I, my rural parish church PCC, and congregation wholeheartedly support Save The Parish’s fundamental raison d’etre, motivation, purposes and proposals, of that there is no doubt. Localism trumps centralism every time when the ministry and mission of the parish church are at stake.
This is despite that I have had a few disagreements with the wonderful Emma Thompson who certainly if anyone should have one, deserves a Lay Canonry in some ancient cathedral for her unstinting enthusiasm and work (rather than being called a ‘rascally voice’ by the Archbishops). Moreover, there are a few exceptions, of course, and there must be a few caveats: certain economies of scale can be achieved effectively centrally.
The recently-fashionable concepts of centralising diocesan ‘hubs’ or, worse still, ‘the diocese as the new ‘parish’’ rightly conjure up the frightening spectres of Soviet-style planned economies, with the sacrifice of people on the altar of political dogma and scarcely-Christian principle. Strategically, financially, and pastorally these reorganisation schemes contradict and undermine any proven strategic, financial, or pastoral principle employed elsewhere… unless of course you really have already made the decision to manage decline and are anticipating the worst outcome?
Dioceses, by and large, have failed to manage their housekeeping, some indeed facing bankruptcy, all the while begging for more and more money from beleaguered parishes facing rising costs in their local churches, businesses, and families. Given this record, it would surely not be wise to give them more?
In our own case, we have required the diocesan people – if more money they want – first to submit a coherent and feasible strategic diocesan plan undergirded by an equally coherent and feasible financial plan. In fact, we have reduced our ‘offer’, ‘share’, ‘tithe’, or whatever the latest term is, where we consider a particular element of it not to have been well employed by the diocese. Yes, I know this may sound like – and we have been accused of – ‘Congregationalism’; but my people no longer roll over simply at the mention of the words bishop, archdeacon, or diocese.
My PCC members have firms, charities, and their own families, all facing tough times and forced to cut their cloth according to their purse. Why should the diocese, they say, claim to be an exception, especially when much of the parishes’ money has been wasted on the unnecessary and (see the Chote report for example) the purely speculative?
My own parish is now something of a structural enigma because we fall between two stools – neither big nor small. (Yes, I have just one church!) Here in the rural South-East in the last 20 years, we have seen a huge amount of infilling and new houses added to a once medium-sized village.
The population in those years has risen from 1200 to 1800, with more housing to come. Our congregation is c.250 people, with 35 families with young children. (We too suffer from absent 16 – 30-year-olds but we do employ a Youth Worker who is also Chaplain to our local C of E Primary School and who is welcome also in our huge Secondary Academy in the next-door village to which most of our 11-year-olds go.)
Growing a congregation from a pretty ‘mature’ age top-heavy start is not easy, but it is possible with the right will and love. The first principle is that one does not have to change everything, but the second is that you need to be willing to provide a ‘mixed diet’. Eclectic congregations, styles, liturgies, music, etc are much more fun – albeit challenging! – than dull homogeneity of pretty much any sort.
Someone has to take the lead, and that someone needs to have the support of a PCC which recognises that no growth means atrophy and that, the smaller the present congregation, the shorter the probable lifespan of that church. There is no such animal as a congregation too small or too old to grow: if there is the will and the love, the Holy Spirit will bless the endeavour. One church I knew of grew because six elderly women in their 70s and 80s determined to pray: so, no excuses; but be prepared for exciting times – if you genuinely want to grow. Society is changing so fast and the once accepted givens and expectations between generations no longer generally pertain. Even 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds speak a different language these days, though in my experience the 70-pluses are often the most enthusiastic to welcome change and innovation where they can see the need and the realistic potential for positive outcomes.
I am a ‘middle of the road’ Anglican clergyman who is comfortable in ‘high’ or ‘low’ settings. So, in any one month that holds not Christmas, Easter, Harvest, or Remembrance Sunday, we offer a varied ‘diet’ of services which recognises the eclectic make-up of our congregation, offering balance while encouraging all to step outside of their liturgical comfort zones so that personal taste and prejudice, those terrible twin sisters of congregational atrophy, do not inhibit or undermine the move to a more integrated, loving, and outward-looking ‘church family’.
- At my church, you will find:
- a Prayer Book Communion at 8am every Sunday:
- a 10am ‘Café Church’ 1st Sunday;
- Holy Communion 2nd Sunday + ‘Junior Church (4 -11s);
- Sung Morning Prayer with Question Time (interactive format) + Junior Church 3rd Sunday;
- Sung Morning Prayer + Laying on of Hands for healing + Junior Church 4th Sunday;
- Holy Communion + Junior Church 5th Sunday.
(‘Sung Morning Prayer’ has both organ and choir and ‘music group’ sharing the music.)
We coped very well during Covid lockdown. I refused to close the church and it was used by many from other denominations albeit keeping to government guidelines and rules. Church and village combined to ensure those isolating were cared for with food and ‘phone calls.
I would from experience – some of it sore! – advocate the following Dos and Don’ts for parish clergy and PCCs (whilst recognising that each parish is different, each starts from a different place, and each knows better than any outsider, if not its potential, then certainly its present strengths and weaknesses):
- Be thoroughly and accurately honest about your church’s condition/plight and the need for growth.
- Take a thorough-going biblical, not a worldly, approach to ministry and outreach. It works!
- Don’t make unnecessary changes; employ the Gamaliel principle and take your ideas from God.
- Don’t let the tail (those who won’t change) wag the dog (congregation) if the dog needs the vet!
- More ‘non-churchgoers’ than you think are interested in the Christian faith and would come to church if you invited them personally and accompanied them.
- Pray earnestly and in numbers for growth, and then work with God to make it happen.