“In the autumn the leaves flamed and rattled before the west winds, tempering their sad adieu with glory; and in the winter, which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, but never turned into slush.” — T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone

“That is the land of lost content, / I see it shining plain, / The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.” — A. E. Houseman, “XL”, A Shropshire Lad

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(I) A conference

I attended the Centre for Applied Theology’s “The Once & Future Parish” conference last weekend.

The conference offered an assessment of the enduring virtues of the parish system, with a bias towards consideration of the parochial Church of England, though informed by broader historical, literary, international and ecumenical perspectives. It was good to hear from non-Anglican confessions that also possess a parochial character, and are also struggling with its attenuation; it was also noticeable that non-Anglican confessions without a parochial character were absent.

There was a critical mass of Welsh Anglicans in attendance, which meant that parochial reform in the Church in Wales also got a look in. But I was struck by the pervasive, enduring, emotional, formational hold on the imagination of the English (or, perhaps, Bemertonian, or, better still, Avalonian) country parish — with pastor, parish church and people existing in a state of almost prelapsarian harmony.

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As ever in discussions about the nature of the Church, the professional and personal are in play. I approach such discussions about the parish with my twin professional perspectives as a leader of a central diocesan team and a non-stipendiary curate. I also bring a personal convert’s passion not only for choral-and-floral Anglicanism, but for England and Englishness, though I also can’t leave behind a familial memory of Welsh nonconformity’s integrity and of the English Church’s place in a web of establishmentarian condescension.

(II) The Anglican ecclesial challenge: Reforming the existing parochial church, and raising up new ecclesial communities

The conference clarified my thoughts about the fundamental contemporary Anglican ecclesial challenge. It’s twofold: first, to reform the existing parochial church so that it is viable (sustainable in terms of resources, and worthwhile in terms of convicting proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments); and, secondly, to raise up an innovative ministry of forming new ecclesial communities that flow from contemporary patterns of living, gathering and engaging (including in digitally).

The conference also reinforced my sense that we under-estimate the challenges of that first reformation — a viable parochial church looks substantially different from what we have at present. In urban contexts, the resource church plant model (the “Diocese of Islington”) is receiving funding and generating momentum — I can see this as a form of superimposing a new, viable parochial structure atop a creaking one, and it certainly feels more like this type of revitalisation than the forming of new ecclesial communities from an enculturated understanding of contemporary, local contexts. However, such superimposed viability isn’t possible in more sub-urban and rural areas, not least because the existing parochial structure — parish churches and their largely declining congregation — are such a clergy-time-demanding and hard-wearing if eroded parts of the ecclesial landscape.

Getting from here to there can look like decline in many, many places (and is subject to criticism for being so), but is more so cool-headed institutional adaptation to the always-changing economy of human society. Achieving the careful, sensitive, pragmatic management of constant (and, in this case, substantial) change within a conservative and distributed institution context, is hard and expert work; what’s worse, it must be fuelled by that exceptional and precious thing, apostolic strategic clarity.

(III) Episcopal oversight is part of the parish structure

Contributions from Orthodox participants and reflections on the history of the parish structure will make me less bashful about the importance of the meaningful episcopal oversight of parish life.

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The size of dioceses (large, if you’re St Augustine of Hippo), and the almost congregationalist constitutional rights of English parishes and incumbents, have baked in a tension between “the parish” (seen as the local church) and “the diocese”. But an episcopal church’s very ecclesiology warns us against such polarization — and the oversight of parochial life by a bishop is of the esse of the former as much as of the latter.

Such oversight needs the means to be meaningfully exercisable and exercised. In my own, professional, Welsh context, a bishop had no hope over apostolically overseeing, say, 150 parishes — by which we might mean being appraised of their character and challenges, and pastorally informed about their clergy. But a restructuring of parochial boundaries to from larger areas means a bishop can be expected to “know” and therefore apostolically to oversee 25 parishes, the internally diverse character of which are filtered and distilled by their leaders, the challenges of which are locally prioritised, and the clergy of which are gathered through colleagueship and collaboration and are thereby recognizable, as opposed to being dispersed across the hillside, left to it, and barely able to be rescued even in a crisis.

