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The Future of the Parish System

Future of the Parish System

My stocking from Father Christmas this year positively bulged with new reading material. From time to time over the next few weeks, I hope to read some of them and do my little reviews!

The first one was actually a pre-Christmas buy for myself and is the recent The Future of the Parish System published by Church House Publishing.

I was at a conference recently in which I heard the account of an amazing success story from a particular church which was on its knees before being turned around and is now a big church of approximately 500. I am not going to say who the vicar is, what the church is or which diocese it’s in for reasons I will come to shortly.

I think the growth of that church is fantastic and the way in which the vicar has gone about his work has been admirable and it has challenged me deeply since I heard him speak. However, I do wonder about what the churches around about make of his efforts. I would hope that they are all pleased for him but from what he said about his relationships, I think partly because of the way in which he has gone about his task, he has made a few enemies of fellow deanery members and most notably his bishop. It’s particularly a shame, I think, because it needn’t have been that way. The vicar concerned has acted swiftly in many areas (which wouldn’t sit well with many CofE structures) and has also been no respecter of parish boundaries (again which doesn’t sit well) so I am sure he probably felt he had no other option. Nevertheless, as I will come to, other options are beginning to present themselves.

On another note, I had a conversation with two fellow ordinands recently who have “Pioneer” status. One was concerned that the Fresh Expressions movement and the ‘institutionalisation’ of this whole new move of mission in the Church of England had that danger of being unnecessary and cumbersome. If people are doing it already, why bother setting up big official CofE networks to try and channel it, and (possibly I suppose for him with a suspicion of anything institutional) block or at least slow it down. The other ordinand in the conversation noted that in many senses, Fresh Expressions, books like Mission-shaped Church and Future of the Parish System were not primarily aimed at them. Instead, they should be taken positively as signs that parts of the church that had up to now not been engaging in mission and finding new models of church for our culture were now doing so.

The Future of the Parish System contains a number of chapters which for pioneer ministers, fresh expressions of church and go-ahead clergy and churches who are already actively engaged in mission may seem a bit superfluous or obvious. However, in those chapters, there is a depth of thinking that is important since I think it is crucial that we not only get on with the task but also think about what we are doing, reflect on what we are doing and do our theology and ecclesiology for the betterment of the work as it moves forward. Certainly, even if you think what is said is obvious, for the rest of the church the chapters are to be welcomed if they encourage more churches to think and then get on with the task of reaching their local area.

However, where I think Future of the Parish System is really vital reading and thinking is in the final two chapters which talk about ‘reconfiguring a diocese towards mission’ and ‘legal matters – what you need to know’. The anonymous vicar I mentioned earlier who rubs his colleagues up the wrong way and, moreover, one of the key issues highlighted by the recent and (imho)* misguided so-called ‘Covenant for the Church of England‘ was the issue of mission, outreach and where problems emerge between the churches reaching out, their bishops, issues of parish boundaries and more.

What Ian Cundy in his chapter on Diocese and John Rees in his chapter on Canon law highlight is that many dioceses are already engaging in these issues and that Canon law is being changed. We do sit, at the moment, in an in-between stage legally where issues of church law are butting up against some churches efforts, but that is changing as General Synod go about their business and by the end of this current quinquennium in Synod (2010) we should have a far more flexible set of measures that allow greater flexibility in mission.

I appreciate I am a bit more relaxed about it now since by the time I am in post, I will be able to take advantage of these changes. The current situation for clergy at the coal face must be frustrating at times and so I find it hard to condemn the efforts of the anonymous vicar mentioned above because I can appreciate his frustration and sense of urgency to get on with the job.

However, as the anonymous vicar and the so-called ‘covenant’ highlight, we evangelicals in the current age do have a tendency to ignore the current structures and ignore the possibility of making them work for us but instead just go off and do our own thing and then throw stones from the outside at what we perceive as the institutional Church working against us. John Rees notes that although the law is changing, already there is a fair bit of flexibility in the existing rules if you engage with them, engage with your diocesan registrar and, especially, have a sympathetic bishop.

Of course that is a very big IF, but certainly our first ports of call should be those places and should be books like this one to help us with our thinking and our strategising as we look to about the business of making Jesus known in our 21st century nation.

I think the really key task in mission that we currently face is getting every diocese… that’s EVERY DIOCESE… to be thinking and re-shaping itself in a mission-minded way that makes the most of best practice and the thinking currently going into this whole ‘mission-shaped’ movement. I do also think that the canon law, even with the changes envisioned, won’t go far enough and does need further strengthening. However, we won’t get any of that to happen if we just ignore the processes and go our own sweet way, or even worse, antagonise those processes and structures by our efforts. Wouldn’t it be far better to engage proactively and see the structures change so that the whole Church is shaped for mission rather than just our little bit of it?

I issue this challenge to myself as well as you the reader, but as General Synod goes about its business this quinquennium, why don’t we decide to not get too caught up with the whole homosexuality debate or indeed the whole women bishops issue (important though those are) that will take up much of Synod’s time. Instead, why don’t we engage primarily and make our priority the legislative work that is following up the 2004 publication of A Measure for Measures and, also, how we can work harder to encourage our dioceses to get themselves ‘mission-shaped’?

If we got to 2010 with our canon law and diocesan structures in radically rude-health for mission, we could find ourselves with some significant tools that could have a massive impact on our Church’s future health and well-being and its ability to reach out to 21st century England.

I’d love to hear what you think about all this and what we could do practically to assist in this task. Comments as always are very, very welcome.

* imho for the uninitiated means “In My Humble Opinion”

Other recommended reading:

Hope for the Church and The Road to Growth
both by Bob Jackson
both with significant thinking on
re-structuring dioceses for mission

Comments

Ali
Reply

The schoolboy in me is sniggering at your positively huge bulging stocking… feel free to roll eyes.

I appreciate that the church that you didn’t mention has prickled a few folks – did they mention the reaction of other local churches? I’ve found it interesting that the perception of a certain largely-populated (and affluent) church round here is one of church exclusivism, particularly as churches (esp its sister church) around it die. I know people who attend the church who also agree, but I’m not sure where the responsibility for supporting the dying churches should lie. To be honest this has less to do with your post, and is probably a more long standing issue for churches.

I’ll return to schoolboy comments from now on.

David
Reply

Hi Ali – in response to a question from one of the assembled gathering, the vicar in question did admit in fairly light, non-committal tones that while some other local churches were willing to “bless” his efforts, others had been quite aggrandized by it. He also mentioned because of a couple who had switched to his church that he knew from their ‘testimony’ that some were actively maligning him and his efforts.

David Keen
Reply

Thankyou for this book review – v helpful as it didn’t appear in my Christmas stocking, and I’ve got all the ‘mission shaped’ books to work through first. Oh to be a student again and have time to read!

It can be very easy, once we get familiar with mission-shaped church theology/arguments/powerpoint presentations to forget that this stuff is still all new to lots of people, and that it needs to keep on being said until more people get it.

The canon law thing will be very interesting, and I hope it gets used by all Bishops. Some innovations, like Ordained Local Ministry, have fans in one Diocese and foes in the Diocese next door. On my limited understanding, the new pastoral measures will mean nothing if the Diocesan bishop doesn’t want to use them.

David
Reply

Hi David – yep, you’re right – as I said “if you have a sympathetic bishop” and in some places that seems to be a very big if.

[…] amongst evangelicals, but the Church of England does have its own rulebook. I was intrigued by John Rees’ chapter in The Future of the Parish System and it reinforced for me the need to know Canon law and the structures of the Church so well that […]

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