Church Planting and the Mission of the Church makes interesting reading. In some ways it would be hard to argue against the principle of church planting. As the bishops rightly say church planting has been a feature of ecclesial life throughout Christian history, and should remain so.
The largest church in my benefice was established as a ‘plant,’ or more precisely a minster, way back in 1290 by the then St. Alban’s Abbey to serve surrounding villages. St. Alban’s (according to google, so it must be correct) to Winslow is 34.9 miles. I wonder why the abbot, Roger de Norton, fancied Winslow for a ‘church plant?’ In recent times we have been trying to recapture some of the essence of what it means to be a minster or resourcing church, as a market town in a rural area.
This brings me to two of my concerns about planting, and they are geographic concerns: where are most of the plants, or grafts, to be located and what socio-economic group are they set to serve? Will plants be established in poorer, less fashionable, maybe even less urban locations?
Another concern I have about plants is the tendency to regard them as the solution, rather than as part of the solution. It is my strongly held view that traditional forms of church also require significant investment and, that such churches, particularly in market towns, can, and should be, significant engines for renewal and reform. Some of our market towns need just that little bit of impetus to push onwards and upwards, others need re-energizing so that they too can become ‘rural minsters’, for of this I am sure, the big city plants reach is limited to the urban and the suburban. I would welcome strategic initiatives to energize those parts of the church which the urban plant simply cannot reach. Indeed if we are serious about being a national church we must surely do so.
My biggest concern is over neighborly relations. The bishop’s guidance makes it clear that good, and hospitable, relationships between the established church, and the new arrival should be the norm. In some ways this is a bit of a motherhood and apple pie statement! Of course neighbours should get on. But, I am worried about just how well some neighbours will be able to get on. I worry about this because my market town parish is set for stratospheric population growth. In many ways it looks like a planters dream; we are very, very, Middle England (but look below the surface………….)
We have worked exceptionally hard at establishing our identity. We are intentionally liturgical, choral, and sacramental. We take growth seriously both in terms of numbers and holiness. We aim to serve the wider geographic area, but without colonizing it. We are members of Inclusive Church and the Prayer Book Society. We have a significant breadth of worship and we take ‘life-events’ very seriously. I would want to be ‘jealous’ of our identity. It is an identity that we offer to the town and surrounding area. Its a purposefully missional and evangelistic identity.
And so I read the following, motherhood and apple pie, paragraphs with concern:
‘We expect those responsible for church plants to commit themselves to work to the best of their ability in cooperation with the other churches in the local area, including the church in whose parish the new church plant is located, as an integrated part of deanery and diocesan structures. They should aim to use some of their resources to support the mission of their neighbours and expect to make regular financial contributions to the diocese, as an expression of the mutual responsibilities that are a normal part of church life.
We expect those responsible for churches neighbouring a new church plant, including the church in whose parish the new church plant is located, similarly to commit themselves to work to the best of their ability in cooperation with the new church plant or churches, to welcome them into local structures, and wherever possible to use some of their resources to help support the new church plant.’
The point is that any plant can only be located in an existing ‘(whose) parish’ and that it is the vicar of that church who has been charged with the ‘cure of souls’ in that parish. The inclusion of the relative pronoun ‘whose’ makes this clear. So here’s the problem: what does cure of souls mean and, who decides how the cure is to be exercised? Traditionally this has meant the vicar ‘in whose parish’ the parish church is located. The vicar, or parish priest, is the ‘who’ to the ‘whose.’
Now as a parish priest I am delighted that others join with me in exercising the ‘cure of souls;’ why wouldn’t I be? However, those who share in the ministry of a specific church, in a specific parish should, presumably, have a fairly common understanding of what this means and looks like in practice?
I would expect, as the Parish Priest, that anyone exercising ministry in the parish would have a similar ecclesiology and set of doctrines around the big (and contentious) issues, and I don’t think this is an unfair expectation. Mixed or even competing ecclesiologies within a bounded parish would seem to me to be highly problematic, and ultimately unworkable.
As a parish priest with responsibility for the cure of souls my hospitality is, like all hospitality, bounded. And, if you think I am being an illiberal-liberal just pause and think about whether someone of my theological ilk would be offered the freedom and hospitality of the pulpit, or a share in the ‘cure of souls,’ in a conservative evangelical church, for instance.
I would be happy for any plant, in my parish, to be ‘lower church,’ or ‘higher church’ (less likely). I would be very happy indeed to work with a pioneer minister. I would be okay with a plant, or fresh expression, being less sacramentally centered. I am not worried whether the priest responsible robes or not (although I will continue to wear vestments and, I would hope that any ordained colleagues leading public worship would wear a dog collar). But, what I would not be happy about is sharing the ‘cure of souls’ parish with a plant, graft, or fresh expression, operating from an entirely different understanding of what this means.
If a plant, fresh expression, or graft, were to be established in Winslow terms and conditions would have to apply and these would include a commitment to inclusivity with regards to gender and sexuality, alongside a broad soteriology, for these are integral to this parish priests understanding of what it means to exercise the ‘cure of souls,’ in the parish context.
I suspect my problem is that very few natural planters are as committed as I am (we are) to inclusivity as being core to their understanding of the ‘cure of souls.’ But, maybe I am wrong?
So, yes, I have a lot of sympathy with planting, but it must not be done recklessly. Planting isn’t just about mission and evangelism; it’s also about ecclesiology and doctrine. Above all its about understanding and being committed to a particular and common understanding of that most parish based concept, ‘the cure of souls.’