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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.

Power Grab or Pastoral Measure?

Fr Christopher Johnson asks important questions about proposed changes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure. He questions why so much power is being placed in the hands of diocesan machineries, and whether it is right that ‘dioceses’ themselves are driving this change.

We have had over a year now of the Church of England making quite a considerable effort to close churches.

My latest encounter with this came last week in the form of a discussion with the Church Commissioners in the context of a Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee meeting. The meeting itself was excellent: there was a positive contribution about church buildings from the Church Buildings Council, and a great introduction to the legal processes by the home team, amongst other things. But then there was a presentation of a document proposing changes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure, GS 2222 (as it now is).

GS 2222 starts off surprisingly well. In the first chapter we read that ‘Virtually everybody living in England is a parishioner, and as such they are entitled to the ministrations of the Church, and the priest with the cure of souls has a corresponding duty to minister to the people’. 

It substantiates this by reference to The Archbishop’s Committee on Church and State (1916), noting that ‘The incumbent has from early times been under obligation to baptise infants, to admit parishioners… to Holy Communion, to solemnize their marriages, to visit their sick, and to bury the dead dying within the district in the churchyard or other parochial cemetery. Parishioners have a legal right to demand from their parson these and all other ministrations belonging to the cure of souls’. What a beautifully balanced statement of rights and responsibilities this is: people and parsons, being the Church of England, worshipping God, serving the nation.

But as we move away from statements about our historic context, another actor comes into the scene: ‘the Diocese’. There are 98 references to ‘the diocese’ or ‘dioceses’ in the document, and it is interesting to see what this hitherto historically minor character has to say.

To begin with, we learn that it was discussion with ‘dioceses’ which prompted this review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure. Then we learn that, having prompted the review, it is ‘dioceses’ which have so far been consulted about it, especially through ‘Diocesan Secretaries, Archdeacons, Pastoral Secretaries and their Closed Church and property officers’, who believe they should have more autonomy.

This desire of ‘dioceses’ manifests itself in the proposals. Hence we are asked periodically whether ‘Dioceses need more powers’ and ‘responsibilities could be moved to dioceses’. ‘Dioceses’ would also make decisions about the need to consult people like the wider deanery, the PCC, the parishioners, the public, and parish patrons. In the longer-term changes proposed – notice this shift in power is gradual – the question is asked whether the ‘diocese’ should decide ‘who has the rights to be involved in the consultation and where there would be no rights of representations’ at all.

These proposals would enable dioceses far more easily to take an axe to the present parish system. Indeed, we are told ‘many dioceses’ are ‘completing reviews’ of pastoral organisation, 26 are planning church closures within the next 2-5 years, 5 of those are planning up to 40 church closures each, and 4, we are informed, ‘were thinking about shutting 152 churches over the medium term (5 years), which would represent a significant increase on recent trends.’ The authors add, ‘It was also likely that dioceses would want to close many more churches if the funding arrangements and processes were different.’

And what in place of the parish? Well, some dioceses are moving towards a ‘super-benefice or super-parish type model, whilst others are moving towards a deanery structure with paid Deanery administrators’ – that is despite evidence in the report itself which highlights that this model has not worked well in Wales. Or then there are these 10,000 new house churches – but others are addressing the assault on the national Church posed by those.

The authors of this report consider it their job to propose changes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure so that dioceses can make the arrangements they need. They want to ‘help dioceses’. But I ask: who is ‘the Diocese’? Is it the bishop? Is it the diocesan bureaucracy? Is it the diocesan synod?

And what about the people and parsons of England? Or the parish patrons? – our speaker at the diocesan meeting I mentioned earlier was surprised to hear that I felt she should consult them. Or even churchwardens and area deans, sequestrators and others?

There is, surely, a legitimate question to ask, about how the church reduces its expenditure on buildings and people to make itself sustainable, but the Church of England is not a supermarket chain, where mangers look at the profitability of an individual branch, and decide it can close, or even replace the business model itself.

Nor can it be right for dioceses to accrue powers in this way, which will then enable them to set the framework of discussions about changes to parishes, hold discussions as they see fit, and then produce the outcomes they desire. What if ‘the diocese’ was so minded that a parish church did not serve the Diocesan vision? What if it didn’t suit the bishop’s tradition? What if it doesn’t pay its share out of genuine poverty? The churches do not belong to ‘the Diocese’, they belong to the people of God, led by their parish priest, who is established in office through the possession of his or her benefice received from the parish’s patron in order to exercise the bishop’s cure.

In this disastrous document, every other stakeholder in the parochial system could potentially have his rights to representation in pastoral reordering denied, for the sake of expediency for ‘the Diocese’. My opinion is that the model proposed by GS 2222 is disastrous, and we parishioners, priests and patrons should not give up our rights so easily.

The Rev’d Christopher Johnson is Vicar of Horbury with Horbury Bridge in the Diocese of Leeds.

Limiting Factors? Or Limited Ecclesiology?

