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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).


7 comments on this post:

minidvr said...

It’s an interesting paradox that the larger the benefice, the fewer the number of people who feel a loyalty to the whole benefice. The Tribal system is alive and strong in the parish system.

In my own benefice, I am the only lay worker (except the Reader) who has a title that describes a role across the whole benefice (Benefice Treasurer) and (Benefice Missioner). In addition, on the Benefice Council I am the only member who does not represent a single parish. Nominally on the electoral role of one church, my ministry takes me to each church on occasion as required.

As I don’t have tribal commitment to one church (I live outside the parish boundaries) I travel to any church where I have a role to play. In my view, it gives me a sense of freedom and allows me to remain neutral among the inevitable politics that 5 parishes can cause. On occasion, I’ve been described as ‘The Vicar’s hitman’ which I found funny and offensive at the same time.

But being able to take a wider view, without getting bogged down with individual church concerns seems to me to be a desirable way of belonging. And, of course, it allows a certain amount of leeway in what I actually get to do.

In terms of Pastoral Care I get to see the individual pastoral care teams (if you can call the church wardens and one or two concerned individuals that) work through issues that arise. And surprisingly, they are quite effective. Our ‘Intelligence’ network via the Vicar seems to work pretty well to allow very few to fall through the net.

I suspect that the only limitation to my ministry is that I don’t get to know members of individual parishes as well as the Reader, Vicar or Curate do, because I’m relatively at arms length. This can be a draw back, but it also allows people to speak to me about issues that they might not care to speak to the Vicar directly about.

Our problems will doubtless multiply when another Benefice joins ours and we have 9 churches – but we are trying to work through likely issues via an all parish working group – which is allowing me to get to know people from the new Benefice, while they also get to know me. It’s not ideal, it will be a geographic area which was formerly a Deanery in it’s own right. Now, two of our deaneries are being merged, with more, consequential complications that are certain to arise working with a whole new Deanery Synod, while individual parish representation at Deanery and Diocesan Synod will be reduced.

I don’t have any answers, just hope that a new Vicar when they arrive, has the experience, breadth of vision and courage to take on the challenges that we face to unite us together in ministry and service to the communities that we represent.

John said...

You know the Marxist 10 cell system replicated the church Deanery system… by accident or design? 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

I like this, but maybe you could ‘unpack’ it a little?!

John said...

It is obscure and uncertain but here are the basics
Go Google! LOL

08 February 2013 22:22
29 January 2013 20:55
29 January 2013 19:25
Lay Anglicana said...

This is very interesting, and a model which I have not seen in action, but can imagine works quite well. You are a sort of flying bishop! Seriously, not owing allegiance to any one parish church within the benefice does indeed put you in a unique position and it is good to see that the Church has been able to make use of this (as I said elsewhere, in our deanery the Bishop of Basingstoke has just ruled that lay worship leaders may not take services throughout the benefice, but must stick to their own parishes and not stick their noses above the parapet. Well, the last bit is admittedly my own expression, but it does seem a pity that the Church cannot come up with a system which applies throughout the Church.)

29 January 2013 21:00
29 January 2013 19:12
Matthew Caminer said...

I like the direction in which you are going, Laura, but here’s a thing…. Given that there are few impediments to people unlocking the church door and meeting inside, and given that it is not actually that hard for lay people to be authorised to lead a Service of the Word, I wonder what is stopping that actually happening in the weeks between services led by a Priest, Reader etc. Yes, the establishment could certainly oil the wheels for this to happen, but as in much else, it still depends on appropriate people stepping forward. And, at the risk of being mischievous, it may also be that the person in the pew doesn’t always feel it is a ‘proper’ service if it isn’t led by an ordained person…. so perhaps the quarrel is as much at the grass roots as with whichever organisational paradigm is in place.

Lay Anglicana said...

Sorry for the delay in replying to you, Matthew. I am still thinking of an answer! Here is the best I can do at present:

To begin with the end, yes I don’t think it is mischievous at all to say that the congregation would prefer all their services to be led by a priest, just as they do not consider they have had a ‘proper’ pastoral visit if it is not by someone ordained. This is a hangover from the George Herbert era, to use shorthand. I am all in favour of priests taking all services, and visiting everyone who is sick in their own home or in hospital/hospice. However, I am also in favour of making the best use of the clerical talent available, and requiring them to pack 36 hours of work into 24 is unreasonable, as I’m sure your wife would agree. Therefore the congregation/PCC needs to work with the available priests to work out a reasonable distribution of responsibilities – hence ‘to each according to his abilities’. Part of the work of the PCC/churchwardens etc is to educate the parishioners – if they are able to pay for extra priests, let them do so. Otherwise, they need to accept that some things previously done by priests need to be done by the laity, with whatever training is necessary.

To go back to your beginning, however, I think we live on different planets, or at least in different clerical worlds. The first impediment to ‘unlocking the [church] door and meeting inside‘ is that the authority of the priest in charge is needed for this to happen. When I recently gave a talk to a group in church about the history – at the request of the church warden – I had a furious email from our priest complaining that I had not sought prior approval from him.

not actually that hard for lay people to be authorised to lead a Service of the Word‘ – again, this depends on the attitude of the bishop in question and action by the incumbent and PCC. For example, in Winchester Diocese, Andover is the only deanery where the Bishop is authorised by the Bishop of Winchester to commission lay people to lead services (as opposed to Readers etc, who are licensed by a bishop). People have to be proposed by the incumbent/PCC. I think this is quite a lot of hoops, and impossible if you do not live in our deanery. Oxford is different, and as there is no national policy, every other diocese is different from this and different from each other as well.

I have no quarrel with the grass roots, I am merely asking the Church to work out what it is trying to achieve, and then put the mechanics in place for meeting that requirement. Simple!

09 February 2013 11:56
29 January 2013 21:52

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