’We must break from the chains of the past and stop hankering after an imagined past…Regroup to Advance..’
Does this sound familiar? This sort of language, often verbatim, is issued from Bishops, Archdeacons and Rural Deans all over Cornwall. Along with endless exhortations to ‘fruitfulness and sustainability’.
The sentence quoted is taken from a Cornish deanery steering group tasked with exacting ‘fruitfulness and sustainability’ from what remains of the rural church, this all being part of the Truro Dioceses On the Way process.
Like all dioceses, Cornwall’s income has declined and parishes are struggling to pay the ‘MMF’ (parish share). In Truro, each deanery is told to come up with their own answers… or rather, to carry the can.
‘’Stop hankering after an imagined past’. This is a plotline that has come down from the Church hierarchy and is now pervasive in all dioceses. Well, please just let me just tell you about our very recent past, unimagined and richly experienced.
Until seven years ago, the small parishes of Warleggan, St.Neot and Cardinham shared one full-time priest resident in the St.Neot rectory. His name was Andrew Balfour: a diffident saint in the English manner, diligent, endlessly patient and kind, he ministered to all creeds and none.
Running three parishes is a big task not to be recommended… so, naturally, the diocese then gave him a fourth with which to grapple during his final 5 years before retirement. I have no idea how he did it, but he knew everyone by name, led every service, visited all in need, ran a weekly Bible discussion and just lived and breathed what it is to be a committed Christian soul. Andrew was the personification of the art of ‘being’ just as much as the practice of ‘doing’. (Actually, I do know that one of his survival mechanisms was to eschew the use of a computer and to largely ignore Diocesan correspondence).
And Lo! The congregations were loyal and numerous, the MMF (parish share) was always paid in full and the churches were vibrant with festivals, music and all the more peripheral parish events. Andrew didn’t discriminate between the ‘churched’ and the ‘non-churched’, he didn’t particularly aim at youth, children or the elderly… he just spoke to all ages… and all ages listened to him and, more than that, they loved him.
So that was our recent past. ’Fruitful, sustainable’ and inspiring. So yes indeed, why wouldn’t we ‘hanker’ for that? Why wouldn’t we seek to replicate it… because it works!
Localism is the movement of our times. Post pandemic we shop more locally, we socialise, holiday and commute more locally. Perforce we even love more locally.
People of my generation remember when this was the tenor of our lives. Indeed every significant village had its own policeman and, when the police houses were closed, found itself bereft and with crime rising. How interesting now to see that the Police are acknowledging this past error and are looking to restore local residency to renew trust and communication.
Most rural areas were well served in the past by a wonderfully networked rail system. We know what happened to that and the hardship and isolation visited on many rural communities. But yes, here too we see a re-think in progress.
Our modern church so reminds me of Galileo’s papal detractors. They held that the Moon, created by God, was by definition purely spherical and unblemished. Galileo though had spotted through his telescope that indeed the Moon’s surface was diversely patterned by mountains, rocks and chasms. ‘Apostasy!’ said the clerics, with the accompanying whiff of the bonfire. ‘Well, how about having a look through my telescope?‘ Said Galileo. ‘More apostasy !’ came the indignant and self-righteous response.
And so it is with the Church’s approach to the parishes: ‘There is only one way and it is our way!’
Hence Truro’s ‘On the Way’ is pointed in only one direction: The Wrong Way.
The spirit of our times is one of localism. This could actually be the best means of our avoiding ecological collapse. But no, says the church. We must ‘cluster’ our parishes. We must ‘cluster’ and never mind the fact that every Church survey this century has shown that sharing priests over multiple parishes leads to a decline in congregations – as does team ministry, so-called super-parishes, long interregnums and virtually every other wheeze that the authorities come up with to strangle the life out of the rural church.
The Church is set upon a centralising model. Well funded urban churches, with ‘flying vicars’ sporadically serving the periphery. For some, this is seen as an economic necessity and for others, far too many others, it is an ideological mission. If anyone is in doubt of this, please see this quote from a Cornish deanery steering group ‘’The Steering Group has adopted this vision believing it to be the way God is asking us to grow, therefore it is important to note we are not seeking opinions on God’s given vision’.
‘We are not seeking opinions on God’s given vision…’ ! This is the vision that proclaims the closure of churches, the loss of PCCs, the sacking of two incumbents and much more. God’s vision indeed?!
Well, it’s time to fight this self-serving twaddle. There is a better plan.
The Church is currently pumping money into Transformation Churches with, at best, mixed results. There is no money for parishes. This policy has to be turned on its head. We need to demand that within each diocese there should be a number of parishes selected for a three-year trial. Put a priest (the holy kind) into a rectory plumb in the community and give them no more than 2 parishes to minister over. In the meantime, suspend all church closures and job losses; the church has the cash and must use it pro-actively to preserve its irreplaceable network.
Please fight, fight, fight for this in your parish, at the deanery synod and in letters to all in authority.
And, if you don’t get your way, then simply stop paying the MMF (parish share).