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Angela Tilby: Look to the parishes for green shoots

05 April 2024

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A seated statue of Richard Hooker on the Cathedral Green in Exeter

A seated statue of Richard Hooker on the Cathedral Green in Exeter

THE fifty days of Easter are a good time to think about where the green shoots of new life might be for the Church of England. There are those who would persuade us that what is called “inherited church” has no future, and that the Archbishops’ aspiration for a “simpler, humbler, bolder” C of E is code for a new kind of church altogether: non-liturgical, lay-led, and exclusively mission-focused.

I spent Holy Week dodging showers in Exeter, where I was preaching from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. On the Wednesday morning, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Heavitree, a mile and a half from the city centre. This was the birthplace, according to his biographers, of the Church of England’s most significant theologian and apologist: Richard Hooker.

A seated statue of Hooker broods over the Cathedral Green in Exeter, its steps offering an opportunity for visitors to sit for a sandwich or a coffee. But, in Heavitree, there were no signs of the apostle of Anglicanism. The medieval church in which he might have been baptised is long gone, replaced by a splendid Victorian structure. When I arrived and announced my purpose, the Vicar kindly pointed out the basin of a medieval font at the west end, which had apparently been dug up in a back garden. For a moment, I fantasied that this was the font in which Hooker had been baptised.

But then I was caught up in the present. All over the church were children rehearsing what appeared to be a Passion play. As I watched, hundreds more began filtering through the west door. They were pupils from the church school. The head teacher welcomed everyone warmly, and the drama began with the singing of a chorus that I vaguely remembered from my own childhood.

It was heartening. Here were 400 children, completely at home in their parish church, rehearsing the story of Holy Week and Easter, and clearly both enjoying themselves and aware of the solemnity of the events that they were recalling.

Perhaps we should not be looking for novel forms of church, but refocusing our mission on the parish. This was, as it happened, a Society parish, but it was not offering an exotic alternative: it was simply the church at the centre of its community, with its school as the place of outreach, nurture, and welcome.

I wish that the strategists and centralisers and managerial functionaries of the Church of England could recognise that, where there are parish clergy engaging well with church schools, there are the next generation of Christians. Scrap the mission modules in theological education, and prepare ordinands for getting stuck in to where the green blades are already arising. I nodded my thanks to Richard Hooker when I passed his statue later in the day.

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