Minster-Shaped Church?

One proposal for the flourishing of the parish system in the Church of England

The Church of England, we keep being told, has a problem: not enough resources to have a priest (or even a deacon) in every parish church. Some will say this is about a shortage of young vocations to fill stipendiary posts, others will be blunt and say it’s because we don’t have enough money to pay for that many full-time stipendiary clergy. This has been going on for a while (decades?), and different dioceses have been trying different methods of sharing ministers around between churches in order to try and patch things together.

Sometimes it works quite well, and we need to do better at telling the stories of when it works and why it works. If you are in a benefice with more than one distinct congregation and church and it’s going well: great! I am glad. Do share your experiences, please.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I have a theory about why this is: the parish system is, by nature, somewhat parochial. And as soon as church hierarchy starts playing a game of musical chairs, suddenly parishes which may already be slightly competitive have resources they see a real need to compete for.

This leads to things like me not being able to take my choir on an outing to see Evensong in a nearby parish because of fear that some choir members will “defect” and sing in that choir instead. It leads to serious worries for smaller or less affluent parishes — anyone whose parish share is below the cost of stipendiary ministry — about whether they will be able to have any clergy “of their own” available after a vacancy, and similar sorts of worries about clerical availability when mergers do happen.

Here’s a suggestion that might address some of these problems in some places.

I’m thinking of churches working together in groups in such a way as to maximise economies of scale and cooperation, and minimise competition (or perceived competition) for resources. Yes, you’ve heard this before, but bear with me…

A Minster church could be a local focus for such cooperation. For the sake of clarity I’ll call the area supported by Minster a Minsterate. I’d say the minimum size would need to be about eight churches, and maximum around 18: more than that and it’s time to split. Optimum might be twelve.

I would want to make sure that each parish has at least one ordained minister (a deacon or a priest) whose primary role is to minister in that parish. Some, maybe many, of these posts would need to be on a half-stipend or House for Duty basis. The requirement to live in the parish would remain, but no minister would have responsibility for more than one church with no additional support. Each church can have a minister they think of as “theirs,” and the threat of being left behind with no support disappears. Non-Stipendiary Ministers living outside the parish, and Ministers in Secular Education or with other full-time employment concerns, could continue in much the same way as they do now.

That “minister with a primary role which is the parish” might look different than being a vicar today does, though. Rather than each church and minister digging in and trying to run an entire community themselves, I would put structures in place to encourage mutual support and cooperation.

The first one: each minister is responsible for leading one Sunday service in their own parish, and one service (at any other time of week, but it should be as regular a commitment as possible) in the Minster. Suddenly we have a Minster where there are public services every day. This might be the Daily Office, early enough that commuters can get to work in the morning. It might be mid-day Eucharist services for people who work in the area, or some sort of evening activity. But for the parishes in the Minsterate, that burden of having their minister take one service elsewhere is not huge or unrealistic.

A Minster would be the obvious place to have some sort of administrative office. Suddenly instead of twelve crappy photocopiers that break down in cold damp churches and even when working make everything they print look dingy and amateurish, there can be one good one in a warm clean office, and a bit of money to spare. Pew slips, rotas, publicity, grant applications — these could be supported centrally without having to have uniform “branding”. Of course, there’s nothing to stop parishes having their own admin team if they really want to, and there would still need to be someone in each parish making sure the communication happens, but the business of muddling along and making a bad job of it would be greatly reduced.

My musical dilemma wouldn’t need to exist, either. Some parishes could have choirs, some music groups or bands or what have you; and the Minster would have similar for the main Sunday morning services. But a smart musical director could draw from these to form a larger choir, let’s call them the “Minster Singers”, for a regular Evensong service, timed not to conflict with the main morning/evening Sunday services elsewhere in the Minsterate. Membership in this choir would be contingent on being a member of your parish choir/music group/whatever, so that it’s an enrichment of the music in parishes rather than a threat to them. And it would be great to be able to invite the Minster Singers for patronal festivals, confirmations, installations and that sort of thing.

I’m certain similar models could be followed for everything from adult education to flower rotas. A Minster wouldn’t be a centrally-controlling monolith, exerting uniformity on surrounding parishes, but instead acting as a resource for the flourishing of all.

I’m not exactly sure where benefices/parishes that currently have more than one church and only have one stipendiary minister would fit into this. A lot of them seem to have a number of NSM clergy or Licensed Lay Ministers (sometimes also known as Readers, though their ministry is often very much more in depth than the old order of Lector). One solution might be to replace the ordained ministry posts with House for Duty as people retire, and meanwhile licence any new NSM (or SSM, MSE etc) clergy to the Minsterate rather than individual parishes within it — or, indeed, to work out on a case-by-case basis what will work best. My concern would be to preserve what is working well in such group parishes, without leaving the Rector in a pickle when two NSMs and a Reader all retire within two years of one another and aren’t replaced.

There are still going to be some parishes that just aren’t sustainable, I think. Truly under-used or vacant buildings in such a context might be put to better use as monastic communities, arts centres or ecumenical or interfaith projects — maintaining a presence in the community, but without the same obligations. In a healthy Minster system, the support for that kind of thing could be wider than just one parish, as is so often the case now, and I think that would lead to greater flourishing of Fresh Expressions and other initiatives, without weakening the existing parish churches.

That flourishing in a variety of contexts could do more for the C of E’s resource woes than the current variations on musical chairs ever will.

