Small is beautiful; in praise of the ‘ordinary’ parish

In 1973 the philosopher and economist E.F. Schumacher published a remarkable little book called ‘Small is Beautiful,’ which was sub-titled ‘a study of economics as if people mattered.’ His thesis was anti-big and all that bigness stands for. He promoted a theory of ‘enoughness,’ and, sufficiency. Although the Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful among the 100 most influential books published since World War its thesis has largely been forgotten and ignored possibly, because in all walks of life, we live with a ‘bias to the big.’

‘Leaders,’ in many, or perhaps all, spheres of activity tend to favour the big. I think there are two reasons for this: awe and, fear. When we gaze upon the big in state of awe (which may include envy) we often seek affiliation by association, a bit like the father who lives his own unfulfilled dreams and aspirations through the success of his offspring. In some ways we can regard the big as a therapeutic antidote to our own feelings of inadequacy, failing and, smallness.

Institutional leaders may also ascribe various characteristics to the big regarding them as more strategic, successful, inspirational and effective than medium and small-scale operations. The messages that institutional leaders can then give out include ‘why can’t the rest of you be more like the big boys,’ and, ‘if you would only replicate their way of doing things then you too would be in a much better place, in fact you too could join the big boys club.’ 

Yep, ‘big’ is an alpha male world!

But often ‘leaders’ are afraid of the big, the ‘rich,’ and the seemingly powerful. The 1997 British Lions coach (Sir) Ian McGeechan was very aware of this. He chose Martin Johnson as his captain on the basis that he was the biggest and most intimidating player at his disposal. Johnson was not at this stage the England captain. He was appointed largely on the basis of his size! Sir Ian wanted to invoke a feeling of fear in the opposition based on their first, pre-match encounter, with the opposition. Martin Johnson literally towered over the South African captain Gary Teichmann (who stood a mere 6 ft 3 inches!). The subliminal message was ‘our captain is bigger, harder and more ruthless than yours; now yield.’

St. Benedict was also aware of the power that the ‘big’ and, successful exude: ‘When it comes to rich people we are more likely to show respect to them because we are in awe of them,’ (ROB Chapter 53). Benedict’s advice is pretty straightforward: avert your gaze and look for goodness and riches in the small and, ordinary. This is advice that all leaders, and perhaps especially today’s church leaders, would do well to heed.

The way to Renewal and Reform does not exist solely in replicating the approach of the mega planting churches and, the route to some form of settlement in respect of rites for same-sex couples does not lie in fear of large, rich and powerful evangelical churches and, the power and clout afforded to them on the basis of their size. Our national church leaders need to avert their gaze and look for the good in the ordinary; medium and small-sized parish churches across the land.

For sure some, if not many, of these churches face real struggles but look at what they do each and every week of the year. They do the ordinary, unspectacular, and frequently dirty work of holiness. They prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation, they marry wedding couples, they run lunch clubs for the elderly and toddler groups for mums and dads desperate for an hour or so of respite. They act as good neighbours cooking and doing washing for the housebound and the sick. They rattle tins during Christian Aid week and meet to hold vigil prayers at times of tragedy. They gather together to sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs and, share in the breaking of bread. They conduct funerals. They visit hospitals and hospices. They host school visits and take assemblies. I say they because it is most frequently a team effort involving the local ‘priesthood of all believers.’

In all of these, ordinary, small-scale and frequently underappreciated activities they contribute something of the love and grace of God. Through all of these activities they tell something of salvation’s song. It is in churches such as these, small and medium size churches, that we discover what it means to be a national and established church, for it is such churches that truly exist for all.

Yes, doctrine is important to many of these churches, and although they occupy the centre ground they may be more or less conservative or progressive by degree, but for such churches doctrine only makes sense in the context of loving service. These ordinary parish churches are in many ways intuitively diaconal. They just get on with the job of trying to be the most faithful, loving and neighborly church they can be. Some of these churches are growing, some simply sustaining and some are struggling, but in them can be found example heaped upon example of the ordinary, unspectacular, and frequently dirty work of holiness.

