Frog Orr-Ewing writes: On Tuesday 3rd August, a gathering was hosted by Marcus Walker in St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church, to launch a campaign to “Save the Parish”. This small conference was intended to begin a campaign for General Synod, expressly to stop resources being siphoned away from parishes, and to ‘resist any further centralisation of power and authority away from parishes and towards dioceses and the central church.’ Save the Parish should be understood in a wider context of commitment to local church ministry across the theological spectrum and a widespread concern that church bureaucracy is increasingly out of touch with front line people-centred parish ministry.
The media rallied behind the campaign including an article by Marcus Walker in the Spectator, and a letter planning to marshal lay-led reform of the Church of England. Tensions were further exacerbated by the Gregory Centre proposal coming to General Synod to launch thousands of lay-led churches over the next ten years. This sparked ‘limiting-factorgate’ ; a social media exhale of exasperation on the part of clergy to the insinuation that expensive theological training, church buildings and ordained leadership were factors limiting growth in the Church of England. Incidentally, putting out a press-release for this new initiative on the weekend of ordinations at the end of a pandemic was probably misjudged, and undeniably contributed to a growing feeling of disenfranchisement and a subsequent backing-away by bishops from this initiative.
I am calling the Save the Parish campaign a ‘heart cry’, a response which is giving voice to a growing and deeply emotional, intuitive and practical sense that something valuable and precious is being lost. I also want to suggest that Save the Parish is in some way a declaration of love for the church, and an articulation for some, of what it means to be Anglican.
The Ideal of the Parish
The ‘ideal’ of the parish has for centuries been a core concept of the Church of England. It is so deeply woven into Anglicanism that historically growth has come best when the idea of parish is renewed, reformed and re-invented. Many of the churches in urban areas were a result of a beautiful blend of localism, empowerment, and mission with Anglican ecclesiology, liturgy and doctrine. But parish is best understood as an ideal, a dream, an archetype, because each one is so different, and in each area and age it is constantly changing, with as many exceptions as rules.
But because parish as a concept of mission and church is contextualised, it will never truly ‘fit’ grand structures and strategies; every area, every congregation, has a unique story and it is the weird particularity which is precious and meaningful. Hopewell, the great congregational studies expert, said:
I have begun to see how astonishingly thick and meaning-laden is the actual life of a single local church. Many churches fail to tell their story. They are paralyzed in prosaic self-description that follows depressingly predictable lines. They evaluate themselves by counting money, membership and programs [Hopewell: 1987, pp. 3, 140.]
Parish has its roots in the ancient Minsters who were said to have ‘parochiae’ which are best understood as ‘spheres of influence of ministry’ rather than specifically geographic designations. The process of firming up these parochiae to specific locales took nearly three hundred years and appears to have solidified by the mid 1300s. During the Reformation, the parish was reinvented; the parish churches and congregations remained, but the liturgy and the institution became Reformed.
Failure and Change
Skip forward then into the crisis of the Eighteenth Century, with a population of this country largely disengaged with the Christian faith and local church, and this failure to engage people fundamentally challenged the parish ideal. The crisis of collapse in attendance in the Church of England stimulated two responses. The first was outdoor preaching with John Wesley declaring that ‘the world is my parish’ giving rise to Methodism, and the second was a church multiplication movement which remained within the parish system known as the Huntingdon Connection churches, a network of Anglican churches supported and funded under the patronage of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon.
A further major reinvention of the parish was a response to massive shifts in population in urban areas in the Nineteenth Century. The ideal of the parish had long-since become broken, for the reality was a largely failing mission, and out of touch Anglican churches. Small village churches now found themselves responsible for a portion of a metropolis or for an entire town. However, it took nearly a century for the necessary reforms within the Church of England and Parliament to finally meet the practical needs of population growth in neighbourhoods. 21 distinct Acts of Parliament were required through the first half of the nineteenth century until they finally arrived at the New Parishes Act of 1856, and further amendments in 1869.
The result was, what I call in my doctoral research, the ‘new parochialism’ which led to the most phenomenal fifty-year Anglican church-building frenzy that England has ever seen. This season was marked by strong lay involvement and localism, a very simple procedure for starting new churches, requiring a defined specific area of mission through service, and a specified sum of money to be raised, and one proposed ordained person for each church. The solution was to utterly reimagine the parish as a sphere of mission with a building, and at least 3,000 people in an area to minister to. Neighbourhoods like Camberwell had 11 Anglican churches and parishes carved out of the old village parish, to include the new airy suburbs of Nunhead and Peckham, alongside the numerous nonconformist congregations.
Having said all of this, it will not come as a great surprise to hear that I support church planting as an intrinsic part of Anglican ecclesiology and practice and I fear that some in Save the Parish may be mistaken by turning their ire on evangelicals and specifically on Anglican church planting—neither of which are enemies of the parish.
