Talking of ministry: Woes, worries & possible blessings in COVID times

Let me start with a statement of the obvious: I have never received any training on how to minister during a pandemic. There wasn’t a course on it, or even a lecture, when I was at theological college, and there wasn’t a module on it during my initial ministerial training. So there you go, just like every other ordained minister, church worker, and member of our congregations I am having to, broadly speaking, make it up as I go along. Of course we all hope that in doing this we are listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but in a very real sense we are all ‘seeing through a glass darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12). We are living and ministering in strange, confusing and awful times.

One of the very real challenges for the church, indeed all institutions as well as individuals, is, I think, is the absence of predictability. Most, perhaps all of us, live by rhythm (even those of us whose sense of rhythm is woeful!). In our daily, weekly and seasonal lives we have a sense of where we are and what is coming up; we are in fact liturgical beings.

We are, by contrast, thrown by the unpredictable and we don’t like it when circumstance means that all we can do, the very best that we can do, is look through the proverbial glass darkly. Predictability and clarity are props that allow us to cope well. In the absence of predictability and clarity we find ourselves walking a never ending Emmaus Road, confused, confuzzled, perplexed.

My greatest COVID woe is that I miss the pattern of predictable events that give shape, clarity and even meaning to my life and vocations.I missing seeing my daughters and my mother. I don’t enjoy having to look through a glass darkly in the hope that they are okay. I also miss my regular, routine, week-by-week pattern of activity. I really miss visiting the sick, the dying and the beavered. And, I miss going into church.

The absence of all that is predictable inevitably leads to a constant and relatively low level of anxiety and, the trouble with constant low level anxiety is that it can easily escalate. As someone who has in the past experienced the toxicity of acute anxiety and the numbness of depression I need to be vigilant.

My greatest COVID worry is, let’s put it bluntly, money. Are we going to be okay, are my parishioners going to be okay, is the church going to be okay? I strongly believe that the economic future is going to be bloody, far bloodier, that we are programmed to accept and believe. I also believe that the economic future is going to be highly volatile and unpredictable. We are all going to have to stare into the economic future ‘through a glass darkly.’ It could well be that the assumptions on which planning tools are so frequently based will prove to be about as much use as the proverbial chocolate fire guard.

From a church perspective my biggest worry is that we will be alarmingly slow to acknowledge this and will seek to cling on to our existing ways of financing and arranging ourselves until we are forced, backs against the wall, to accept that we can no longer do so. We will also hold on to our cherished plans and generic strategies for too long, for we will not dare to look into the darkness and admit that those strategies on which we had placed all our hopes (and bets) might be moribund. I worry that what we are hoping is that a couple of aspirin and a course of antibiotics will do the trick when what is actually required is some pretty radical surgery.

Could it be that in church houses up and down the land we need fewer pharmacists and more surgeons? My gut instinct is that this is probably the case but, like all of us, all I can do is look through a glass darkly. Just one more sobering thought: for surgery to be effective is normally needs to be deep and early and the temptation is frequently to delay (in economic terms behavioural finance provides some really interesting insights – insights that might allow us to see through the glass a little less darkly).

Are there any blessings that we as Anglicans might receive, rather than necessarily pronounce or give, in these strange and dangerous COVID times? Well, maybe on the blessings we might be receiving is a renewed understanding of what it means to be an established (and stable) church; a church which is embedded in community and which exists in large part to serve, tend to, and feed the community.

My own experience of ministry over the last few weeks has been a renewed understanding of what the community expects from its parish church and, put simply, what it expects is that we tend (listening to the requirements of those in need with compassion and commitment) and that that we feed those in need, both physically and spiritually. I wonder whether our communities have a far richer understanding of John 21, 15-17 than the church? I also wonder whether the civic community has a greater appreciation of the concept of mission-partnership and, the importance of an established and stable church than we church insiders would dare admit?

Maybe one of the blessings that the church might receive (rather than pronounce) is a renewed understanding of what it means to be a stable and effective parish church? Maybe for too long we have insisted on doing our own thing, in our own ways, thinking that we are a primarily a membership organisation (and our financial models in may ways are based on this assumption), set over, above and in many ways against society? Maybe out of this crisis a renewed focus on the cure of souls, all souls, will arise? Maybe we will (re) learn what it means to be authentically parochial? In the meantime all we can do is continue to look through a glass darkly.

5 thoughts on “Talking of ministry: Woes, worries & possible blessings in COVID times

  1. Amdrew, An interesting reflection as usual. I have also found that the people of the parish are wanting their priest to be their spiritual leader, almost above the pastoral caring deacon. In a lot of ways this is building up the parish or benefice. I am also seeing that the virtual world of worship is breaking down parish boundaries, with parishoners picking and choosing which services they watch, varying from national TV, cathedral, local friends church, or neighbouring church with a more tech-savvy priest or IT team. This can lead to a temptation to want to compete with other virtual worship offerings. People are engaging with their parish priest online because it is part of the familiar, but I do wonder how long lockdown needs to last before local parish priest is no longer the familiar face.

  2. I agree that radical surgery is needed. Mass gatherings will be banned for some months and even when restrictions are lifted many, particularly the elderly and unwell, will continue to voluntarily self-isolate. This will hit the Church of England hard, as many congregations consist exclusively of pensioners.

