Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A few words In defence of the parish...

The latest panacea for the problems of Welsh Anglicanism (sharply falling numbers in many places – interestingly, most acute in some of our urban or post-industrial areas – and the resulting financial crisis) seems to be the introduction of the ‘ministry area,’ a looser and larger geographical area served by a combination of far fewer stipendiary clergy and far more lay ministries of various kinds. In effect, the parish will become a thing of the past; what seems to be envisaged is that the clergy (after a period of retraining - or is it re-education?)  will be largely administrative middle managers, given the unenviable task of being responsible for the coordinating and supervising of the voluntary efforts of lay ministers with all the disciplinary problems, ambitions and interpersonal rivalries this kind of quasi-clericalisation will bring with it, human nature being what it is.
There are all kinds of comments to be made about the proposals now being trumpeted in the Church in Wales in the wake of the Harries Report, one of which is that we should be very wary indeed of the peculiar enthusiasm in ecclesiastical circles in this part of the Lord’s vineyard for yesterday’s secular management solutions.

The parishes, of course, represent in practice, if not in theology, the local church: the difficulties inherent in an ecclesial body which seems sometimes to espouse as many theologies as it has members have meant that historically the Anglican diocese has been largely incapable of fulfilling the role Catholic theology ascribes to it: the advent of the ordination of women and the resulting rupture in apostolic order have simply made the theological fault-lines more  apparent. The very survival of Anglicanism’s orthodox Catholic tradition has largely depended upon the existence of the parish, as often as not opposed to the diocese and its prevailing policies, which is no doubt one of the reasons our inclusive liberal rulers seem so keen to consign the parochial system to the dustbin.
We are all by now accustomed to being harangued at church meetings by those who repeat -  ad nauseam - the truism that ‘the Church is the people not the buildings.’  Yet place and belonging to place are important to the human psyche, ‘place’ in one sense or another is also vital to the existence of a sacramental religion – another aspect, of course,  of Anglicanism's current (and not so current) theological confusion.  The ecclesiastical parish, with the church building at its centre, over the centuries, even in its somewhat etiolated post-reformation life, has been the place where the faith is enfleshed and rooted in human experience, where the unbloody sacrifice of the altar has been offered, where the faithful have been fed with word and sacrament, where the love of God has been made manifest.

The parish in the countryside is a wider and larger entity than the village at its nucleus; it is a place of belonging whether one ever darkens the doors of the church building or not. Some of the parishes in which I serve here have a longer and more settled existence than many of the dioceses in Wales – the first reference to the parish of St Arvans is in 945, when the local bishop was based not in Llandaff, much less in the modern industrial city of Newport as now, but  in the former Roman town of Caerwent, then one of the remaining centres of Celtic monasticism.
Moreover, the parish in the countryside especially (but also to an extent in the towns) has provided a much needed element of stability, presence, and a effective source of instinctive and traditional religious and civic loyalties, not all of which have disappeared with the advent of the  rural commuter or (rather patchy) broadband internet service.
Stability and continuity are important, perhaps particularly important in a society which has largely forgotten their value. The projected destruction of the parish is another instance of the Church conforming itself to the deracinated and fragmented nature of modern society. If the Church is to have a future in the post-Christian West (outside the Catholic monastic orders) it is surely by offering an alternative to our atomised and alienated contemporary secular culture.

It seems to me that the advocacy of the ‘ministry area’ is based on at least two fundamental errors. The first is the assumption that the necessary numbers will be forthcoming to fill the roles envisaged for the new-style ‘lay ministers.’ The reality is that most active members of the laity are already committed fully and beyond, to the point of real sacrifice, in serving in those areas of church life where they can make good use of the talents and expertise they already possess in their lay vocations.
Not only that, but the difficulties in selecting those suitable (and rejecting those who are not) for lay ministry in the event that sufficient do come forward is only equalled by the dangers inherent in a local lay ministry which would almost certainly lack both the appropriate training and psychological and professional (‘priestly’) distance necessary in order to stand above inevitable local animosities and loyalties and preach and teach the Gospel of Christ, rather than the version of it which people want to hear…

The second point is that there is an unwarranted assumption in the proposals before us that the essentially gathered community served by the' ministry area' (a term only relevant and resonant to those ‘doing the ministering’*) will be more evangelistically successful than the wider, more open-ended, parish system presided over, albeit collaboratively, and held together by the sacramental ministry of the traditional parish priest.

I’m aware that the attachment to the parish system with all its structures and relationships doesn’t answer the question being put to us as a result of the present financial and membership crisis. My fear is that sweeping it all away will make matters far worse and be a recipe for the disappearance of the Church in large swathes of the province. If the situation is as grave as we all suspect it to be, then we should be searching for ways in which all the many positive and vital aspects of parish life can be preserved into whatever future lies before us.

 * I'm aware - before someone points it out - that in the Church we all minister to one another. But we do so in different ways and, like it or not, the ministry of the priest is different and it comes from the Lord himself.


  1. I find it depressingly ironic that the Archbishop of Wales, who let’s face it selected one of his best mates to chair the Review which would only report something that he would want to hear, is pushing this idea of a ‘ministry area’. What experience does he have of front line ministry? Well, look at the years when he has been in charge of the Province – decay, decline, depression and near bankruptcy, all in the name of a liberal agenda pursued with a characteristic quasi-dictatorial fanaticism. Then to illustrate what pastoral gifts he has developed, he appoints himself Acting Dean of his own cathedral. The lessons of a pastoral ministry honed on a Province-wide scale are brought to bear on the unsuspecting cathedral parish with what result? Decay, decline, depression and bankruptcy.

  2. of course, we must speak as we find, but I've always considered the problem with liberals in the church (personally affable - for the most part) is not so much their own personalties, abilities or failings (deeply flawed and sinful like all of us) but the inevitable consequences of the liberal theology they espouse.
    The dealings that the orthodox Catholic minority have had with liberals in positions of authority in the Church over the years (with some notable exceptions like the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury)have proved not so much that you can't trust them personally, but that their motivating ideology means they we are treated a priori as those whose views are quite simply wrong (even - with respect to feminism and 'equality' issues - beyond the pale) and therefore not worthy of consideration or respect. Ecumenically, I suspect that this is why progress towards unity with Rome & Orthodoxy (who share our 'errors' in this regard) have largely run into the sand. They've been rumbled.

  3. My 'hands on experience' in church matters will no doubt be regarded by recent additions to the faith as prehistoric; out of touch and irrelevant to the needs of the church in society today. So it is as a concerned bystander that I have to agree with your sentiments Father, that the clergy will be largely administrative middle managers - assuming the plan works. If it does, having read the Report, pity the piggy-in-the-middle Archdeacon but what a doddle to be one of seven bishops!
    I recall many occasions when it was difficult to motivate any interest amongst laity and even some clergy to consider doing anything outside what they considered to be within the scope of their duties. With no Plan B there appears to be an assumption that new leaders can be found but the Annex to the Review Report (p.37) mentioned that it was already becoming difficult to find members to serve on committees. How much more difficult will it be to recruit leaders from aging, declining congregations? Perhaps they will be recruited from people outside the church with attributes thought relevant to the church today but when my time comes if I cannot see the priest, the last person I shall want is some trained lay worker with no conception of orthodoxy and a totally different conception of faith to mine.


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