Ariel view of a parish

For churchgoers, yet another fascinating YouGov survey by Linda Woodhead for the Westminster Faith Debates. This one is about the views of Anglican clergy. Anthony Woollard comments here.

In this post I focus on the finding that 83% want to maintain the parish system, which divides England into areas served by a priest provided with a vicarage. There are also other interesting findings. A summary is here.

The old parish system

My awareness of the issue goes back to 1964 and the Leslie Paul Report. I was a teenager at the time, brought up in a Somerset vicarage. While I was helping to collate, fold and staple parish magazines my father told me about this new report, threatening that if current trends continued the parish system as we knew it would cease to exist.

Current trends did continue and that parish system did cease to exist. It was killed off by an endless succession of incremental changes designed to keep it going. The 83% do not know what they are missing.

50 years ago, what the parish system meant to Leslie Paul was what my father had. One parish, one Church Council, one village with a population around a thousand. He had two churches, half a mile apart, but the parish stretched for many miles. He cycled round it.

He had time to make thorough preparations for Sunday’s sermon; no leaving it to a half-hour session on Saturday evening. I don’t suppose he knew the names of everyone in the parish, but I guess he knew most. At any rate he could think creatively about the needs of the young people, the sick and the elderly, because he knew enough of them.

The bishop would make an occasional visit, but there would not be much of an agenda; the assumption was that he knew what to do and could be trusted to get on with it. One such visit took place the day after some cows in a neighbouring field had trampled down a hedge and visited the Vicarage garden. The conversation went: ‘Delicious sprouts. Did you grow them yourself?’ ‘Yes, they are the ones the cows didn’t like.’

In towns it was different. Parishes had a higher population. Not only every house but every office and factory was in a parish and visiting them was part of the vicar’s repertoire. Rural or urban, the clergy were expected to be concerned with the life and well-being of the whole parish.

The changes

No longer. With the reduction in numbers, let alone the tendency to move more often, clergy cannot know their parishes so well even if they treat it as their top priority.

Then there are the financial pressures. In 1964 they were already mounting, but the pressures were not as great as now. The programme of closing churches down to save money had not yet got into its stride.

Another difference is mobility. Especially in urban areas, they are often meaningless. Just as people live in one parish, work in another and go to social events in another again, they can choose their church on the basis of what it offers. In one of my parishes there was a housing block where the residents were in one parish in the kitchen and another in the living room. It proved convenient, as the relevant vicars had different baptism policies.

Then there is centralisation. Being a parish priest is no longer a matter of being trained and left to get on with it. The initiatives come from on high, so engaging with the parish for its own sake gets pushed down the priority list. Along with the top-down decision-making, inevitably, comes an endless stream of forms to fill in and meetings to attend – otherwise ‘they’ do not know what clergy are up to.

Threatened with decline, those responsible become defensive. Just as Rowan Williams did not want the Anglican Communion to split up while he was Archbishop, and David Cameron did not want the United Kingdom to split up while he was Prime Minister, so also, at any one time, the people running the institutional Church of England do not want the parish system to break down while they are responsible.

The result is the endless succession of incremental changes, putting two parishes into one here, reducing the number of clergy there, maintaining the pretence that the parish system continues while in reality turning it into something different. The fact that 83% of the clergy want to retain it probably just reflects the fact that it is their bread and butter: change the system and they will have to find another job and learn new skills.

Looking back in retrospect we can see what was wrong with the parish system as it was in 1964. It cost too much money and it needed too many full-time clergy. Trying to keep it running has meant ever-increasing financial pressure on the laity and ever-increasing pressure of work on clergy.

What to do instead? The key, I think, is to have far fewer full-time paid clergy, and restrict what they are expected to do.

In my view the only function that needs performing by full-time trained clergy is a teaching role. This is because the quality of teaching needs to be high - much higher than at present - so years of training are needed. It is a professional job.

By contrast, every local community has someone who would be good at leading worship, every local community has someone who is good at pastoral care, and every community with a medieval church has people keen to maintain it. These people should be formally authorised to perform their specific tasks, without any presupposition that they are thereby authorised to do anything else.

Instead of having clergy on the one hand and laity on the other, we would have a wide range of different roles. Where appropriate the wider church should provide resources and training, set parameters and pay expenses.

Much of this is happening already. However it is often hindered by the pull of the old parish system. People feel they need to ask the minister’s permission – and perhaps the minister wants to keep too much control. A clearer system establishing who is authorised to do what would help.

Keep parishes, not stipendiary priests

I therefore think we should keep parishes, keep them local, and authorise and encourage local initiatives in them. However we should withdraw from the provision of full-time stipendiary takers of services, maintainers of buildings, pastoral workers and club managers. When a local parish wants any of these, let it fund and appoint them itself as it sees fit. This change would also enable a dramatic reduction in the church hierarchy.

What would remain of the full-time stipendiary ministry would be professional teachers of Christianity; fewer, but more focused and better qualified. To pick a figure out of the air, if instead of 9,000-ish stipendiary clergy we had 500 people, around 10 per diocese, who were up to date with theological scholarship and able to articulate what Christianity has to offer to the concerns of contemporary society, the public voice of the Church of England would no longer need to be muffled by concern about managing the institution.

The main problem with this would not be the maintenance of local church services. Most of them would adapt, and it would be easier for new ones to start up. The problem would be getting the clergy to let go. They will need to be helped, but it should be possible.

I look forward to the day when the public voice of the Church is not muffled by anxieties about maintaining the institution but can express ongoing Christian reflection on who made us and how we should live. Promoted for its own sake, devoid of vested interests, it could offer a positive contribution to society’s current agonisings over its values and priorities.