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Back to Basics on Rural Ministry?

Ezekiel 37.1-14

We are probably all agreed that the parish model of ministry in rural areas is showing signs of mettle fatigue.  The recent Westminster Faith Debates chaired by Professor Linda Woodhead on the future of the parish system reinforce this view. If you have not already heard the introductory speeches and later comments from the audience, you can listen here:

My head is spinning from the many analyses of the problem, and the many possible solutions – some of which are mutually exclusive.

I propose that we start again – theoretically, not of course literally – from the beginning.


What is the point of the Church?

As individual Christians, we are enjoined (a) to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, our souls and our minds and (b) to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Churches provide places where we can do so collectively, worshipping God and attempting to love our neighbours. The word parish (paroichia) is said by Professor Woodhead to mean neighbourhood.*

The Church of England duly divided the land into parishes and provided parish churches, of which there are now about 16,000. What might be called the George Herbert model was the norm for several hundred years, which coincided with the height of the Church’s influence, popularity and hence wealth.

We were not unique in our perception that this was the way to organise collective worship and for religious institutions  to thrive.


Jewish law

Observant Jews are required to live within walking distance of their synagogue. (And Islam requires its adherents to live within earshot of the call to prayer from a mosque). The idea behind this (apart from sabbath observance) is community – if you attend synagogue with a group of people who all live in your neighbourhood, you are likely also to send your children to the same schools, shop in the same shops and so on. Jews are also required to live in a place with at least ten adult Jewish men before whom the Kaddish prayer can be recited at the time of a burial, in other words they must not allow themselves to be so scattered in diaspora as not to live in community.

Maybe Judaism has a point? Who understands better how to keep together a religious and a social community in the face of fissiparous pressures? For after all, isn’t that what we are talking about – keeping together a group of people who worship together and serve the community together.


Is the Church there to serve the people or the people there to serve the Church?

If you substitute ‘God’ for ‘Church’, it may be reasonable to say that the people are there to serve God, God is not there to serve the people. But somehow, perhaps partly because the priest was an authority figure in his parish, probably one of the few who could read and write, the Church of England seems to have come to believe, whether or not they admitted it, that the people exist in order to serve the Church. Occasionally, with no apparent sense of irony, brocaded bishops will assume postures of humility and servanthood, but these are symbolic, not real. Many of us have encountered bishops who clearly believe that parishes and parishioners are there to serve the diocese, not the reverse. This is an excellent way to begin the process of losing churchgoers.

You may like to see my previous blog post, ‘Who is the Church of England for?


The False Oasis of the Minster Model

In  ‘The State of the Church and the Church of the State’, (pp 151-153), Bishop Michael Turnbull and the Revd Donald McFadyen describe the model thus:

…a group of priests, some stipendiary and some self-supporting, and lay people serving one unit which has a number of local churches, where regular worship is maintained but a central set of administrative and teaching facilities catering for different age groups and particular needs…each…would be given the opportunity to develop their own specialist ministry for the benefit of the whole locality…it is the most practical and coherent way of discharging the Church’s mission of pastoral care and evangelism to the nation. The rites of birth, marriage and death…in one of the churches in the ‘parish‘, perhaps with particularly attractive features, could be designated as ‘the wedding church’.

This does seem to give the game away – instead of being able to be baptised, married and buried in one’s own parish church, you would have to go to the Minster or other designated church for anything other than a normal weekly service. There is talk of pastoral work being centrally organised.


Involvement by the Laity

I suggest that mega-benefices can work, provided that resident non-stipendiary clergy and lay worship leaders provide a solid background of services in every church every week (but not necessarily communion services). The benefice priest would be peripatetic, but at a less frenetic pace, taking services in each church from time to time, preaching at other services and generally offering  spiritual leadership and galvanising energies for mission.


Because of extraordinary circumstances, I have been a parishioner during no less than four inter-regnums during the last 15 years. In each case, church life carried on perfectly smoothly as normal, using the non-stipendiary resident clergy and lay worship leaders. BUT we were heartily relieved on each occasion to welcome the priest when he was finally appointed. Mostly, we had missed someone to set the tone, a sense of overall direction, and an energy.


I think that if we are truly prepared to work on the basis that together we all make up the Body of Christ, each with our talents and uses, then together we can work for the Kingdom, while allowing for (and capitalising on) a strong sense of local identity.

*Though if you Google ‘paroichia’ you will find a bewildering variety of meanings, including the statement that at one stage it was interchangeable with the word for diocese.

2 comments on this post:

Lay Anglicana said...

I’m commenting myself, simply to say that the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy has responded to the Westminster Debates and the subject of the parish system with a great deal more erudition in a ‘must read’ post here

26 October 2014 08:54
Hugh Valentine said...

Hello Laura. Your thoughtful post deserves some response. Maybe others, like me, are quietly thinking over this broad question about the state of the church of/in England. I find it difficult to reach a settled view and I am grateful that the theme is being explored in various settings. I still suspect that some unintended infantilization of the laity is one factor. This is more than just the effect of unconscious (sometimes conscious) clericalism. In the realm of the ‘spiritual’ too many people seem to want others to give them answers. Often these are people who in other spheres exhibit independent thought and considerable gifts. I realise that this trend has a very long history to it and will not be easily reversed. But as to your question about the point of the church. Answers vary no doubt, not least on how ‘the church’ as a term is being used. We nearly always mean by that the institution, not the mystical, unleashed body of the faithful alive in the world.

As I say, I am busy considering this question and doubt I shall have any enlightening conclusions to share. But here are some of the elements I suspect have to be included as we seek to know how we are to act. One is that the church needs, I think, less theology and fewer ‘theologians’ and more praxis: living out the consequences of the injunction you quote about loving God and our neighbours as ourselves. Material acts of mercy in other words, in this material world of ours. That’s not meant to mean helping in Foodbanks or the like (necessary though that kind of thing is) but rather something about our entire, serious engagement with the world through our work, activities and use of time. Another is the strange fetish in church circles about ‘leadership’. When will this end? I get a feeling that what is needed is some fresh and far-reaching democratisation of the church.

09 November 2014 19:57

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