It is in these churches that we also find true appreciation of, and loyalty to, the C of E as the national and established church. These churches seek neither awe or fear and it is for this reason that our leaders should gaze upon them, cherish them, appreciate them, resource them, and yes even replicate them, for it is in churches like these that true loyalty to the institution and her bishops is to be found.

Our church leaders need to look upon the large, whether they be found in Jesmond or on Bishopsgate, with equanimity, casting off all residual awe and fear, in the recognition that in the Church of England:

‘Small is beautiful.’



6 thoughts on “Small is beautiful; in praise of the ‘ordinary’ parish

  1. Pingback: Small is beautiful; in praise of the ‘ordinary’ parish – Site Title

  2. Very true.

    However, if there are to be small parishes, someone in the church needs to think hard about the economics of the beauty of small parishes. Currently there are loads and loads of truly wonderful small congregations up and down the country, and the only reason not to completely celebrate these parishes is that they’re all paying far less parish share than they cost the diocese to run. Which means in practice that the big parishes are subsidising them.

    That’s all very well if you can persuade the big parishes that small parishes are so wonderful that the big parishes ought to be happily subsidising them, but that would be quite a PR coup. Why should the big parishes pay for all this wonderfulness that they can’t have?

    Or small parishes could appreciate their wonderfulness is so great that they need to pay their true running costs. I know of a parish with a typical attendance of about 10 which does this, but I know of far more small parishes that genuinely couldn’t afford to.

    Or we need to be radical about how we organise things and what fixed costs are really needed to run a parish. I happened to visit a local quaker meeting a few times recently and was generally amazed about their thinking about meeting size. Friends House (the big meeting house in London) has a typical attendance of 60 and other meetings are generally in awe of its size, but the local meetings don’t seem to be struggling. Of course, this is achieved because the quakers don’t have ministers.

    Most small parishes are happy to keep being wonderful as long as they are subsidised to an unrealistic extent by their bigger bretheren. Assuming they did want to get real about finance (which some do), church rules would make it very difficult for them to continue to be who they are but on a cheaper basis. And the truth is that the church thinks about finance in a way that makes it easy to see there’s a crisis but almost impossible to get decision-making aligned with interests enough to actually enable anyone to think of a solution.

    • Thanks Leon. I agree with much of what you say. Of course many small parishes are ‘subsidized,’ but I also think that the heaviest burden for parish share falls not on the very large churches but on the medium sized churches. Certainly in my own diocese I am surprised how little the very large churches pay in relation to the medium sized churches both in absolute terms and, in relation to the £ per head of congregation (or church roll membership). It is one reason why I don’t think the church should be afraid of financial threats to withhold share.

      • I don’t really think it matters who is subsidising them because it seems very unlikely that whoever it is could be persuaded that this subsidy is actually the best way of furthering the mission of the church. (I’m quite certain that blog posts like yours will attract lots of agreement amongst clergy, but I honestly can’t say that they’ll inspire the average parishioners of net-giver parishes to be more generous.)

        Given that, the only remaining option is to genuinely give small parishes options that enable them to live within their means. Imagine if a diocese could say ‘So you want to be a congregation of 30, half of whom are struggling on small pensions and none of whom can be persuaded to stand up in front? Fine, describe the wonderful community that you are and we’ll try and find you some people who want to be your readers and OLMs. Someone stipendiary will pop in every couple of months to check you aren’t too heretical’. That’s the sort of thing that I think Renewal and Reform should lead to, but think of all the things that currently make an approach like that impossible.

  3. Great post. Thank you – it’s vital we move to a culture in which all are encouraged. Small is indeed beautiful, like a candle flame, or the salt of the earth, or little David, or a small people folded into the world by the good shepherd for the sake of the whole world.

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