The Rev’d Dr James Hadley finds the bishops’ protestations that there is no central plan to do away with the parish system disingenuous. Soft power, stealth, patronage and spin, allied with episcopal groupthink and the control of cash is just as powerful as a synodically agreed central policy.
In March, when the Government suspended public worship in the first stages of the COVID pandemic, the House of Bishops went beyond the requirements of secular COVID law in their instructions to the clergy. Priests were told not even to enter their churches, even though government legislation specifically allowed it under certain circumstances. We clergy followed in lockstep.
The crisis of the moment, and our right concern to do our part and be responsible, overrode the fact that there is actually remarkably little central ecclesial authority that can order the suspension of worship in parish churches. We all forgot that dispersed authority in the Church of England means that, civil law notwithstanding, only incumbents, churchwardens and PCCs can order the cessation of public worship and lock the doors of the local church building. But in the fog of the war against COVID we all fell into line.
An important lesson was learned. Just because something isn’t technically the case, or explicitly permitted, doesn’t mean that it is not proposed, planned for, and accomplished.
‘Soft influence’, stealth tactics and spin can frequently have the same, if not greater, effect as ‘hard power’ and law. Just ask those in the diplomatic corps. Bureaucratic negotiation, fake news, financial influence and cultural capital in the hands of a skilled manipulator can sometimes be just as effective as the power wielded by a dictator. Indeed the former is often more seductive, sweet, and felt by many politicians to be preferable to the latter.
I am convinced that the same dynamic is currently unfolding in the Church of England. A number of commentators and journalists have warned in the past weeks that the parish structure of our Church is under threat by ecclesial self-sabotage, managerialism, and the long running crisis of British Christian faith. A number of bishops have come out swinging to the contrary. Yet one senses a sleight of hand at play in their response.
The bishops protest that no national plan exists to close parishes in favour of allegedly flexible, building-free, church plants and new worshipping communities. But read between the lines. One has to admit that, technically speaking, central mechanisms to enforce such an idea do not exist in a synodal church with immense control devolved to dioceses. And yet, I return to the premise that just because something isn’t technically the case, or explicitly permitted, doesn’t mean that it is not proposed, planned for, and accomplished.
No, there may not be a centralized national blueprint calling for the consolidation, and/or elimination of the parish system. But that does not mean the intent and mechanisms to do so are not afoot in print, purpose, or personality.
One need only read Renewal and Reform or browse the corresponding webpage to see the writing on the wall. What exactly is described there as the Goliath we must reform? Answer: The parish structure. We must all be fresh and edgy, because for decades, we are told, the Church has not been.
The crucial point is this. Contrary to the protestations of certain bishops and others, two dynamics are clearly at play that enable the dismantling of the parish structure top to bottom.
(1) Bishop Groupthink. It doesn’t require synod to pass anything. If the managerial class of bishops agree individually that something should happen, as a collective they will try to make it happen in their respective dioceses. This is the obvious goal of the appointments process in the Church of England. Want to see something happen? Appoint the corresponding personnel.
(2) Cash flow. It doesn’t require an act of parliament or synodical measure to do away with the parochial system. The Church Commissioners’ money is regularly diverted to church plant experiments and away from “underperforming” parishes. The financial pressure leveraged against dioceses makes for a real ecclesial agenda in which parochial ministry receives less funding, whether this is spoken or not.
Protestations that something is not happening to our churches ring rather hollow. We on the ground are seeing the signs of it. We are watching it happen. But we cannot manage our way out of post-Christian unbelief. We must support a mechanism of engagement – and that is a parish in every locale, and a well-trained priest in every parish.
The Rev’d Dr James Hadley is Curate of the Parish of Harpenden. His academic interests include liturgical and sacramental theology, and religious art.