Church plants and the problems of ecclesiology and doctrine

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.’


16 thoughts on “Church plants and the problems of ecclesiology and doctrine

  1. What’s so essential about a dog collar? I robe for sacraments, of course, including chasuble in the churches where that is the norm, but I rarely wear a dog collar, and not for Morning Prayer, including when that is a corporate Sunday service (ie ‘public worship’). As I understand it, dog collars are never mentioned in canon law, just language about being appropriately dressed. (I wear a dog collar for: funerals; meeting the Bishop; and deliverance work – I leave it to you to discern the common thread…;)

    • I suppose its just a preference, and not just now I am ordained. But, I think the canon (c27) does suggest that how we dress should instantly mark us out and be ‘a sign and mark of holy calling and ministry,’ but at the end of the day each to their own.

  2. Surely the whole point of a Church Plant is to make provision for a different ecclesiology. The only other reason would be if the host church was so full that it cannot accommodate the congregation. I doubt whether this applies in many cases!

    • That’s an interesting point; thank you. I was using ecclesiology in the sense of being ‘theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church’ I don’t mind different worship styles. But its really the differences re doctrine that matter for me. I think intra parish consistency over what is meant and implied by the ‘cure of souls’ is the important thing.

  3. Surely it’s a little arrogant to assume that any one church has the responsibility for the cure of souls. Shouldn’t church planting be mediated through all denominations who are missionally incarnate?

    • Thanks for this Steve, I think the issue is that when a priest is inducted into a parish they are given – through the liturgy – the cure of souls. In a parish context I (as a priest who has been given the cure of souls by the bishop) mind sharing it, in fact I would want to share it but there must surely be a common understanding of what this means doctrinally and implies pastorally? It works both ways round for as I said in the article I wouldn’t expect to be invited to share this responsibility in a conservative and deeply reformed parish.

      • It’s not simply a matter of other Anglican parishes is it? There are others out there working to share God’s love many of them in other church groups or denominations. (certainly in this town there are many more in churches than there are in CofE churches). Perhaps there needs a little more self realisation: to claim you alone have the cure of souls (your church, your denomination) is little short of arrogance. Surely we are in this together? I’m happy to share the work load even where it’s with those whose ecclesiology is very different from my own.

      • As i said I am happy for the work load to be shared and, of course, other denominations are entirely free to follow their own practice. As a Church of England priest, in a parish, charged by the Bishop with the cure of souls in that parish, I am happy to share with others and as I said in the article I really don’t mind whether their style of worship is lower or higher, more formal or less formal etc. I would in many ways like to work with a pioneer, but what I would be unhappy with is a plant being established whose doctrines where radically different in relation to inclusivity and soteriology (and I this presumably would work both ways). The problem is that in the C of E the cure of souls is given to a ‘who’ in ‘whose parish.’ This may be wrong, it may be arrogant even (although I don’t think so) but it is part of the way we have been established.

      • How can you be given something that the “giver” has no natural right or authority to give? It all sees the very antithesis of what Jesus was looking for in building the kingdom of God not in constructing personal fiefdoms?

      • Well, that is a huge and deep question, thank you. All I would say is that in the C of E (which doesn’t make it right!) the individual priest is charged by the bishop to receive the care of souls…….for me its a charge I take seriously. Understanding what this means doctrinally, implies pastorally, an is enacted eccelsiologically is hugely important to me. (as I know it is to other more conservative Christians hence making sharing within a prescribed parish boundary highly problematic).

      • Your reply only pushes the issue one step further back. Who gives the “Bishops” their authority? And, authority will only be recognised as such by those who are prepared to sit under it.

        The CofE is now a minority in terms of church attendance in the UK. £% of the population attends a service every week – in this neck of the woods, a very large town, it’s less than 1%. Any influence it has reflects historical power which, if we take things like the sermon on the mount and the Magnificat seriously, it shouldn’t have and/or it will soon have that stripped away anyway.