A New Crisis
Already under increasing strain, the parish system now finds itself in crisis again, the differentiation and localism is being undermined in the rural areas by unwieldy and potentially unleadable collections of parishes, and all over the nation by a demonstrable distance between members of the public and a lively Christian faith centred around a local church. Falling attendance amongst children, aging congregations and a global pandemic all have had an enormous toll.
The crisis is real and I do not think anyone is ignoring it, and yet we have reached an impasse between two ideals, two archetypes. In the red corner, the model of parish, with clear priest and people, purpose and place—comfortable with the happy weird mishmash of particularities, aims and intentions, and with local theological commitments but little defining strategy. And in the blue corner dioceses, bishops and the national institution, with centralised initiatives, staff and management designed to navigate the institution through these choppy waters. So now we have a new story: Parochialism versus Managerialism, and we urgently need a burst of new creativity to write the next chapter.
Save the Parish is a heart-cry, a late plea for life before deconstruction. The very jumble of theologies, financial approaches, emotion and opinions which we see is, in itself, a rejection of the values of the managerialism that has, depending on your opinion either infected or affected the Church of England in recent years. Ironically, many of the newer city centre ‘resource churches’ share with Save the Parish a radical commitment to local front line ministry with vicars and committed teams moving into previously derelict buildings with a vision to revitalise and grow Anglican worshipping congregations in specific neighbourhoods. Many of the frustrations articulated by Save the Parish are shared by clergy who are leading resource churches and church plants, so there may be a greater basis for unity in a shared rejection of diocesan forms of managerialism.
Three Managerial Changes
Three major changes have occurred which have fundamentally hamstrung the parishes, but unlike other changes in the last century, which were initiated bottom up, these have mostly been top-down, and at the behest of a new commitment to managerialism, mirrored in other public sectors, but which is now being critiqued fundamentally in those settings, such as academia.
The first managerial shift, which Save the Parish mentions, are the parish measures of the 1970s, under which all churches gave up their land, reserves and glebes and incomes in return for one balanced and universal payment package for the clergy. Stephen Trott called the Endowments and Glebe Measure of 1976 a failed experiment, and I think he is right. The intention was to replace the patchy historic stipends whose uneven spread and value did not sit well with the quest for modernisation. Parishes in living memory were promised they would never have to pay for their clergy again, and centralised management would end their woes when they handed over their assets.
But the financial model and the financial contract failed, as they did with many other public sector industries, and instead of giving the assets (held in trust) back to local churches, the diocesan boards held on to the glebe lands and started needing to raise more money from the parishes to meet their obligations and this gave birth to the quota system. Fully independent charities freely give a “voluntary” gift to centralised funds, in return for which the priests get to keep a pension and a stipend. The pressure brought to bear on the PCC by Diocesan Boards is the threat of losing their vicar: parishes pay up, and vicars are commended for maintaining an attitude of institutional compliance.
There is no lack of commitment to giving in order to support poorer parishes, but now even if you do pay, you might lose your vicar anyway, especially in a rural area. Each diocese tries to counteract this by coming up with their own arbitrary algorithm to persuade parishes to decide their own taxes. However, now, as decline occurs, local communities have no levers to pull, no ‘agency’ and decisions are being made over their churches whether they like it or not. And they are saying that they don’t like it. I have lost count of the times that deaneries are given the ‘choice’ of which posts to lose. It is like asking someone which leg they would like to have cut off. It is a hot mess—and has been a cause of much tension since the late 1990s which is when the financial model failed. In recent years, as Dioceses have taken time to ‘cut posts’ and ‘amalgamate the parishes’ they have done so with no apology, and no handing back of control.
I have on several occasions had chances to help advise lay leaders in villages on how they could respond to a local church financial crisis—a lack of vicar, a church roof collapse. In three villages there was the money available to pay the full stipend and pension, and to repair the church, but a decision had been made by a DBF to remove the vicar, and use the vicarage for a new centralised post. This has happened in my direct knowledge, in three unrelated incidents, in Wiltshire, Surrey and Oxfordshire—so to be clear in three different dioceses. Lay leaders, church wardens in these cases, were happy to face the facts, but were not allowed to solve the problem as they saw fit. In all three situations, it was made clear to them by either an archdeacon or a bishop that it was not their place to decide on how to use the assets of their village or save their parish. In all instances, the posts are gone forever even though the communities had both the desire and capacity to solve the problem locally.
The Loss of Freehold and making of Trustees
The second major managerial change was the loss of the living, or the freehold in 2005 and its replacement with Common Tenure by 2011. The argument given at the time was that this change was needed—but when this was debated at diocesan synods it was made clear that this was designed to equalise the rights of all assistant clergy. But once again, this change was not made at the request of parishes, and it removed the security of tenure for clergy and the rights of parishes. Moreover, the freehold balanced out the power of the bishops, who couldn’t easily remove or discipline clergy except with serious grounds and with expensive ecclesiastical law cases. Common Tenure then went hand in hand with new guidelines and discipline measures for the clergy. The CDM has been an unmitigated disaster, demoralising all who go through it, regardless of whether they are cleared or not (and the vast majority are cleared) yet 40% have contemplated suicide. This managerial experiment of repackaging the living is clearly traumatising and the costs are enormously high.
