Set God’s People Free

Charlotte Gauthier highlights the crucial role that parish churches play in forming communities that transcend the usual social boundaries of age, class, education, and nationality, and argues that a focus on organic, parish-based growth will create flourishing communities.

Scene: the pub just opposite the churchyard, Sunday afternoon. Twelve people aged between 23 and 88 sit around two tables, sharing a drink in joyful fellowship. The eldest speaks of her friends that have died – five in the last six months – and how the church community has helped her cope with her grief and isolation. The youngest is grateful for the help she’s received in looking for an internship. Two immigrants sit opposite each other, speaking about the home (and, God willing, the vocation), they’ve found in the Church – and, specifically, in the particular church they can see through the open pub door.

We – for the scene above is from my Sunday afternoon – had just come from hearing an intelligent sermon given by an ordinand presently undergoing a long, costly, college-based education, preached in a church that has seen 900 years of parishioners of every class, race, and nation come through its doors. As one of those gathered said, we would never have found each other but for that place. We are too unlike each other to travel in the same social circles, and yet, through the magic of a parish church, we have met and melded, forming into a community of love, trust, and mutual support. The very fact that we are so unlike each other and yet find ourselves together has been one of God’s means of grace to each of us. He has chosen us, and chosen us for each other.

Such all-age fellowship is not a vision of the future. It is happening now, every Sunday, in our parishes. And it is under threat.

The details of the latest in a long line of threats are now too well-known to need rehearsing. Canon McGinley’s recent comments about church buildings and priests, with their stipends and theological educations, as ‘key limiting factors’ have been heaped with opprobrium from every quarter. Any faithful, thinking person can identify the objections, and many have. 

In the rush to point out McGinley’s contempt for ancient church buildings and well-trained priests, however, many have missed the contempt for laypeople his words betray. This is not just about deriding those who need the Church’s help as ‘passengers’ or the implication that laypeople do not deserve well-trained clergy or beautiful worship spaces. No: in dissecting the content of McGinley’s words we have missed the form – that this plan is simply one more instance of clergy telling laypeople what they ought to want, under the guise of setting them free.

Few laypeople can be under any illusion about such proposals: we are being told that we should want to do – untrained and unpaid – the work of clergy. This is hardly ‘freedom’: it is a recipe for burnout, for lapses in safeguarding, and ultimately for decline. Our energy, our goodwill, and our relationship with the Divine is to be fed into the fire to fuel clerical vanity projects.

And it goes without saying that such schemes won’t work.

The most salient fact about the group in the pub mentioned above – or the support group that one of the Churchwardens set up for lonely parishioners during the darkest days of lockdown, or the Bible study some of us hold every second Thursday by Zoom – is that these groups formed organically under the aegis of the parish church. Over months or years, we drifted into church from many different paths and for many different reasons, slowly forming a relationship with God and relationships with our fellow parishioners. Priests acted as a catalyst – introducing us by means of confirmation classes or Lent courses – and out of that mutual work and care came the fruit of these groups. Rather than being miniature sects of the like-minded, where everyone knew everyone else before the group formed or invited only their friends, our organically formed groups represent God’s people in all their glorious diversity.

Starving parish churches of money while lavishing SDF funds on forcing lay-led ‘worshipping communities’ to form rapidly and inorganically is a recipe for killing both the parish church and the lay-led communities. Such misguided attempts are the ultimate seeking after second things while ignoring the First Things that make them possible.

If McGinley and others want 10,000 lay-led communities to form, they should be lining up to resource parishes. Free parish priests from spending their time on fundraising so that they can run formation activities among current parishioners and mission and outreach activities to draw in new ones. Fix the church buildings so they can house communities both new and established. Offer training – yes, even ‘long, costly, college-based training’ – to priests so that they will be equipped to address the questions of thinking people and draw them into the knowledge and love of God. And yes, offer more theological and pastoral training to interested laypeople so that they can minister under the aegis of the parish, with supervision and safeguarding practices in place.

None of this happens overnight – or indeed in 10 years. Organic growth is slow, but it is beautiful and durable. Old vines make many of the most prized wines, after all.

Charlotte Gauthier is a historian whose research focuses on late-medieval conceptions of ‘Christendom’ and the effect of the crusades on church, state and society in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England.

3 thoughts on “Set God’s People Free

  1. Many thanks for this.

    “Starving parish churches of money while lavishing SDF funds on forcing lay-led ‘worshipping communities’ to form rapidly and inorganically is a recipe for killing both the parish church and the lay-led communities.”

    Prior to 1 January 1998 the Church Commissioners covered just under half of the national stipends bill and all of the pension accruals. Since then it abdicated both and the liability passed to the parish share system. The Commissioners had assets of £2.6 billion in 1998; they now have in excess of £9.3 billion.

    What fund could have failed to enjoy rapid growth when it has been relieved of its main overheads for 23 years? The growth is not only due to the Commissioners’ perception of its unique investment skills, as of the implicit regressive subsidy of the Commissioners by the parishes.

    So, if central funds are to be spent on nurturing lay led worshipping communities that risk subverting parish churches, it should be noted that the Commissioners would be spending money which has been appropriated from the parishes (often under threat of losing clergy or closure if the parish share is not paid) in order to fund mission that will risk killing the parish churches that have put up the money in the first place. Is that not adding grotesque injury to gross insult?

    The parish share system already risks killing off churches: churches must die so that the clergy who have served them might live (i.e., so that DBFs can accrue for pensions in what is still a final salary scheme). For example, I have been looking at the draft pastoral scheme for the closure of Sturmer church in north-west Essex (Grade I). The proximate cause of the closure is a problem with the roof. It was thought that HLF funding would be available if the parish was able to meet half of the £35,000 bill. Attempts were made to raise money, but they were effectively crushed by the prioritisation of parish share subventions. The parish could easily have attained that 50% target but for the parish share. Remember, that since 1976-78 DBFs have already appropriated glebe and parochial endowments. This further compounds the insult, and in the case of Sturmer a building that has been extant and a witness to the faith for more than a millennium, and which has been funded by past taxation (compulsory church rate and tithe) and charitable contributions, is likely to be closed, essentially so that the Church Commissioners can accrue still more.

    In addition, there is a direct conflict of interest on the part of the bishops. They are ex officio commissioners, and therefore have a fiduciary obligation to advance the financial interests of the Church Commissioners, yet that is in conflict with their moral and pastoral obligations (such as they exist) to their own dioceses, and more especially to their own parishes.

    People often complain about the opacity of Church finance. I suspect that the authorities have every interest in ensuring that Church finance is not understood by the rank and file.

    I would be far less antipathetic to the McGinley proposals, and like schemes, if the Church was not also being so complacent and/or opportunistic about its buildings.

    Liked by 1 person

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