Philip Murray considers the context and reception of the “limiting factors” debacle, and asks what this reveals about the current state of Anglican ecclesiology and dialogue.

Only those who’ve made the wise decision to avoid Twitter and Facebook will have missed the latest argument about the Church of England that blew up over the weekend. It centres on Canon John McGinley’s comments, in relation to a plan to plant 10,000, predominantly lay-led, ‘churches’ in the C of E. To repeat the Church Times quotation:

Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.

There’s already been a range of excellent responses to Canon McGinley’s comments, both on this blog and elsewhere (see, in particular, here, here and here). The purpose of my contribution is to dig down a little deeper into why there has been such a negative reaction, and to ask what needs to change, as we continue to discuss the future of the Church, to prevent such negativity in the future.

There have been several attempted defences of Canon McGinley’s speech. One such defence, itself retweeted by Canon McGinley, suggests that both (a) Canon McGinley’s tweet has been taken out of context; and (b) those reacting negatively to the original report are ‘insecure’ and defensive. Let’s explore these points.

Taking the context point first, what I think is being alleged is this: that all Canon McGinley meant to suggest is that there isn’t enough money to fund additional stipendiary posts, and that this lack of money is a ‘key limiting factor’ to planting churches as traditionally understood, i.e. led by clergy. The response for the Church of England, then, is either to do nothing, or to plant churches that aren’t clergy-led. Ignoring the fact that there seems to be plenty of money for all sorts of projects in the Church, and that therefore it’s not obvious that clergy are a finite resource (especially given the increase in numbers of those being selected for ordination), the issue is that, of all the things that could be cut to make church plants possible, it’s clergy (and, to a lesser extent, buildings) that are singled out by Canon McGinley as disposable. The thrust of his argument seems to suggest, further, that not having to rely on clergy will be a good thing, in that ‘then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form’ (my emphasis). The logic of the argument is that with clergy leading churches, lay Christians are held back from realising their own vocations to leadership, and new churches are prevented from being formed. Hence the description of clergy as a ‘key limiting factor’. Isn’t this exactly how Canon McGinley’s interlocutors have characterised his comments? What have they, we, I misunderstood?

The truth of the matter is that the very idea of lay-led church plants poses a direct challenge to how we as Anglicans understand the Church and ministry within it. The Ordinal sets out the Anglican understanding of priests as those who are ‘ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel’ (my emphasis); priests are the ones who ‘share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church’. Article 19 of the Thirty-nine Articles makes our ecclesiology clear: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered’. And, for Anglicans, preaching and due administration of the sacraments is the responsibility of the ordained. To say that clergy are a ‘key limiting factor’ to the Church’s mission comes close to sounding like you’re saying Anglican church polity per se is a key limiting factor to mission. Is it a surprise that those of us who believe in, value and have given our lives to serve in such a polity take objection to this?

Anna Matthews, the Vicar of St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, hit the nail on the head when she suggested that what’s underpinning this argument is a much deeper debate about ecclesiology. Canon McGinley has himself said that the place of priests and sacraments is the ‘million dollar question’ still to be resolved for the church planting project. Forgive me for thinking this issue, so crucial to how we think about who we are as Anglicans, is logically prior to the formulation, let alone the publication, of any new plan for church growth. Perhaps the counter-reaction has been so visceral precisely because this work hasn’t been done: because it comes across, in that work’s absence, as a direct challenge to how we understand ministry as Anglicans.

This leads to the second defence of Canon McGinley’s speech: that those of us who have reacted negatively are in some way insecure or unduly defensive. Ian Paul, drawing on comments made by the Archbishop of York, has correctly diagnosed the prevailing clerical zeitgeist as one mainly of initiative fatigue, compounded by the demands of leading parishes through a pandemic. To all this we can add, I think, that growing sense, particularly in relation to the Church of England communications team, of a gulf between clergy on the ground and the central administration of the Church nationally. Clergy are tired and, in many cases, frustrated by all this. Is it really a surprise, then, that they react negatively when the very place of their ministry to the future of the Church appears, in whatever way, intentional or not, to be challenged? This isn’t disproportionate insecurity or an overdeveloped inferiority complex. Even though we know that our ultimate value is rooted in fidelity to the one whose call is ever faithful, that doesn’t make it irrational or self-indulgent to expect those formulating Church strategy to recognise, value, indeed share, the same basic understanding of ministry as the clergy who are expected to enact it.

Happily, a number of bishops over the weekend took to Twitter to make exactly the point that clergy are valued, and will continue to have a necessary place in the Church of the future (see, e.g., here, here and here). Hopefully this can serve as a turning point in what has been a fractious, and generally painful, few days for many deacons and priests. But lest this be soon forgotten or dismissed as just another Twitter storm, a plea that two things come out of our recent argument.

First, we really do need to have that deeper discussion about ecclesiology. How do we, as Anglicans, think about the Church, and to what extent does this set limits as to how we grow the Church? We’ve talked about this so much in recent years that you’d think there’s nothing else to say. And yet here we are again, debating ecclesiology, priesthood, sacraments.