What I don’t know is how we get there from here, or even whether we can. It might be that we’d have to rely so heavily on House for Duty posts to do this, that ministry would only really be open to those with another source of income, and so the availability and resource issues would continue. It may be that our buildings are actually a much bigger problem than we would like to admit (though my thought on this is that we do need something to keep the rain off, and that ditching all our buildings and the land on which they rest would create more problems than it would solve). It may be that the differences in responsibility for clergy that I’m talking about would require an Act of Synod to put into place, which means in fifty years we’ll still be talking about it. But that’s all a bit cynical. I think it’s certainly worth a try, and I’d be interested in any tales of places where something like this is happening already, and what the problems encountered are.

I think at its best, a Minster system could preserve the positive bits of the parish system, enabling the Church of England to have a presence in every community, while breaking down some of the barriers to working together that currently exist.

8 thoughts on “Minster-Shaped Church?

  1. why focus on accredited ordained minsters? what about fostering the priesthood of all believers? blue sky thinking…
    get rid of the clergy/laity divide and focus on equipping and enabling _every_ christian to live out a christ-like presence in their community. Focus on nurturing those with faith to be the spearhead in spreading that faith.

    1. Dorothy:

      Because someone has to do the fostering, someone has to do the encouraging, someone has do the equipping you are talking about; and I think that God calls some people to that role within the Church of England.

      I am, myself, a lay minister with no official church accreditation at all. Many organists are: we do the job because of our musical skills, and that is a valid vocation, and I am all for encouraging all laity to find out what their vocation may be. But I value the leadership provided by my incumbent before he retired, and the support and care of a number of other people who are ordained, in my ministry.

      I don’t think just getting rid of the “clergy/laity divide” (which is false, by the way: clergy are still laity — they don’t stop being baptized members of the Body of Christ when they are ordained!) will actually help. I think you’ll just end up with leaders who have a very similar role to that of the clergy, but under a different name.

    2. Further: I talked about ordained ministers because they are a resource which people perceive as scarce.

      I also talked about music, which as I’ve just pointed out in my previous comment, doesn’t require ordination. I talked about administrative duties, which actually have the same etymological route as “ministry”. And I mentioned the possibilities for other areas when I said “similar models could be followed for everything from adult education to flower rotas.” So, I don’t think my focus in this post has been on accredited ordained ministers, actually.

      However, I also don’t think we can do all that much of the other stuff without changing the way the responsibilities of ordained ministry are shared, because it would still ultimately result in competition. I could be wrong.

  2. Maybe I’m lucky where we are then… no sense of competition between congregations. I’m in a joint benefice… two very different churches. Sadly congregations rarely if ever mingle, however… and centralising everything could well result in a lot of fringe people simply dropping out.
    Mind you , other curent non-church-attenders might well drop in… who knows? Also, if the minster church is a distance away, not everyone has transport (at least they haven’t round here) or would be able to travel. Different matter in a large town or city with good public transport systems in place. I suppose it depends on what one fundamentally thinks a church building is for… or a community focussed on a church building…
    And why can’t experienced lay people train others? foster, encourage and equip? it doesn’t have to be an ordained person, does it? or a full-time person? in fact, I think I probably meant more “why focus on full-time stipendiary”? the early church didn’t have full-time stipendiary…
    you said this was a document for discussion – I’m simply thinking way outside the existing box, trying to imagine a box-less future, if you like…
    Maybe the Spirit is in fact moving us on, away from the formal, established expression of religion in the C of E.
    I’m being deliberately provocative – fuelling a debate which I suspect the c of e needs to have about the nature of priesthood, of ministry, of what it means to be “church”…
    I apologise for misunderstanding your original post – didn’t read it carefully enough.

    1. Dorothy:

      I’m not suggesting centralising everything. I think centralising everything is a terrible idea. I think centralising some things, and encouraging structures that facilitate cooperation rather than competition, might be helpful.

      The point about travel and rural areas is a good one, and is one of the reasons that some existing joint benefices struggle. I’m sure a Minsterate in a rural area and in an urban area would need to be very different. But one problem I see is that, for example, if I want to go to my cathedral for Evensong on a whim, I have to spend £17 in train fares. So I don’t go: I go to Southwark Cathedral instead, in another diocese but much easier for me to get to. If it were available closer to home then yes, there would still be extra travel, there would still be people who couldn’t go, but there would be fewer of them.

      And again — as a lay person I do have a ministry which involves fostering, encouraging, and equipping others. I regularly lead non-Eucharistic services, too, for what it’s worth. But if you want a lay person to preside at the Eucharist then I’m going to say “why not ordain them instead?” Even in a community where the Eucharist is not seen as an important part of leadership, you’re going to get leaders emerging, people who feel called to direct and support and nurture an entire community rather than one part of it, and I think the discernment, training and formation process, though flawed (all processes are flawed), has a lot to offer.

      The Ordinal is a good place to start if we want to debate the nature of priesthood. I’m taking priesthood as read, and talking about different ways of organising resources.

  3. re cathedral evensong – I’d need to drive, take a ferry, walk for half an hour… so I can relate to your point!

    I’m sorry, I think i may have misunderstood the point of your original post.

    You were wanting a discussion on how to cope with a specific situation – shortage of clergy and other resources – and I subverted that into comments about the very nature of church… I’ll butt out. apologies.

Comments are closed.