        At a recent installation I was invited to bring a word of welcome on behalf of other local churches. This followed the Bishop giving pastoral charge of the area to the new incumbent who had a church of 30 people, who had little community impact and who hadn’t worked with the other 500 plus churchgoers in the community. I didn’t know whether to laugh at the Bishop’s blindness or weep at the lack of Kingdom thinking.

      • Thanks Steve. You are of course correct to locate this as a C of E issue. And, I am in the C of E, and write for the C of E, for better or for worse. Who gives the bishop the authority is as you say a contested issue. But, just a few thoughts: First, (just out of interest) another denomination share our building: the Roman Catholics. Their priest is fairly conservative and if pushed very possibly wouldn’t recognize my orders. I am certainly not allowed to receive the sacrament when I attend Mass. We also have an evangelical fellowship which at which it has been made clear that I would never be allowed to preach. So one group won’t trust me with the word and the other with the sacrament. But, they are different denominations so its their right to follow this path. But, if another C of E church were to pitch up in the parish I would expect them to have similar stances to ours. In our civic parish we are by far the largest church in terms of attendance (not that that means much) with a congregation of circa 120 most Sundays. We also undertake most of the weddings, baptisms and funerals (50 ish combined this year), schools work and services in residential homes. So our reach is significant. I wouldn’t want to share our C of E ministry with a group who excluded on the grounds of gender or sexuality. In fact I wouldn’t share ministry with them. So whilst I live with ecumenical tensions I am not prepared to live with divisions within the part of the body that I belong to.

  4. If you are targeted by planters then it is unlikely they will wish to continue your and your parish’s approach. They will differ profoundly in many ways, they will covet your buildings and bus in sufficient supporters to launch a hostile takeover of your PCC. Know your enemy.

    I think the bishop may have said, on entrusting you with the cure of souls, that it was “yours and mine”, not just yours? So the problems of having different ecclesiology and soteriology within a parish would apply also within a diocese, would they not? Or within a national church. Are you really saying that it is up to each vicar to decide for himself what the doctrines of the Church of England are within his parish? This seems to claim powers far beyond those claimed even by medieval popes.

    Can it be right that babies on one side of the road are baptised but on the other side all sorts of stumbling blocks placed? Why should the citizens of Brompton face restrictions because what
    was supposed to be their parish church has been colonised by outsiders?

    If each vicar has his own doctrines where does that leave ordinary parishioners who want to know what the Church teaches? Can it be ok for people holding a particular view to be welcome in one parish but not if they live in another?

    • Thank you for this response. yes, I am saying that there should be broad doctrinal sympathy within an existing parish boundary. I would think it entirely wrong that one church would baptise babies, whilst another wouldn’t, one would allow women to lead (or preside) whilst the other wouldn’t, one would affirm LGBTI people as equals whilst the other wouldn’t. As I said in the article I wouldn’t expect to be welcomed to share in the ministry of a conservative evangelical parish; so surely it must work both ways?

      • So how do you get someone raised in/with a conservative mindset into or to stay in your church? Do you even want them there? And if you don’t, where do you send them? My mother left the parish where I was raised because the new priest laughed at her when she said she believed in a literal resurrection and then during counselling to save her marriage said that she should just get a divorce, forget marriage for life. She switched denominations. Is that what you’d prefer, as having a conservative CoE church in your area seems anathema?

        The Lutherans have different synods for different mindsets in the church. That does lead to multiple and competing churches in the same geographic area, but at least the conservative and the liberal can go to a Lutheran church on Sunday and not throw silent insults at the priest for heresy. The reality is that there are different groups within the CoE. Would acknowledging them and labeling them as such on the door help?

      • Thank you for this. We do acknowledge our ‘progressive’ status on the door (membership of Inclusive Church). Having a ‘conservative’ church in my parish (as opposed to the broader area – where their are conservative C of E churches) would be a problem for me, in the same way that a ‘progressive’ plant / graft etc would almost certainly be a problem for a deeply reformed church. As I said in the article would I be given the freedom of the pulpit or a share in the cure of souls in a deeply conservative parish? So its also about parity and equity, as well as basic doctrine. I think in terms of our growth in number and our aspiration to grow in holiness naming our ecclesiology has helped enormously.

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