I thought that Alan Billings article in the Church Times, ‘What the C of E can learn from the police,’ was both interesting and depressing.
Alan’s basic argument is that the character and culture, and therefore effectiveness, of the police came very close to becoming irreparably and fundamentally damaged due to top down decision making processes which undermined the concept of ‘neighbourhood policing,’ a significant consequence of which was the erosion of trust. Trust was eroded not because the police became less honest, but because they ceased to be embedded and visible.
The genius of the parish system resides in its visibility as an empirically observable phenomenon. A flourishing parish church recognises the importance of visibility. It might be an oversimplification but such visibility comes in three forms: the building, the ministers (lay and ordained), and the mission. For a church to be recognised, valued, and appreciated in the wider community, as a neighbourhood church, all three are both necessary and complementary.
It is these three that prevent the parish church from becoming closed and sectarian; the antithesis of neighbourly. It is these three that promote a welcoming inclusive culture and, give shape to our character. It is these three that allow faith, and the faith community, to become a public good. (This is not to say other faith communities aren’t able to act as public goods but, to say that the Church of England has inherited some highly significant structural advantages). As Alan Billings writes: ‘critically, this model is also well understood by those who are not church goers.’ I would go further and say not only is it understood but that it is, to a significant extent, valued. It may come as a surprise to some but ‘not church goers,’ value our buildings and our ministry, our visibility. In fact they help pay for it.
So here is a critical question: ‘if many of the planned for new congregations are to be lay led and meeting in private homes how are they going to become valued visible communities and therefore public goods?’
Alan argues that ‘no organisation can operate two operating systems simultaneously without distorting its shape,’ (or in my terms, character). Needless to say I agree. I also agree that the Church of England needs to be far more careful with its language. If the general public don’t understand terms such as Oversight Minister we shouldn’t use them. But does any of this mean that there is no place for Fresh Expressions, New Congregations, Grafts, and Plants?
In my view ‘no.’ I think that all of these can add value, but I also believe that they can only work when they are parish initiatives. They won’t work if they are established, through some form of top down, generic, ‘strategic,’ process. If they are developed in parallel to the parish they will becomes differentiators, or even competitors, to the parish. Does the Church of England really want to create an internal market for the allocation of resources? Has it already, without really understanding what its done, established an internal market? I suspect it has.
One of the problems with an internal market is that it, by definition, encourages inward looking and competitive behaviour and an increasingly self referential sense of character and culture, the external manifestation of which is ‘confusion and incoherence.’ Internal markets also encourage categorisation, and categorisation facilitates favouritism. Internal markets, by definition, exist to promote growth in various ‘product lines,’ and decline in others. That’s how they, markets, work and that is why having two ‘operating systems’ will always and necessarily fail. Operating systems aren’t, as Canon Billings has rightly observed, complimentary (a very churchy word I know) but competitive. They are competitive even when their operatives have gone to great lengths to convince themselves otherwise.
So my worry is that the endless drive to manufacture a ‘mixed ecology’ – can an ecology be manufactured – will lead to characterless and a cultureless church; in plain language a lesser and less visible church, a church whose character is the manifestation not of a mature and proven ecclesiology but the product of a ‘strategically’ managed internal market.
The next five years are going to be a crucial time for the Church of England, a truly defining epoch. What is at stake is our character, our culture, and our visibility. In order to both sustain and thrive what is needed is a renewed sense of commitment to the parish, to our buildings, our ministers (lay and ordained), and their mission. Without these we have no real visibility, no defining character, and no animating culture.
The Parish is and must remain the Church of England’s operating system and it doesn’t need an overhaul or a rival, or even a ‘ revitalisation strategy’, but something far more basic: investment and the dismantling of an internal market of our own making.
Let’s put the Parish First.