The third major managerial change occurred in 2011, requiring all PCCs to register with the Charity Commission, making all members of the PCC personally into trustees, adding new burdens of governance onto volunteers, and making churches more risk averse, but without changing any of the voting and selection patterns, and thereby layering this new obligation on top of pre-existing legislation from 1956 and 1969. (They have been charities for a long time, but were a ‘body corporate’, that is, considered as if they were a person with agency collectively not individually. The guidance was updated in 2017). The impact of this change on local churches cannot be underestimated, both for administration and capacity.
With regards to administration of the parish: along with the changes to common tenure, PCCs as charities under the Charity Commission now have confused relationships of loyalty including that of clergy to parish, and of the PCCs to the Diocesan Boards of Finance. Though clergy remain bound with promises to bishops, they are simultaneously more clearly obligated by charity law to seek the best interests of the local parishes of which they are trustees. As a trustee of the parish, a vicar now faces a potential conflict of interest between the local interests of the parish and charity best practise, and the political power of the diocese, which has no legal standing within the individual parish charity, but does have authorising power personally over the vicar’s ministry.
The second impact of the change in charity status is one of capacity: the demands of trusteeship may lie beyond the scope of several local churches if we assume that all PCC members must be individual trustees. Several of us have experience as vicars in the inner-city, or other more challenging parts of the country, juggling the acute needs of our community and working to raise up leaders in the local church. Must all these local leaders also become individual charity trustees in order to have spiritual leadership and for the parish to be viable?
Must a diverse and young community in a more deprived area or a remote rural community also try to find a dozen with experience of charity law, accounting and finance, who also have time on their hands to handle HR problems, buildings and parish share; grieving with the dying, burying the dead, marrying the hopeful, and grow the ministry whilst also recovering from the pandemic as well as doing incredible children’s work, and maintaining GDPR protocols and growing through conversion as part of a mission plan? Oh yes—and if the vicars drop a ball in any of this can they expect pastoral support and intercession from the Bishop, or will it be a terse email and a summons, or even a CDM?
‘Enough is enough!’
Hear the cry from the pews and the pulpits…enough is enough! I have lost track of church leaders reaching out over the last few weeks to confess that they have never been more demoralised and exhausted; while they still believe in their call, and the call to pastor and care for others, and honour God to the best of their ability, they are hanging by very thin threads. Whether you are running a fresh expression or a traditional parish, the distress is real.
The intrusion of central bodies into the day-to-day independence of local churches has increased beyond measure over the last decade, and post-pandemic, I believe as clergy rightly contemplate moving forward with their churches and congregations, and realise the hugely hard task ahead of them, they want pastoral care and active support, or if they cannot have this, to be left alone to solve their own challenges on the ground. Church leaders have lacked pastors because their pastors, according to the ordinal, the Bishops, have often become managers, and are now caught up in the remote business of trying to manage institutional resources in a climate of decline.
Traumatised people, who have often suffered from a loss of agency, will look for routes forward which are safe, and which allow them to ‘be themselves’ and live out of their core values—a love of God, and a love of neighbour in an actual place with actual people. Whether this is a form of new monasticism or a parish, a country town or city centre resource church—where all of these responses to the crisis all coalesce is in a resounding rejection of managerialism. In this there is an unlikely unity, even if in all other things there is diversity. Could I be so bold as to suggest that ‘if you have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ several idiosyncratic prophetic voices are articulating a heart cry.
‘We are here, we are here…’
It is like the moment, if you have ever been treated to watching or listening to Dr Seuss’s Horton hears a Who when the kindly elephant suddenly realises he can hear a shout from the top of the speck: “we are here, we are here”. Horton the Elephant becomes the one who realises that an entire tiny civilisation may be destroyed. The residents of Whoville shout because they fear that they may overlooked, and they are waiting for an apology and for someone to say ‘I am listening, I hear you.’
At the beginning of my ministry, as a young vicar in the inner-city, my bishop was acutely aware of me, my parish, my family and the needs of our church and neighbourhood. He rang me regularly to ask how I was, he found practical ways of supporting and encouraging us, visited the church, and if you don’t mind me saying so, it felt like he gave a damn.
I know there are many Bishops who know their parishes and clergy and who practically contribute to mission on the front line, and have found a way to be human with those entrusted to their care. To all of you—thank you, and please don’t be discouraged. Maybe at least part of the pathway to flourishing is to recapture a love for the clergy and parishes in the frontline of the Church of England. There is almost certainly legislation that needs to be changed that will dial back the failures of the past and help us regain our morale and energy for service and growth, but most of all, it is time to listen.
So yes, let’s listen to Save the Parish and to those who want to plant more churches.
Rev Canon Dr Frog Orr-Ewing is Fellow-in-Mission at University of Winchester, Honorary Canon Theologian of Winchester Cathedral, and Founder of Latimer Minster. He is married to Amy, a well-known speaker and writer on apologetics.