Ni kanske inte läste Daily Telegraph i går den 3 augusti. Här är något jag inte tyckte kunde vänta ens tills i morgon. Stephen Trott är min vän, han har varit väl placerad i den engelska kyrkans beslutssystem. Giles Fraser, författaren, känner jag inte. Men han framstår som en klarsynt karl. Ni får perspektiv på vad som övergår andra kyrkor i Borgo-gemenskapen. Har ni läst ett ord, ett enda, om detta i Torsdagsdepressionen?
Is the CoE intent on killing off the parish church?
Covid has accelerated the push by Church officials to centralise everything. It is a recipe for collapse
The usually sleepy pages of The Church Times were set alight last month by the suggestion of an impending death: of the parish church itself. And it is a death, implied the Rev Stephen Trott in his article, that would not be caused by the forces of secularisation but by the actions of the Church authorities themselves.
Reading his summation, the scales fell from my eyes. The parish, for centuries the bedrock of the Church of England’s engagement with communities throughout the land, is being sacrificed to a growing and inward-looking centralised Church structure that is steadily sucking resources away from it. And though it’s hard for an old Leftie like me to accept, it’s a parable about the dangers of nationalisation.
Much has been made of Westminster Abbey losing £12 million this year and shutting down regular worship at St Margaret’s, the church that nestles beside it. So, too, has there been widespread consternation about Sheffield Cathedral sacking its choir. But a more troubling development has been largely missed.
Earlier in the summer, the diocese of Chelmsford announced that it was cutting clergy numbers from 275 to 215. Sixty priests to go in 18 months. And the expectation is that other dioceses will follow. For several years now, smaller parishes have been clustered together in increasingly large bundles, so as to share a priest. But even this feels unsustainable. The idea that each community has their own vicar – the central justification of the CoE’s role in the establishment – seems set to be a thing of the past.
Mr Trott, the Rector of Pitsford in the Diocese of Peterborough, argues that the rot set in way back in the Seventies when the historic financial assets of individual parishes were effectively nationalised by the General Synod, the Church’s parliament. It was a means of redistributing resources from wealthy to poorer parishes so that parishes like mine could pay their parish priest. But the unintended consequences of transferring all this wealth to the centre was that the centre started to balloon, hiring ever more accountants, administrators and archdeacons.
What were first intended to be support staff for the parish, little by little ended up being the actual purpose of the Church, with increasing numbers of people doing jobs with titles like diocesan missioner and assistant archdeacon. These clergy worked in offices, spent much of their time in meetings and managed a burgeoning administration. And yet these are the sort of jobs you have to do if you want to be a bishop. There used to be 26 dioceses in the Church of England. There are now 42 dioceses – all with their own administrative staff, all with an increasing number of bishops looking after a decreasing number of parish clergy. It is a perfect recipe for institutional collapse.
All this has been accelerated by Covid. When, during Easter no less, the Archbishop of Canterbury advised his parish clergy that they should not enter their own churches to pray, even on their own, even if they lived right next door to the church, a tension was created between the centre and the periphery that has raised a question among many of us who are parish priests about the viability of present structures.
Zoom Church is the future, we are told. No need for all those crumbling old stones was what we heard. Parish clergy are analogue priests for a digital age. Forget all that boring bread and butter work: what is needed is “a fresh expression of church”. With Zoom, everything can be managed from the centre. Little wonder there is a spirit of rebellion in the air.
You might imagine that my own parish in inner city London would be grateful for the support that we receive from the diocese. And indeed, we remain heavily subsidised by wealthy parishes and are hugely appreciative of the dedicated team who support us at diocesan level. But even here, it’s hard to raise money for what can feel to many of my parishioners like some distant bureaucracy. Were they to have much greater management of their own affairs, including the responsibility to support their own clergy, they may take a very different attitude towards the stewardship of the parish’s resources.
But it’s not just churchgoers who are adversely affected by changes that are afoot. The hastening death of the parish will tear the beating heart from many a small place that is reliant upon church to help organise its common life. Yet the response of the centre to the cry of the periphery always tends to be – and here I inwardly groan – the announcement of yet another fancy sounding yet ultimately vacuous missionary initiative.
The parish has long been the jewel in the Church of England and where Christianity finds its most stubborn forms of resilience to secularisation. Which is why it’s such a tragedy that the parish is now under threat from those whose very job it should be to defend it.
Canon Dr Giles Fraser is Rector of St Mary, Newington and a columnist for UnHerd