Secondly, we need to think about how we engage in dialogue, strategy and organisation better. Twitter is, of course, a dreadful forum for this, stoking division and eradicating nuance. But perhaps another lesson to take away from this most recent debacle is how disenfranchised so many clergy (not to mention laity) feel. The Church of England isn’t located in Church House or Lambeth Palace. Its locus is a dispersed one; it’s found in parishes up and down the land where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, centred around the diocese and its bishop. This is what explains our ‘from the ground up’ governance structures: from PCC to deanery synod, through to diocesan synod and then the General Synod. I wonder if so much of the recent angst, the rise in ‘rascally voices’, is fed by a sense of this being slowly and subtly reversed: of a top-down approach increasingly removed from those on the ground? Even if this is just a perception, it’s a real one, as the Archbishop of York himself has alluded to. It’s not healthy for the Church of England to go on without this being addressed.

The Rev’d Dr Philip Murray is Assistant Curate of Stockton-on-Tees, St Peter and Elton, St John, in the Diocese of Durham.

Ordained by God

Edward Dowler responds to the recent ‘key limiting factor’ controversy by reminding us that all Christians – ordained or lay – are called to find their place in the whole cosmic order with the angels and saints, in praise of God and in service to his Church.

‘O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Ferocious storms have recently blown over Anglican Twitter after remarks of Canon John McGinley, about the establishment of lay-led churches, were reported in the Church Times (2 July, 2021).  Canon McGinley, head of church planting development at New Wine, was quoted as saying that ‘lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors.  When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church… then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form.  It also releases the discipleship of people.  In church planting there are no passengers.’  

Within hours, a number of clergy had inserted ‘Key Limiting Factor’ or ‘KLF’ on their social media profiles, whilst one theological college proudly boasted that it had been ‘proud to have brought you key limiting factors since 1876’.

It was perhaps slightly unfair to take Canon McGinley’s words quite so personally, since surely it is the overall system, rather than clergymen and women themselves, that he believes to have ‘key limiting factors’.  However, it was also questionable for Canon McGinley to equate the ordained ministry itself with buildings, stipends and a particular form of education.  Whatever the value of these things may or may not be, they are quite separate issues from that of lay or ordained leadership.  It was also symptomatic of a deeper institutional confusion that such a statement should be aired at the exact time of year when bishops are busily ordaining men and women up and down the country.

I was shown a way through this farrago of confusion and misunderstanding when I laid aside these reports to prepare a teaching session on the Sacraments, and gratefully turned to a recent essay on ‘The Sacramental Life’, by David W. Fagerberg, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.  Fagerberg writes from within a Roman Catholic context, but his comments are pertinent for Anglicans, albeit acknowledging a degree of reserve about some aspects of sacramental theology.

Fagerberg reminds us that three of the sacraments: baptism, confirmation and ordination, are traditionally believed to confer a particular character upon the recipient:

‘A seal is called sphragis in Greek, Latinized as character, meaning an engraved mark that is indelible and permanent.  In the ancient world, this word was used to name the brand on a sheep, the tattoo a soldier received on enlisting, or the brand on slaves indicating to what house they belonged.  The seal marks a state of belonging.’

The character that is thus bestowed places a person in a particular relationship to God and to the Church.  As Fagerberg writes, ‘baptism increases the visible Church by one, confirmation establishes an individual Christian to serve within the Church, and holy orders places a… person in ministerial service to the Church’.  

Significantly, Fagerberg notes that ‘in this sense, there is no “unordained” member of the Church’: all baptised Christians take their place within this overall order. The collect for St Michael and all Angels, quoted above, indicates the same point on a cosmic scale, that God has ordained and constituted the service of angels and human beings in a wonderful order.

By contrast with this, the differentiation between ‘lay-led’ and ‘clergy-led’ churches sets up a flat-footed distinction between clergy and laity which may inadvertently reinforce the very clericalism it seeks to combat.  Such a conception tends to establish a zero-sum game in which, as one side goes up the other necessarily decreases in value.  The collect sees things differently: the whole cosmic order has been richly ordered in a wonderful way, with each part contributing to all the rest.  As individual Christian men and women, we are all ordained; all called to find our particular place within this ordering, which of course also includes the angels, and the saints who have gone before us.

Twenty-six years after my own ordination to the priesthood, this dispute has made me reflect on some uncomfortable truths about the extent to which I may have reinforced these crude binary distinctions in my own ministry.  To use Canon McGinley’s terminology, I have often seen myself as a driver with the laity as my passengers; as a businessperson trying to attract the ‘punters’; as a producer with church congregations as the ‘consumers’.  I have little doubt that such an approach may indeed have been a key limiting factor to mission, growth in holiness and encounter with Christ.

The solution, as indicated by Professor Fagerberg and by the collect, is to find a deeper and richer appreciation of beauty, harmony and mutual gift in God’s service and in his praise.  Within such a framework, if we believe it is part of God’s overall ordering that a particular person should plant, nurture and sustain a Christian community, then de facto that person should be ordained, with the outward and visible signs of laying on of hands, anointing and prayer.  To do anything else makes no sense.