    It’s time to retreat to the cathedrals and those churches which have viable demographics. Close 90% of churches in rural areas and 50% in urban/suburban areas. Sell or develop church buildings and use the money to make the churches that remain open really good ones. And look at the wider structures of the C of E as well. In particular, why do we need 42 separate dioceses? Sell the diocesan offices and sack all the diocesan advisers. Open a national office (outside London) to deal with safeguarding, HR, training, finance, etc. centrally.

    • 90%/50% is still far too many if by ‘viable demographics’ you mean congregations that remotely resemble the age distribution of the population at large.

      In my direct experience (of worship in about a third of the national stock), it would be less than 1% of rural churches and less than 5% of urban/suburban churches. The Church would be finished.

      Before the crisis the going rate for a medium sized church building in the home counties with potential for conversion to residential or commercial use was in the region of £500k, tops. If your ‘plan’ were to come to fruition (actually, a distinct possibility), that asking price would plummet because of the glut of similar buildings for sale, and also because the banks will presumably be limiting credit to build up their own reserves in what looks like a multi-year crisis. Who but the most solvent purchasers will be willing to purchase a unit for anything approaching that type of asking price when the costs of conversion will be relatively significant?

      So, the yield on your suggested fire-sale would be paltry relative to the current aggregate per capita costs of supporting paid clergy (approximately £60k p/a) plus about 23,000 pensioners on a final salary indexed-linked scheme. The Church would burn through the sales proceeds in short order. It would have sold its birthright for a mess of pottage.

      Since Church buildings have been financed by past taxation (church rate) and voluntary contributions of the faithful (i.e. not for the maintenance of the clergy, which was the purpose of tithe and glebe), the disposal of church buildings and the privatisation of the proceeds would be extremely dubious from a moral perspective. Indeed, some might characterise it as a species of theft. This is quite apart from the barbarism implicit in the loss to the public of what is arguably one of the most important parts of the national heritage. The Church can, of course, make its own laws and expropriate this property for its own use (as it has since the Pastoral Measure 1968, as amended); it knows that the state will be unwilling to assume the liability when it debts have increased massively within a few weeks.

      For whose benefit does the Church exist? Does it exist for the benefit of its personnel (the agents) or for the benefit of its parishes (the principals)? The crisis has brought this intractable dilemma into ever sharper relief.

  3. Froghole, I am impressed by your detailed knowledge of individual churches. I would be a little more optimistic than you as the sale of properties I am proposing would release sufficient funds to have a smaller number of better churches which would have a building in decent condition and a critical mass of people and resources to make an impact in their communities. I agree that a fire sale would depress prices but even so there is potential to realise substantial sums.

    You have previously suggested nationalising church buildings. I can see the arguments for this but I cannot see any government willing to agree, as managing historic buildings will be low on their list of priorities at the best of times, let alone when dealing with a pandemic.

    • Many thanks. I had reasoned that the only basis that any government could contemplate assuming the liability for churches would be on the basis of a substantive disendowment of the Commissioners, which would in effect amount to returning the capital that the Commissioners have appropriated from the parishes via the parish share system since 1998. That money would form a dowry from which the churches would be maintained and would therefore neutralise the cost to the Treasury whilst yielding economies of scale that individual churches can never achieve. The Commissioners would be compensated by abolishing the dioceses and transferring their assets to the Commissioners who, in turn, would generate economies of scale in the management of the Church which ailing dioceses can never achieve. This, I felt was a possible solution, because <1% of churches have viable demographically congregations, but church buildings are nonetheless a key part of the national patrimony and they have been paid for out of past taxation. To appropriate local assets paid by local ratepayers for the benefit of 'successful' churches elsewhere seems fundamentally illegitimate.

      You are quite right: the virus has, of course, exploded that idea. The Commissioners will, very soon lack sufficient capital to form a dowry without repudiating some of their liabilities for pre-1998 accruals, especially if the virus remains prevalent. The notion that the government will be willing or able to assume any such liability when its balances look set to grow still further (and it may at some point face a bondholders' strike and/or be forced to monetise its liabilities), is likewise implausible.

      If you look on the Commissioners' website at the buildings available for disposal (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/parish-reorganisation-and-closed-church-buildings/closed-church-buildings-available-disposal) you will see a number of buildings that have been on the market for some time. For instance, Dunham (Notts) has been for sale for the better part of a decade; its near neighbour, Darlton, took about eight years to sell. Many of these buildings are already marketed at a discount. If you look at similar sites run by the Kirk or Church in Wales you will see buildings being sold for £30k or so, and that was before the recent slump. Subtract agents' fees and the returns look worse. Yet the Church must somehow find the better part of £0.5bn p/a to cover its stipends and pensions. The divestment would have to be so rapid and so enormous, and the pastoral consequences would be so problematic, that the reputation of the Church would be gravely compromised, if not wrecked. You also assume that the transfer of capital to 'healthy' churches will enable them to grow; well, a few might, but I suspect that most will fail in time because almost the entirety of the generations born after c. 1945-50 are irretrievably lost.

      I know of no optimal solution to the crisis, save that the erosion of diocesan and central assets might be slowed if stipendiary clergy take a haircut on their pay and rations and, likewise, pensioners who have the benefit of what is, by contemporary standards, a generous scheme (note that in France priests and bishops received about €1k pcm even in normal times). This seems, for the moment, the least worst solution.

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