On the social spectrum between supermarkets and museums, there is a discernible trend to move away from past policies of centralisation and to acknowledge the importance of increased local services. All the major supermarkets have re-established local outlets as they have recognised the crucial role of ‘presence’ even in relatively small communities. These so-called, convenience stores are part of a wider policy to access local produce and local suppliers. In short, they have realized that they need to be closer to their customers. Museums, once seen as the preservers of historic, dusty artefacts, are being redefined with a new mission to help to shape the future. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, will shortly broadcast a new radio programme “The Museums that make us”. He is in no doubt that ‘The idea of any central control of museums is an absurdity’. His travels around the country have convinced him that the best museums are – and should be- very local. After all, these are the places where memories inform stories and these stories are integral to the identity of a locality where people belong.
The parish church is, undisputedly, the sign of presence. Closure means absence and, even worse, abandonment. It is also the locus of history, an important constituent in the stories that are told and the perception of identity. Legion are the stories of people identifying with a parish church because that is where a grandparent was born or where parents were married.
‘Presence’ and ‘memory’ are important to the identity of a locality. Surprisingly, this is the case in the highly urbanised, constantly changing social context where I worked in London’s East End. Even there it was recognised that the parish church carried something of the history; something of the story of the local area that was an essential part of its identity. In fact, the local parish priest was very often the person who was around longest in a world where councillors came and went, the local mayor did not last long and where the area police commander changed every three years. Even in this highly secular social context, the slight suggestion of a church closure was enough to elicit very considerable local opposition. There are periods when the church is called to hold things for a society that cannot, for the time being, hold for itself.
In my experience, it was not hard to identify quite a few churches which would qualify for closure from time to time. But this is the point, populations change and social contexts change from time to time. Close a church today and who knows what demographic movement and mission opportunity will be announced tomorrow. As Bishop of Stepney, I had to consider the future of a parish church that easily suggested itself for closure. Yet, it was not long after when the news broke that Britain had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. In five years’ time, the Olympic Games was held in that same parish with all the regeneration and mission opportunity that followed. It must also be added, much as we hate to admit it, that on more than one occasion a change of incumbent has resulted in a positive change of fortune and a once-moribund parish has come alive. No one can tell what lies in the future. New housing developments, different work patterns and the volatility of a changing world can soon alter the social landscape.
No one can deny that there are churches complacent beyond measure. Such churches have no real commitment to mission in any form and simply want to carry on in their own way. But then, it must be added, there has been little incentive for them to do otherwise. For good or ill, historic resources have been taken away and the resulting mindset has been to raise money for the church roof or to keep pace with ever-increasing contributions to the diocesan Common Fund. A different financial model might make a change to that mindset. I once asked a group of incumbents to tell me what they would do to advance their parish mission if they were given access to a realistic pot of money. Unsurprisingly, they found it hard to move their thinking from raising money to survive to spending money to grow. I wonder what might happen if there was a mission pot and parishes were given the opportunity to so sharpen their plans for mission that they could make a case to access the initial funds which would give them a chance. This is hardly new thinking. It is the biblical principle of sowing the seed not stripping the land. It is the policy that has sent money overseas to mission partners. It was the policy pursued by the Church Urban Fund and it is the practice of Christian Aid to help others help themselves.