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.