Saturday, September 23, 2006

Parish Church or Mission Station

I spent this morning at Diocesan Synod, where the only item of business was a consultation on the future of clergy pensions. Basically, the CofE can't afford to continue with both the current levels of pension provision and the current numbers of stipendiary clergy. It's a hard place to be.

But it got me thinking about what it is we're trying to provide. And that takes us to the Parish system. The Parish system is one of the jewels of the Church of England (lifted, as so much else, from the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church). It aims to provide the services of the church for everyone in England, whether or not they are Anglican. Certain rites of passage (Baptism, marriage, funerals) are guaranteed for everyone who asks. At its best, the Parish System is an organised way of serving the whole community, both practically and spiritually. The Parish church grows out of the community that it seeks to serve.

It's often said that the Parish system doesn't work in cities where people have the mobility to choose which church to belong to. I'm not convinced by this. The parish system still ensures that those resident in the parish are served by the church, and those who choose to attend a church in a different part of town, for whatever reason, can be said to have an attendant vocation to the parish of the church they attend. This certainly works for churches who have a mixed economy of resident and non-resident congregations.

Yet a Parish Church requires that the service of the community is supported, in terms of ministry and money, by those who attend it (whether they live in the parish or are simply called to worship and minister there). The way that the Church of England is currently organised masks the fact that some churches do indeed function like this, and others are only capable of maintaining a presence because they are supported by other churches. This is indeed only right and proper. It is part of what marks the church as catholic (in the credal sense).

My concern is that whilst this is entirely appropriate for the church at the level of the nation, it is not properly understanding the reality of the local church. If a local church is utterly dependent upon resources from outside the local area, it is not a parish church so much as a mission station. And if called a mission station, then it can own the fact that it is dependent on others and seek to grow its own indigenous support. A fully functional parish church should be able to give and receive to the wider church. A mission station should realistically be expected to receive more than it gives, whilst at the same time seeking to grow up into a church that supports itself and gives to others.

There are different styles of ministry appropriate to the two modes of church. A parish church seeks to serve the community in which it is set, to build links with that community and to evangelise the community from within. A mission station needs to look to evangelising the community from the fringes. It needs to be planted and to grow into the community, before it can say it belongs there. The great missionary pioneers of the 19th century had a series of criteria for when a church ceased to be a mission church and had become an indigenous church. It had to be self-propagating, self-governing and self-supporting.

It should be noted that some churches can regress from being Parish churches into being mission stations. Only, that transition is rarely marked, and certainly not interpreted as meaning that a new style of ministry is required.

I'm thinking aloud here. Is this far too congregational a model for Anglican polity? Or, to put it another way, is this to give up on the Church of England's vocation to serve the whole country, Anglican or not? I suspect that to say that we have both parish churches and mission stations might actually be to inject some honesty into the way in which we approach this vocation.

1 comment:

Gareth said...

I think that you may be talking about something entirely new to Anglicanism, here - or at least entirely new to the popular conception of it.

A mission to our own country, sent by "our" (in the collective, cultural sense) own church. It is new - and it is about 300 years late.

The established church in this country has sometimes been criticised for never really establishing itself among the urban working classes properly - they missed their chance in the 19th Century and 20th Century immigrants brought their own establishments with them. Not only that, but the CofE was too established for the earliest dissidents, and again for the earliest immigrants; and now has the misfortune to appear to stand for something too disconnected. (Jeremy Paxman once asked a bishop what you had to believe to become an Anglican, and the answer was, "What an interesting question...")

In the 21st Century classless society (ha!) there is a lingering hangover to all that. Individuals in the Anglican church have worked to address this perceived shortcoming (and what, after all, is the difference between the perception and the reality?) and in some newsworthy cases have achieved real results - as we both remember.

But it doesn't alter the popular perceptions of the church: the Vicar of Dibley; cash-rich evangelical parishes; picturesque churchyards overlooking postcard village greens. Not to mention your own modest little eyesore.

This is the church that the English expect from Anglicanism.

Being an established church carries with it an assumption: establishment implies security, comfort, self-sufficiency, independence and, in that way that only the English can really pull off, easy superiority. The English want a church that reminds them that God is English too and, yes, he also drives a Rover.

An Anglican parish that is somehow dependent, contingent, upon something else just doesn't seem to conform to stereotype.

That alone makes it worth doing.