The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and priest in charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough in the Diocese of Chichester.

It’s the limit.

Barnaby Perkins notes how clergy and laity across the traditions of the Church of England have been united in shock by an unfortunate use of language at a conference on Church growth endorsed by the Archbishops, and suggests the Church needs to do better in showing that it truly values those who serve it.

How to make hardworking clergy and faithful lay people feel unloved by the Church. Lesson 1: call clergy ‘limiting factors’ whose training, stipends and housing are an unnecessary burden on the Church, and lay people ‘passengers’ who hold the Church back by their utter laziness and lack of commitment to anything other than their own comfort.

The twitterstorm which followed the publication of Madeleine Davies’ article “Synod to discuss target of 10,000 new lay-led churches in the next ten years” (2 July 2021) was, as far as I can see, unique among such outpourings of online ire in that it united priests and lay people from every stable within the Church of England. The article reported plans set out in a General Synod briefing paper and at the multiplyX 2021 church-planting conference to plant 10,000 largely lay-led house churches over the next 10 years.

The plans received widespread criticism being among other things unrealistic (are we really going to find that many lay people to lead churches?) and fraught with dangers around accessibility, safeguarding, health and safety and accountability within the plethora of new, exciting churches meeting in peoples’ sitting rooms. The real anger, however, was reserved for two particular statements quoted from a lecture given by Canon John McGinley at the multiplyX 2021 conference:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

Clergy are ‘limiting factors’. Lay people are ‘passengers’. It seemed peculiarly insensitive, offensive even, coming after a year and a half of clergy having done far more than they ever thought they would have to do to keep churches together. Even more insensitive after a year and a half in which many lay people in the Church of England have endured something of an enforced ‘passenger’ status because so many church activities were prohibited.

As things erupted on social media there were welcome voices which pleaded for calm and critical engagement with the actual report rather than with a Church Times article. They also stated that there is no ‘grand plan’ in the upper echelons of the Church to dispense with the priesthood, or parish churches or whatever. 

There were also the usual voices, inspired either by a fan-boyish devotion to every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the House of Bishops, or by a furious anti-clericalism, or by an unreconstructed commitment to the radical reformation (and in many instances, all three), who gaslighted the clergy who were justifiably hurt by being labelled ‘limiting factors’, holding back the Church’s growth. ‘It’s all in your head’ they would say, ‘you’re misunderstanding things’, ‘this is all about how poor stipendiary clergy are overstretched and need more lay support’.

It is possible that this was a clumsy way of talking about clergy being spread too thin, and that we can’t afford ordained, stipendiary priests to plant new churches. Still, I can think of a thousand better ways to say those things than calling the very people you value ‘limiting factors’ and ‘passengers’. If it was clumsy, it was culpably clumsy.

Nevertheless, statements like this are always viewed against a backdrop. For the last twenty years, I have heard certain types of Christians within the Church of England blame the decline of the Church on poor leadership (or preaching, or leading of worship) by the clergy, and laziness among the laity. I’ve even heard a reasonable number of priests claim that the real problem is that the laity of the Church of England aren’t really proper Christians at all! Twenty years ago, the voices which spoke this way were fewer in number and were not in positions of authority. Now these voices are more numerous and have become the leaders of the Church. Within the last six months, while sitting on a diocesan strategy working group, I have heard senior priests saying these very things: the limit on our growth comes from rubbish priests (who we can’t get rid of) and lazy laity (who need to go on an Alpha course). Think of the issues in the Diocese of Winchester, with stories of clergy being set performance targets for recruiting new congregational members with the price of failure being pressure to move on. Think of the way in which General Synod has changed the rules around clergy redundancy to make it easier to cut back the ‘dead wood’!

So while I am sure that it is true that there is no ‘grand plan’ for purging the clergy, or for throwing the ‘passengers’ of the good ship C. of E. overboard, or even for systematically dismantling the parish system, it is surely important to ask the question: how many senior people have to start thinking the same thing before that thinking accidentally becomes a real plan?

To the faithful and their hardworking priests this report was, perhaps unintentionally, a slap in the face. Let’s not forget that a slap in the face has the same effect whether it is intended or accidental. It still hurts. It is still humiliating. The Church of England needs to ask serious questions about the reports it releases and the effect of poorly chosen language on the very people it is desperate to encourage.

The Rev’d Barnaby Perkins is Rector of East and West Clandon in the Diocese of Guildford.

A younger church?

The Rev’d Steven Hilton recalls the success of the Church of England’s youth initiatives in the 1990s, and asks whether the Church’s mission and growth might be better secured by employing not more clergy but more youth workers.

In July 1996 I had just turned 17 years old and General Synod had endorsed a report called Youth A Part. It’s worth quoting in full something of the vision contained in that report:

The vision is for a Church that takes young people seriously.

It is a Church where young people fully and actively participate at every level. 

It is a Church which is built on good relationships, where young people particularly are concerned, not only with each other, but with those inside and outside the Church.

