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Cells, the Body of Christ and the Church of England

Ten-Cells and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution

In the letter to Bishop Justin Welby, I referred to the ‘Ten Cell’ system in Tanzania. Today I thought we might look at the possible implications for governance and pastoral care in the Church of England of this system.

First, a brief description of how it works. I imagine Tanzania got the idea from Cuba, with its ‘committees for the defence of the revolution‘ – also exported to  Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador. It may have originally been Marxist-Leninist (or, more likely, Stalinist or Maoist) but it has been used as the basic building blocks of the secret police in all these countries. The Cuban CDRs are described as follows by the Cuban government (my bold type):

Eighty per cent of Cubans over the age of 14 are members of their local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – a committee composed of members of about 60 households living in a district or area. CDRs are found in every neighbourhood throughout the country. They are responsible for a variety of aspects of the life of the neighbourhood, from civil defence… collecting waste for recycling and social events to voluntary work and discussing proposals of new laws from central government.

Francisca Diaz says:

“we do a wide range of work,” mentioning vaccination campaigns, blood banks, recycling, practicing evacuations for hurricanes, and backing up the government in its fight against corruption. On her list of 110 neighbours, she knows everyone personally, and has their names, addresses and occupation data.

As you might imagine, the CDRs are not universally popular amongst Cubans. This is what the blogger Yoanni Sanchez writes in the Huffington Post:

I learned that within the doors bearing the alarming slogan, “Always Vigilant,” lived the most adroit editors of reports to denounce other neighbors. I also knew those who, because of a false report–a stroke of the pen from the committee president–lost a promotion, a trip, or the chance to have a new home. I even knew someone who wore the title, “Vice President of the CDR,” who was also the biggest criminal in the neighborhood.

What does this have to do with the Church of England?

I am not of course suggesting that the Church of England should remodel its governance on totalitarian lines, with spies on every corner to tell the nearest priest every time one of the ten commandments is broken by a neighbour. But amongst all the dross, and accretions that have grown up around it, there is a kernel of truth about human nature in the middle of this idea. I think there are two different but related ways in which the Church might reconsider its future in the light of this insight. (The Neighbourhood Watch scheme, which bears some similarities – surely unconscious! – to the CDRs does not have a pre-defined geographical size of unit).

Pastoral Care

I think that the Church could do worse than follow the example of the CDR in setting up lay pastoral workers – or at least the eyes and ears of the priest – in parishes. There is a delicate balance between neighbourhood care and a snoopers’ charter, but it should not be beyond the wit of the Church to achieve that balance.

What is a Worshipping Cell?

I apologise for this horrible expression, but cannot at the moment think of a better one. A ‘worshipping cell’ in the Church of England has, historically,  been a parish, with its parish church (and occasionally dependent chapel) and parish priest. The interlocking network of parishes covered the whole of the country and every individual in it. Since ‘that’ book, we tend to think of this as the George Herbert model.

First gradually, and then with increasing rapidity, this model has broken down because the Church can no longer afford to provide a priest in every parish. Where I live one priest covered two parishes in the 1970s. Then in the 1980s two lots of two were combined to form a benefice. Now this benefice of four is to join two others to form one huge benefice of 10 parishes.

If you are a bishop, this obviously makes for administrative convenience –  many fewer priests to deal with. But can a benefice of ten parishes, with ten parish churches, really become a single worshipping cell? I suggest not. The Church of England chattering classes are much given to decrying the unwillingness of parish congregations to drive even a few miles to the adjoining parish in the same benefice for services. For example, in our existing 4-parish benefice, the 5th Sunday in the month (ie four times a year) is a service for the benefice as a whole in each of the parish churches in turn. This does not really work in practice: of a normal congregation of 30, perhaps 5 are prepared to travel to the neighbouring parish for a service. The remaining 25 regard it as a day off worship.

Just for a moment, instead of criticising the members of the congregation who vote with their feet (by refusing to budge) I think it behoves us to consider whether something else is going on.

Why do people go to church?

Private prayer and worship is of course possible. Thanks to the internet, we can worship online through, say, the London Internet Church, from the comfort of our own homes. But people go to church, surely, because they do understand and feel that they are part of the Body of Christ. They need to worship in community, together with their neighbours. They need to have a word with Mrs Jones to see if her bunions are any better, and with Mr Smith to see if his daughter has safely returned from her gap year and so on and so on. They are ‘members one of another’.  Someone in the congregation where I now worship asked me to do something for her in the village where I live. I hesitated for a moment, and this person quickly told me ‘surely it is your Christian duty’. Before I had a chance to respond to this (just as well!) she added that her Christian duty ended at the boundaries of her own parish. Now this may be wrong, but it is also intensely human.

Shouldn’t the Church work with human nature rather than against it?

We are now back on familiar territory. Because of the parish communion movement, the rules stipulate that there shall be celebration of the eucharist in every parish ever Sunday. As there is no longer a priest in every parish, this is impracticable. Some churches therefore have services only occasionally. Congregations do not move from church to church as the Church would like them to, but continue to attend services when offered in their own parish church. Weekly worshippers become monthly worshippers.

If the Church could be persuaded to revert to the status quo ante, services of the word (which could be taken by lay people) could form the bread and butter of worship, with services of eucharist offered as often as practicable by a priest (either the priest in charge, or a self-supporting minister or a neighbouring priest on ‘the list’ called in – and paid – for the purpose).


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