It is to the parish church I owe fairly much all that I am. As a child taken to my parish church, I first heard the stories of the scriptures that captured my imagination. I remember tracing the fingers of God in my mind as they wrote above the chancel arch in warning to Belshazzar, ‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin…’ It was in my parish church that I first experienced the fellowship of community and belonging, and was awed by the wonder of worship and the sacraments that brought me into the presence of God.
That early experience laid the foundations of life and ministry for me in so many ways. Gathered by the Church, I was sent out as a student volunteer with the Missions to Seafarers in The Netherlands and Australia, before returning to England to train for ordination and parish ministry, in which I served for just over 20 years as curate and incumbent. It was while serving in the parish that I met my wife, and our children were born. These were years of immense happiness and fulfilment. Moving from parish ministry to be an archdeacon, and now a bishop, the parish remains central to who I am and my understanding of the Church.
All of which may help to explain why I am saddened to discover, at least according to the ‘Parish Pack’ recently published by ‘Save the Parish’, that I have, like Belshazzar, been weighted in the balance and found wanting, I am part of what I think can only be described as a conspiracy to do down, to close down, the parish as we know it. I am not asking for sympathy, after all I accepted the invitation to be an archdeacon and a bishop, but I am sad since this paper seems to me at odds with its declared intention to save the parish.
The crux of this discrepancy is not its view (which I simply don’t recognise) of bishops, archdeacons and diocesan officers stripping the assets of the parish but in its ecclesiology. Throughout the paper, it is the ‘Diocese’ that is set against the ‘Parish’ – the front line and the back room. But ecclesiologically the ‘Diocese’ is who we are together, as the body that is the Church with a common bond and a common purpose to share the love of God in Jesus Christ and to work for the coming of the Kingdom. Each part of the body, parishes, chaplaincies, fresh expressions (once called mission churches) schools, the Boards of Education and yes, the Board of Finance, has its part in enabling the love of God to be made visible. Together they empower the Church in supporting the other, paying stipends, managing our money for mission, looking after clergy housing, training new clergy and supporting clergy and lay leaders in their ministry, connecting through social media, in our schools, engaging in the public square and of course, as we always have been and always will in our parishes, chaplaincies and fresh expressions, visibly connecting and witnessing to the faith.
All of this thus is about our purpose as a Church, not just preserving what we once had, not just to get by, but to tell the gospel afresh in this generation and indeed to hand it afresh to the next. A common purpose, a common endeavour, that will be mutually beneficial as we bless others.
The parish is where I found faith, where I was formed in the faith, and it is to the parish that I have given my life and ministry. But the ‘Parish Pack’ will not do. It is fearful and divides the Church and mars the body, and the parish deserves better. The parish is a living body, part of the wider body, and preserving it can’t be about maintaining it unchanged. Instead, as has always been the case, preserving the parish is about enabling it to adapt and grow to the needs of this generation and the ones that follow, that generations of those to come may have the good news proclaimed to them as we have received it.
This will require of us all, honesty about the challenges we face of mission and of finance, a recognition that we can’t just keep as we are and a determination to respect each other and to work together for the purpose of the Church. It will require the courage to take risks, to try new things and to recognise when they work and when they don’t.
There is much that we need to address across our Church – the balance of our resourcing, the use of our historic assets, the management of our buildings… and we need to be ready to ask hard questions of each other. Some of these hard questions the ‘Parish Pack’ rightly asks, and the questions raised deserve serious attention, but until we address our ecclesiology, our understanding of the Church and the purpose in which we are engaged, until we put down the ‘them and us’ divide, this will be a distraction from, rather than a serious contribution to, the renewal of the Church for which ‘Save the Parish’ seeks, and for which I long.