It is a Church where there is a good theological understanding of why and how it goes about its work with young people.

It is a Church which recognizes that work of this quality needs resources and has the faith and courage to commit significant resources to the young people in the Church.

I wonder how the Church has measured up to these lofty words?

Skip forward to 1999 and I found myself at ‘Time of Our Lives’ with other young people from the Diocese of Chichester and every other diocese. Archbishop George Carey had invited 3,500 young people to a bank holiday weekend of events in London including workshops and seminars on contemporary and faith issues, a jazz concert, worship in London’s cathedrals and at the Royal Albert Hall, and a massive garden party at Lambeth Palace.

We came in our droves in diocesan groups aboard coaches from every corner of England, sleeping in churches, halls, and crypts. There were 40 of us on the crypt floor at St Peter’s Church, Walworth Road. It was both uncomfortable and great fun. And most incredibly our bishops came with us and stayed with us: for a whole long bank holiday weekend.

The outcome: thousands of young people feeling energised and wanting to commit further to Christ and his Church of England.

Eighteen months later I was elected to General Synod (aged 21) and had begun a (long) journey towards ordination. But I wasn’t the only one.

Out of this period of listening to, and engaging with, young people came many, many vocations including to ordained ministry and lay leadership. There was a sense that the Church and its leaders really did care about young people and wanted to listen to our experiences and learn from us.

There were reports, and strategies, and financial resources made available: a National Youth Strategy and a Youth Evangelism Fund. The Church talked about nurturing young people as leaders so they could be fully contributing and participating members of church communities. The Church talked about young people having stronger representative voices, and it developed ways of accrediting and training church-based youth workers as well as affirming the army of volunteers who enable youth work to take place safely.

A significant number of our diocesan gang are now serving as parish priests. This is not a coincidence.

Skip forward to 2019 (the year I was ordained deacon) and the mean age for stipendiary clergy being ordained was 40.7 years. Clearly, something had changed.

If we want to be a younger church (and I hope we do) then we will need to invest once again much more heavily in those who work with our young people. For the statistics make grim reading: 38 per cent of our churches have no 0-16s and 68 per cent have fewer than five young people.

Dioceses across the Church are currently re-imagining structures and we have a new national vision that is evolving. That we are going to have to do things differently seems obvious to most by now and COVID has hastened the pace of change.

However, what we now must recognise afresh is that it is young people themselves who have the greatest evangelistic potential at reaching new generations for Christ.

It is young people who have much to teach the Church about transforming unjust structures.

It is young people who are increasingly committed to safeguarding the integrity of creation.

It is young people who, as a rule, welcome diversity and recognise its value.

It is young people who, when animated and encouraged, so easily develop hearts for loving service in their communities.

It is young people who have so much to offer as they challenge us: ‘Why do we have to do it like that?’ and ‘Why do we have to be like this?’

And it is young people who have turned their back on the Church of England.

In order to equip young people for this ministry, we need to train and deploy first-class youth workers based in our churches and working in and across our parishes and our schools; often with other churches, other denominations, as well as with secular colleagues. 

For this to take place, yes, this may mean we need fewer stipendiary priests and more stipendiary youth workers.

With finite resources, we may need to invest more strategically. If we need more youth workers (and we will need to pay and house them properly), this is likely to have an impact on the deployment of stipendiary clergy. We may need to be yet more creative across parish and deanery boundaries and there may be little room for the territorial preoccupations we clergy seem to enjoy.

Please do not misunderstand me: I love being a priest. It has completed me. I give thanks to God each and every day that I have the honour of sharing his priestly ministry.

However, those things that are specifically and uniquely priestly take up a very small part of my week. Much more of the week feels significantly more diaconal than priestly and the work of a youth worker is a diaconal ministry too, but one the Church has not honoured in the same way as we do with ordained ministry.

It’s worth remembering that this historic commitment to youth ministry was Church-wide and across traditions. It was Bishop Eric Kemp (the oldest bishop by a country mile) that appointed the youngest bishop in the Church of England at that time. He knew that nurturing young people was the key to church growth and more vocations. Indeed, Bishop Lindsay Urwin went on to champion youth workers and was key in setting up that wonderful weekend in London. The result has been clear to see.

I hope that, as the Church of England continues to evolve its vision and strategy, the place of young people is recognised once again as being critical to our spiritual and numerical growth across church traditions. To achieve this we may need to cut the pie differently.

The divine paradox may be that if we want to see more vocations to the priesthood (among other things), we may need more youth workers and not more priests.

The Rev’d Steven Hilton is Assistant Curate at Manchester Cathedral. 

Episcopal Soft Power

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.

A Nuptial Mess

The Revd Paul Thomas asks important questions about our legal and theological understanding of Christian marriage raised by recent reports of a private back garden marriage three days before a couple were due to be married in church.

A couple gave an interview this week in which they revealed that ‘three days before our wedding we got married’. This marriage consisted of ‘just the three of them’, namely the bride, bridegroom, and the officiant who was to minister the sacrament of Holy Matrimony days later. The couple wanted to have their own moment, and so they telephoned the officiant and said, ‘Look, this thing, this spectacle, is for the world, but we want our union between us’.