The Diocese of Manchester’s plan to recruit seven full-time Area Deans seems to be a step towards allowing such oversight again to exist in an English Anglican diocese, thus making the diocese more viably parochial, rather than less so.

(IV) Larger parishes allow adaptation

Discussions about reform-in-search-of-viability at the conference tended towards the anecdotal or the untested. Other discussions over recent weeks have confirmed my conviction that the formation of larger parishes at the earliest possible stage by the wholesale amalgamation of existing parishes, and without prior decisions about the patterns of future viability, is a vital first step towards realistic adaptation.

The internal mutuality that emerges within larger parishes formed in this way makes it possible to have wise, earthed and owned discussions about the distribution of resources and the character of church life. Without this mutuality, flowing from a united structure, discussions are tension-laden bilaterals between individual parishes and “the diocese”, decisions about viability are made on the basis of too constrained an understanding of available resources, and new initiatives or congregations feel like an incredible demand as opposed to an achievable response to a clear need.

Something of this nature is being attempted in Wigan; it may be part of the purpose of the reinvigorated Manchester deaneries; and it is the operant dynamic across Anglican north Wales.

(V) Parishes or priories?

The Avalonian parochial ideal automatically produces in the mind’s eye a map, criss-crossed by parochial boundaries, with every inch of land included within a parish, and a sufficient number of parish churches to be able to claim “a Christian presence in every community.”

Ironically enough, it was a conference on the parish that’s emboldened me to try to think in another way. If the parochial mind’s eye sees this:

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what does it mean instead of think of this:

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Instead of a Roman, administrative, territorial and parochial structure, what does it feel like to conceive of a diocese and its ministry as a Celtic, monastic, networked, “prioried” structure? What does it feel like to step away from an effort at universal if attenuated and often endothermic presence, and into sustained, sustainable, gathered, exothermic communities?

So many reform movements within the life of the Church — the Cistercians, the Wycliffites, the Jesuits, even arguably the Tractarians, and now the new Catholic Societies of Apostolic Life, the “Diocese of Islington” and arguably the “flying sees” in England — had or have a common life that is more nodal than territorial, with strong, nurturing links between connected focal, energetic communities.

Here is liberty for mission. Or, at the very least, here is a liberating lens through which to stare at our present efforts at, and structures for, mission.

This sounds heretical (or is it schismatic?); it’s certainly a departure from our traditional understanding, and may not be what we wish to avow as our ecclesiology; but there is liberty, creativity and energy here to be injected into our work of reform.

Something akin to this “unboundaried” modelling was previewed in the Bishop of Willsden’s reasonably robust articulation of boundary-crossing ecclesial expressions as part of the Diocese of London’s new ten-year plan. Extra resourcing is already enabling this sort de facto ecclesiology in some places — but this way of thinking about the Church has a gift to offer to places of scarcity as well as those of abundance.

I’m more committed to this way of thinking than my choral-and-floral attachments would suggest because I’ve recently, thanks to colleagues, come to understand more fully how the unviability of the territorial parochial mindset can be a source of true anxiety for clergy — not only in terms of needing to maintain multiple presences (which has been a tension for some time), but also because an understanding from the ground up of the global unviability of the whole enterprise can easily (and reasonably) engender fatalism about the sustainability. For the young cleric, the prospect of a 30-year ministry serving such a demanding but unfruitful system, the economic viability of which might have disappeared completely before a 2050 retirement, can create a perfectly rational motivational crisis. It would be odd if it didn’t. Being a prior as opposed to a parish priest might well avoid the twin perils of despair and denial.

Written by

Priest, Diocesan Secretary | Offeiriad, Ysgrifennydd Esgobaethol | Duc in altum

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