7 thoughts on “‘Save the Parish’: A response from Bishop Robert”
Thank you for your note with which I heartily agree as it matches much of my own experince.
as an aside, when i was training as a Reader in Coventry, Bishop John Gibbs spoke to the trainees about the parishes and made the very valid comment that the Parish system was one of the major strengths of the CofE because it meant that everyone in the land had someone, a person, the incumbent, who was personally charged with the care of these good souls. Bishop John urged us all to support that person and help them to fulfill their calling in that role. I hope, with God’s grace that I have been able to fulfill that role during my own ministry.
I am so glad to see you write like this. The parishes in which I grew up were rural ones, and I would just add to your ‘list’ the need for us to recognise the HUGE importance of the building as a platform for mission to the PLACE.
Villages in Glos are full to bursting with NEW PEOPLE who surprisingly often do respond to mission which begins with what they naturally value – building and place.
Thank you Bishop Robert I have had the some experience. Parishes keep the flame alive until the Holy Fire comes. If we do away with them much more sinister things will replace them. My experience of being in three parishes where the fire had almost gone out and they burst into life was this. They at great cost brought in youth workers. They brought in youth who brought in their parents. The churches are now bursting at the seams.
Save The Parish is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. Many parish volunteers like me feel and express great gratitude for the Parish Pack, because they feel under threat. It is a response to a need.
Within His Grace’s own diocese, each deanery is being asked to look at shedding a priest. This will help to continue the undermining of the parish, which has been happening for a long time and needs reversing.
These plans to cut clergy come from the diocese, which is not the basic unit of the Church. As someone said to me at church this morning: “What does the diocese ever do to help us?’
The ‘front line’ service providers are in the parishes; and parish clergy should be the absolute funding priority.
Here is just one letter from yesterday’s papers:
SIR – I wonder if the Church of England’s leaders have any idea about what actually matters in parishes. The parish share continues to rise, with less and less given by dioceses in return, and they decree that volunteers who do the flowers can no longer use green foam.
They may hope to save the planet, but it’s not the same one that I and many other Christians are living on.
I do agree, a parish church is so necessary. Before the lockdowns I often would pop in to our parish church, and there would be someone sitting in a pew,
was in need of prayer. I was so pleased that we were open and available Regards, Wendy
“The heart-cry of your movement echoes in my heart.”
(The Archbishop of York speaking to Save the Parish)
Bishop Robert pointed me towards his own (above) response to Save the Parish when we spoke, yesterday.
I was in the General Synod on 16 November, 2021 when the Archbishop of York made these inspiring statements, specifically on the subject of the Save the Parish movement. I found his call for togetherness helpful, his vision inspiring:
“Simplification has been a grass-roots, Synod initiative for some time, challenging us to simplify and align all our resources around the life and witness in the front-line ”.
“I’m going to put it bluntly. If you were elected on a Save the Parish ticket, I too want to save the parish. As far as I am concerned you are not the loyal opposition waiting for your turn in Government. The heart-cry of your movement echoes in my heart and, I believe, in all our hearts reminding us of the centrality of place, the importance of the local, of the continuity of tradition and service and why our resources must be focused on this; the local church of missionary disciples.”
“Please, please let us work together. Let us never doubt that we all want the same thing; the flourishing of the Church so that the Gospel may be proclaimed. This will mean different ways of being the Church, within the mixed ecology of a revitalised parish system.
And, as has always been the case, the most innovative ways of serving and reaching people will emerge from parishes.”
The Save the Parish network is determined to answer his call to work with him to simplify our Church in order to align its resources towards the front-line. Promoting good practice organisational, programme and financial management will release funds to pay off parish deficits (many caused by Covid) and fuel the revitalisation of the parish system the Archbishop is, so rightly calling for. It will help us to realise his inspiring vision of “more church not less, so that more people can know Christ.”
Archbishop, wear your Save the Parish badge with pride!
Thankfully, this bold (not fearful!) mission is going to make GS 2222 (the infamous “Church Closer’s Charter”) a superfluous concept.
Robert McNeil-Wilson, General Synod Member,
Diocese of Gloucester
Churchwarden, St Peter’s, Willersey with Saintbury