The officiant paid them a visit, and the couple appear to have exchanged vows in his presence. These vows, we assume, were penned by the couple themselves, vows which are now wall-mounted and available for visitors to the couple’s home to read, we are informed.

The words of these vows are not known to us as they are private, and so too are the words spoken by the minister. But that the minister was present and spoke words in his capacity as a minister is certain, and that they were words of blessing is highly likely. Believing this to be a private matter, the minister had every reason to expect that a service consisting of ‘just the three of them’ would always remain between just the three of them.

This is a question-raising scenario.

The legal and canonical questions can be addressed quickly. This and any other private garden marriage is not a marriage. This may come as a genuine blow to the couple who sincerely appear to believe (and rather cherish) the fact that they were united in this exclusive and intimate way before the public ceremonies of their wedding day. There were no witnesses present as the law demands for validity, nor were registers signed to indicate the definitive legal reality of their union, nor were authorized vows used. In addition, the place where they were ‘married’ – their back garden – is not licensed for marriages under the law governing marriages in England and Wales, and the officiant was not acting with the authority and dispensation of the necessary Licence for it to be a marriage.

There is no question that what the couple has made public was not the contracting of a marriage as the law and the Church understand it. But that they believe they were married before their wedding day should be taken seriously, not least for pastoral reasons. The official comments made in the light of this news have focussed, necessarily perhaps, on the legal nullity of these garden nuptials, but the pastoral realities of this situation are serious.

There is good reason and ancient precedent that the liturgical rites and ceremonies of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony exist within a framework of law; marriage has a legal personality and the rites of Holy Matrimony in the Church of England and Church in Wales affect a change in the legal status of those being united in and through that sacrament – which is why these rites must be handled with very great care.

As well-meaning as a private garden service might have been at the time in order to meet the immediate pastoral needs of the couple, this private and informal liturgical act clearly gave the impression (and not unjustifiably) that in and through it a married union had come into being, albeit one that had yet to be legally registered and publicly witnessed. It is not in the pastoral best interests of this couple nor any couple to be given such an impression only for it later to be very publicly denied.

Then there is a question of precedent to be alert to. Now that the details of their private ‘marriage’ are very public, many among the parochial clergy can now expect to field a variety of unwelcome questions and requests for similar services. A situation which is already complicated, and at times conflictual, has been made more so by this very public precedent. The secular culture in which clergy are exercising marriage ministry too often sees little need for or relevance in the various requirements the clergy make: qualifications to be married in church; the importance of the consecrated building in which the marriage rite must be celebrated; the spiritual and pastoral preparation necessary; the Church’s legal preliminaries – all these things stand athwart the dominant culture.

This important ministry will now, we can expect, come under even greater pressure to give way to consumer demands, demands which would far prefer to see the clergy marryingcouples in the garden, or even the Garden Centre, according to the tastes and requirements of the couple. A culture which lauds self-fulfilment and self-assertion above all else hears the Gospel of self-as-gift with its careful liturgical and ritual expression with near incomprehension. This difficult situation has been made that more difficult by reports of backyard blessings.

Lastly, it appears that the couple in question were labouring under a common but dangerous misunderstanding in relation to marriage, namely that there is on one hand a ‘union between us’ made privately which is essential and greater, and on the other a public event or ‘spectacle’ performed in a chapel which although legally necessary is inferior.

It is crucial for the pastoral good of the couple as well as the common good of society for the minister to ensure that those entering the holy estate of matrimony have been prepared to understand that there is in the Christian doctrine of marriage no distinction to be made between the private union of two persons and its public character. There is compelling reason why weddings are not conducted clandestinely, because they are not lived clandestinely.

The character of Christian marriage is incarnated in the concrete realities of daily life in which a man and woman live out their mutual self-giving in relation not only to each other but to all others by being actively and christianly part of the human community. Self-gift in marriage does not require the couple to turn in upon one another to the exclusion of all, but rather to turn outward toward the world, so that united in mutual self-giving, they may offertheir marriage as a witness to it, for the world’s good, as a model of the world’s redemption in Christ. 

Christian marriage is inescapably public, deeply personal, yes, but never private. To allow a separation to occur between the private and public in marriage rends asunder what God has joined together.

The Rev’d Paul Thomas is Vicar of St James’s Sussex Gardens & Area Dean of Paddington.

The Primacy of the Parish

The Bishop of Burnley responds to recent claims that the Parish system is up for wide scale review, and strengthens the case for its place at the heart of the identity and mission of the Church of England. He suggests we need to trust the local to make good decisions, resolutely address failure where it occurs, and invest in priests who can renew Parish communities.

