we have known. They invoke such vacuous terms as “vision” and “strategy” as a smokescreen for radical demolition of the Church’s historic distributed authority and the shift of the centre of gravity to the centre (i.e. the top). She points out (what is obvious) that there is little or no theological grounding to such reports, which are replete with uncritical, superficial, and outdated management jargon.

While the parish is affirmed here as our most ancient social structure and one that still has enormous flexibility and potential as a vehicle for reaching out into the local community, Milbank rightly points to the need for ordinands to be trained for parochial ministry. She calls for us to raise the standard of training across the board and publicly to value the work of the parish priest, so that suitable individuals can hear the call of the Holy Spirit to this vocation.

The parish and its church incarnates the mission of God in our midst. It is still generally the hub of energy, motivation, fund-raising, and dedicated service in our society. The local is where loyalties mainly lie. Everyone needs to belong and to know where home is. Faithful parish priests, abiding through the ups and downs of ministry in a parish or manageable cluster of parishes over time, building trust and enduring relationships, will see the fruits of their labours in parishioners of all ages coming forward for baptism, confirmation, and full participation in the eucharistic life of the Body of Christ, with vocations to ordained and lay ministry following, given time for the Holy Spirit to work.

The parochial Church of England invites participation in the means of grace and aims to turn seekers into eucharistically formed missionary disciples. The way to achieve this is to push everything towards the local: affirmation, resources, guidance, support, and salutary leadership. But tragically the opposite is now the case in some areas. Nevertheless, Milbank concludes with stirring examples of current successful parish-based outreach and growth, and puts forward some constructive recommendations that will secure a thriving future for our parishes.

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is honorary professor in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, and Editor-in-Chief of

The Once and Future Parish
Alison Milbank
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99


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