Speaking of the parish as a system

Let me start by being very bold and clear: I believe in the parish and I believe in the parish system.

In debates at General and Diocesan Synods I have consistently spoken in favour of the parish, asking that in all ‘strategic’ decision making, the parish is thought of first. I am very much a Parish First priest. The parish church at its best is dynamic, flexible, purposeful, and missional. It is in other words vital.

The parish church, by which I mean the ministers and congregation, is best equipped to understand how to speak speak into (proclamation), serve (loving service), and challenge (prophetic voice and challenging injustice) the communities it serves. The parish church is, again at its best, a depository of localised wisdom, and a guarantor of Christian witness. This is not to romanticise the parish but rather to describe the parish ‘at its best,’ or most vital. Of course there is also the sad reality of the parish at its worst. Let’s not romanticise things.

We need to be clear: the parish, at its best, has the capability and the capacity to be a living, breathing, witness for the gospel in context. But this is not to argue that other forms of church – plants, grafts, new congregations, fresh expressions – can’t also play a ‘vital’ role, in context.

In fact, I would argue that these work best when they emanate from the parish with its understanding of the context they serve. I would further argue that they work worst when imposed on (or in) the parish, either through some form of top down ‘strategic’ process, or where the parish feels obliged to launch such initiatives so it looks acceptable on their parish dashboard. And we know that this temptation exists, for we become that which we count, and, of course, there is the very real human tendency to aim for the ticks and not the crosses.

It should be obvious that I am cautious of top down, ‘strategic,’ approaches to solving the ‘problem’ of the Church of England. I don’t think they are in reality particularly ‘strategic’ (whatever this means), nor do I think they will work. And, to be very clear indeed, I think the money that has been spent on SDF initiatives could have been better spent.

I also suspect that some of those charged, in their dioceses, with applying for SDF £’s share these concerns (in fact I know they do). My biggest concern, in many ways, isn’t the money (£32 million, the amount ‘invested’ so far in SDF funded ‘Resource Churches’ allocated instead to every parish in every diocese wouldn’t have ‘saved the parish,’ do the maths!), but the ‘strategic’ and governance process, alongside the fact that dioceses are locked into a game whereby to secure funds, the ‘right’ answer needs to be given to the corporate quiz master.

To borrow a word from the Vision and Strategy work it is these processes (including making the Church Commissioners far more accountable) that must, first, before all else, be ‘revitalised.’ The paradox might just be this: the ‘revitalisation’ of the parish will be a consequence not of a strategic and visionary process, but of a overhaul of our financial and governance processes. I am beginning to think the ‘strategic’ sin of the Church of England is to confuse the cart and the horse! Anyway, something to think about, and something I will argue for if re-elected to General Synod.

The Resource Church (alongside plants) has become something of a lightening rod for those concerned to ‘Save the Parish.’ I get this. But, perhaps somewhat bizarrely, I am fairly relaxed about Resource Churches. My relaxation is partly financial (as explained above) but mostly because I think that over the next five, ten, fifteen years, there will be a significant gap between their original intent and the reality. Management scientists (as they or even we like to call them/our selves) like to talk about the gap between ‘intended’ and ‘realised’ strategy. So here is a prediction: in five, ten, fifteen years time the Resource Church will look very different from its original blue print. Some of them will ‘fail,’ some of them will ‘succeed,’ but all of them will morph. Those who morph well will very possibly end up looking like – you’ve guessed it – parish churches!

So far I have been fairly, but I hope generously, critical of the institutional church, and explained that I am a strong advocate for the parish church. But, here’s my problem: I am getting increasingly anxious and concerned by some of the rhetoric coming out of the STP movement. I went to the STP launch, with the aim of joining the movement, but now find myself wanting to distance myself from it. There are issues where I strongly agree with the movement (the need to revitalise our financial and governance structures for instance) but other areas where I disagree. But my biggest problem is the feel. The movement feels metropolitan and elite. It is beginning to feel like a movement that is far more concerned with, as one commentator put it, the ‘preservation of my parochial practice’ rather than the parish system.

Parishes are for sure discrete entities in their own right, but they are also part of something much bigger, the ‘parish system.’ The strength of the parish system lays in its diversity, flexibility, creativity, and connectivity. A good and vital parish will always feel a deep sense of connection to the geography it serves and to its neighbours. It is the acceptance and celebration of difference, mutual respect, common prayer, the willingness to live alongside those who see things differently and do things differently that turns the parish from a series of localised entities into a living, breathing, life giving, and sustainable, system.

But what brings parishes to life is ministry; the quantity and quality of ministry (lay and ordained). Ministry is the enabling and not the limiting factor. It may be that in some places the ‘old model’ can still work, at least for a while. In my own area I suspect that ministry as is can be sustained over the short to medium term (whether this is a good or not so good thing is a different issue), but there can surely be no doubt that in other areas we do need to think afresh about how ministry is best deployed, for the sake of the parish system.

There is a tendency, in some quarters, to argue against and reject, almost as an instinct, any approaches to ministry that are perceived to be new, trendy, and right on. To be clear I am cautious about some of the branding that has been applied to various posts, but I can see a real value, in the right context, for roles such as the full time dean. I would also want to go further and suggest that some of these roles mark a return to some form of historic norm. In order to preserve and vitalise the parish system it could well be that we need a renewed spirit of collegiality and flexibility, where such a spirit is grounded in history. We need to look reality in the face and understand that preserving the status quo may not be possible or even desirable. Grimly hanging onto to preconceived ideas about how ministry should be deployed and exercised, might well be to bang a nail into the coffin of the system so many are rightly keen to preserve.

The parish system cannot be planned, designed, or even ‘revitalised’ from the top down, nor can it be sustained through myopic parochialism. It’s success can only be guaranteed by something akin to the African concept of Ubuntu which roughly translates as: ‘I am because you are.’

We need each other and we need to belong to a vital system in which all can flourish. We need to find better ways of doing things (financial and governance things) and we need to find better ways of relating. If we fail to do these the consequence will be a hollowed out church, characterised by a portfolio of atomised and somewhat ‘successful’ churches. So here is the irony: the top down planners and ‘strategists’ alongside the more myopic SDP types pose an equal danger; an equal danger to the parish system.

We need to find new and better ways of doing things, starting not with ‘strategy,’ (how many institutions / bodies / organisations find their revitalisation or even salvation in ‘strategy – let’s be honest) but with finance, governance, and relationships. That is if we want to retain a healthy parish system.

Let me finish by sharing my biggest frustration with The Church of England as is: to belong to The Church of England and to exercise ministry in it feels like belonging to a world or operating system where everyone knows the rules but few enjoy the game. (Beware of) Unintended Consequences would be my name for our game.

Perhaps we need to change the rules, so that more can enjoy the game?

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