At St Peter’s in Fleetwood the parish priest has pulled together a consortium which has bought the hospital in the town centre and has developed it as a facility for vulnerable adults with a food pantry and wide range of other services. At St James Haslingden they have formed a community of 30 people who meet online each day for Morning Prayer and who now cook and deliver hot lunches to around 100 people in the community. At Preston Minister they have provided meals to tens of thousands of students and families and are offering genuine excellence in the live-streaming of worship. I could go on … and on! All this, of course, on top of the routine of sustaining a life of prayer and worship. 

This pandemic has shown the extraordinary agility and flexibility of the Parish system. Not many years ago the Parish was being written off as part of the furniture of ‘inherited church’ which, with its expensive buildings and out-dated worship, had to be swept away to make space for the bold and new. 

But the past year has shown exactly why the Parish is and must remain the bedrock of Anglican life in our nation. What makes the ministry of the Church of England distinctive is its legal responsibility for the ‘cure’ of every soul in the nation. It is through the Parish that that lofty goal is delivered.

Within every neighbourhood in this nation there is a family of Anglican Christians who gather in worship and prayer and who seek only the common good of the communities they serve. Most maintain a building as a sacred space for prayer and a tangible symbol of the presence of the incarnate Lord in the lives of his people. Most contribute generously to the stipend and housing costs of a priest who can express the ministry of Jesus Christ through the sacramental life and pastoral ministry. This is an extraordinary contribution to our national life which the Church of England offers at no cost to the national purse. 

In the past three decades we have seen a huge raft of evangelistic initiatives which have pioneered new ways to share the faith. New local congregations, nurture groups, Fresh Expressions, Messy Church and so many others have sought to capture imaginations afresh with the Gospel. What do they have in common? Every single one relies completely on the stability of the Parish structure for finance and implementation. 

So why not leave everything as it is? Recent articles in The Spectator and elsewhere in the press have hinted darkly at plots within the House of Bishops to dismantle the Parochial structure, to add thousands of clergy to the dole queue and to close many of our buildings. There is much that is mistaken in this coverage, not least that the decentralised structure of the Church of England with its 42 autonomous dioceses and 12,000 independent parishes renders such a centralist programme of reform entirely undeliverable. 

But the biggest mistake that lies behind these articles and much of the reaction to them is the presumption that we can leave the Parochial system as we know it now unchanged. The Parish has survived for so many centuries precisely because of the flexibility that we have seen in recent months. In a Church that faces numerous issues in rebuilding its spiritual and financial life after the most desperate health crisis in a century, that flexibility is going to be needed all the more. Only a fool could argue that everything should stay the same.

So how should Parish life adapt? Here are three suggestions.

First we need to trust the local. In response to the pandemic some dioceses are tempted to implement centrally driven programmes of pastoral re-organisation in which the map and the spreadsheet are used to ‘re-imagine’ church life. But there is an alternative which is to hand over much more responsibility to each Parish so that the PCC determines the level of priestly ministry they receive and how they will pay for it. We should shrink the centre and trust the local, using a small level of centrally pooled funds, a fairer distribution of Diocesan historic assets and Church Commissioners Lowest Income Community Funding to sustain urban parishes. This is the model used in the rest of the Anglican Communion and it is one that would incentivise growth and generosity rather than genteel decline. 

Second we need to address failure. In most dioceses the cause of financial problems is a small percentage of parishes which are simply not viable. Some have no vision or zeal for souls, some have priests who have given up hope or who lack motivation, others are infected with toxic relationships. Heavy legal structures make it all but impossible to deal with failed parishes such as these. They are a luxury we can no longer afford, and reform is required so that the small number of failing parishes do not drag down the whole. There are occasions when the best way to serve a community is to close and re-plant.

And third, we need to learn the art of Parish renewal. There are many schemes to train pioneers who can start something from nothing, and they have an important part to play. But what most dioceses need above all is priests and lay leaders who can renew an existing Parish, who can lead tired laity to deeper conversion, who can draw new people into relationship with Jesus Christ, who can demonstrate excellence in the ordering of worship and in pastoral care and so who can bring steady, unspectacular growth. 

The Church of England is inconceivable without the stable bedrock of Parochial life. But an unthinking conservative reaction to the need for reform will not preserve it. Every tradition will need to demonstrate the fleetness of foot we have seen in this year of pandemic. For above all we must remember that our primary purpose is not the preservation of inherited structures but the worship of Jesus Christ. 

The Rt Rev’d Philip North is Bishop of Burnley in the Diocese of Blackburn.

Super Bishops & Simpler Structures

Ben Phillips reflects on the increasingly top-heavy structures of the Church of England and commends a radical rethinking of diocesan boundaries which would enable bishops to be both real pastors on the ground and effective symbolic leaders of the wider Church.

Many in the Anglican Twitter-sphere were found to be getting their ecclesiastical hosiery in a twist on 26 December, after an entertaining piece by Steven Doughty appeared in the Daily Mail.(1) (with accompanying header photo. ed)

Whilst the headline ‘Shutdown of churches and ban on weddings during Covid crisis has cost Church of England £150MILLION and could trigger a cull of parishes’ was designed to provoke and outrage on the second day of Christmas, Mr Doughty’s report contained something more interesting to the readership of this blog: ‘Among those [reforms] discussed have been a cut in the number of bishops from more than 100 to as few as ten.’

From 119 to 10! (2) Many readers will laugh at the prospect of a 90% purge of bishops. It can be argued that having cut at the parish level for decade upon decade, any future reorganisation requires some members of the House of Bishops to contemplate the same sort of reduction within its own ranks. 

After such significant investment in time, effort and patronage of the Talent Pool, the ‘mini-MBA’ for Deans, the unrivalled expansion of Archdeacons and director-level posts with titles such as ‘Creation and Justice’ and ‘New Communities and Evangelism’, are we to see it go the way of all flesh, so that we may be ‘Bolder, Simpler, Humbler’? As the new Archbishop of York said in his address to Synod: “We, the Church of Jesus Christ is (sic) being purged. We are being asked to consider what really matters, and where shall we put our trust, and upon what things shall we depend.” (3) Surely, a reduction in unnecessary and tangential positions to the core ministry of the Church is intended as part of this vision? I’m not so sure it is.

From the Arbuthnot Committee on Diocesan Boundaries in 1965 (4), right through to the so-called ‘West Yorkshire and the Daleks’ scheme in 2013, the Church has constantly reiterated its emphasis on being smaller and nearer to people, promising to pull back the creep in hierarchy numbers whilst in fact doing the complete opposite. So how does 119 become 10? 

In a Church Times article as far back as 2 May 2003, the Reverend Gareth Miller wrote of the critical financial and pastoral crisis facing the Church of England. Entitled ‘A Church Simplified and Renewed’, (5) the article makes a radical suggestion of tearing up the English diocesan model and replacing it on a model more akin to that of the US Episcopal Church or of our Roman Catholic brethren. It is an interesting model – by grouping each current diocese into a new ‘super diocese’ (6) with a bishop with Metropolitan-type powers, the necessary administration and ‘curial’ functions of each current diocese would be absorbed into a regional centre. The current diocesan structure of advisors, committees and working groups would too be lifted to regional level. The bishops of these ‘super dioceses’ could not be the micro-managerial type that seems to find favour within the House of Bishops at present. Such larger dioceses would require a bishop who would be comfortable with being more a figure-head leader administratively, who could hold the office with gravitas and be at ease with that. This might re-open the episcopate to those academics who have shown reluctance to accept nomination, but also allow for those whose who were more pastoral a chance to be nearer the faithful and be out in the diocese as their ‘Father/Mother-in-God’ because they are not weighed down and encumbered by managerial responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. Whilst we may never get the balance right between the somewhat divergent catholic and evangelical understanding of bishops I believe that this shake-up would give us the once-in-a-generation opportunity to edge closer towards that goal. 

So where do we see these new ‘super dioceses’ being based? Mr Miller’s model suggests 10 which seem to be a good starting base:

Ely (or, possibly, Norwich)
Birmingham (or, possibly, Lichfield)

It is clear that both Archbishops would not (and could not) be bishop of their respective ‘super-diocese’, and in some cases, the administration of it would not be from the see-town.(7) So we’ve found our ten – but what of the others? Before Watts and Co. begin packing up their episcopal purple for storage, Mr Miller contemplates a more local ‘accessible… and pastoral’ episcopate, made up of 104 episcopal areas, (8) his aim being that ‘it makes the dioceses smaller, simpler and more coherent.’ Under his place, each of these episcopal areas would have a single Archdeacon, and potentially a Cathedral, although Miller admits that this would mean levelling down some more ancient foundations to be smaller and simpler, to reflect their episcopal area. Smaller, simpler, more coherent – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

I look forward to seeing the Synod proposal detailing the new plans in due course. Archbishop Stephen is right – we do need to consider what really matters, on what we can depend and where we can put our trust. As we have seen in recent months, the current system has not functioned well for some time, trust is at an all-time low, and, I’m sure I can speak for many in saying that I have found it difficult to depend on the Church for quite some time. My hope is that those of us who truly believe that the Church of England is a place for all expressions of Anglicanism will be able to have our voices heard and contribute to the changes our Church is called to face, however hard and however difficult.

Ben Phillips is a liturgist and historical musicologist, currently finishing research into Welsh Anglican choral foundations in the wake of dis-establishment.



2 This does not count the two current vacant suffragan sees at time of writing (Stockport and Stafford), or the Bishop at Lambeth.

3 Cottrell, S., Presidential Address to General Synod (July sitting 2020),

4 Diocesan Boundaries, being the Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on the Organisation


6 Mr Miller refers to them as ‘provinces’ and their bishops as ‘metropolitans’ – to save confusion, I have retitled them as “super-diocese” and “bishop/diocesan bishop” respectively.

7 For example, Newcastle would make more sense for the Durham “super-diocese”, and Lichfield as the Cathedral of the Birmingham “super-diocese”.

8 In his piece, Mr Miller refers to them as ‘dioceses’. Since most diocesan responsibilities have been raised to the regional level, I have designated these as ‘episcopal areas’.