Paul Noble on the joys of life in the ‘C’ stream

Do you remember the days of rigorous steaming in secondary schools?

The brightest swots were in the ‘A’ stream, the not so bright in the ‘B’ and in the ‘C’ the thickest and usually the most troublesome pupils. There were advantages in being in the ‘C’ stream, not as much was expected of them and while they seemed to be the pupils who got into the most scrapes they also seemed to have the most fun.

Apart from academic aptiude I often think that there is much common ground between ‘C’ parishes and those old Grammar School ‘C’ streams. We’re looked down upon by those in the staff room as well as by those who look to get the school prizes. There’s not much chance of any of us becoming prefects and we’re certainly the ones making the most trouble. But we do have fun and life in the ‘C’ stream of the Church of England makes it definitely the best place to be. In saying that, I write as a priest whose time in parishes has been split with just under ten years before the Act of Synod and just over ten years after.

The former Archbishop of York who steered the 1993 Act providing Alternative Episcopal oversight through the General Synod, in writing for New Directions earlier this year, said that the Act was intended to give clergy the same rights as laity – it means priests are able ‘to receive pastoral care from likeminded bishops, just as lay people can distance themselves from the Measure if their parish chooses to invoke its restrictive clauses.’

Inasmuch as the Act was designed for priests it has certainly been effective. Before 1993 (except for priests in a few and very favoured dioceses) clergy seemed to think something great was achieved to have a diocesan bishop or even suffragan bishop who dressed up as required for the parish and did liturgically what the parish did. That the poor man didn’t believe or only half-believed in what the vestments and actions were supposed to signify didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that the next Sunday or the very next day he would dress and act in ways which denied everything he’d been signifying in your church! It displayed a mind set going back years during which Anglo-Catholics gratefully seized on the crumbs of the compliant outward display which were occasionally offered them. We’ve come to see better and expect more now.

During the last ten years the provision of Resolution ‘C’ has meant my being able to look to bishops who worship as I and my parish do naturally; to men who appreciate what their spiritual position in God’s Church means to me; to men, most importantly of all, who believe like me, understand like me and love like me all the mysteries and the majesty of the faith. The great gift of life in a ‘C’ parish is the integrity between bishop and parish priest that just wasn’t there before; we speak to one another in the same language. As I write this I’m preparing for a pastoral visitation from the Bishop of Richborough. In earlier days an episcopal pastoral visitation would have been something to dread. It would mean trying to answer for my work to someone who probably wouldn’t appreciate at all where I and my parish were coming from. Of course, I may in that process now be slated by my Father in God, but if so will be forced to acknowledge to myself that it’s not possible to evade his strictures because the bishop doesn’t understand me or my parish. That must be good for my humility and my priesthood.

However, if Bishop John Habgood saw the Act of Synod as something mainly for priests, those parishes which have passed Resolution ‘C’ are indirectly receiving enormous benefits themselves. Church of England parishes exist now in an ecclesiastical system where their autonomy is respected less and less. As diocesan structures have grown more and more mighty the importance of individual parishes has diminished. It is a trend that looks set only to accelerate. Parishes can expect to be merged into clusters or become part of a deanery of merged parishes to operate as the base level of church life. Bishop Edwin Barnes often reminded us pointedly that clergy were there to support the people and not the people the clergy which often seemed the case. ‘The people of God are the important ones, not bishops and priests.’

We find ourselves with a structural system which has also been turned on its head. It is in parishes that the work of the Church is done, yet parishes seem to exist only to uphold the diocese, instead of the diocese upholding each parish. That is not the case in the ‘C’ stream. Our bishops support our parishes and know they really exist for them; without weighty diocesan structures we have the privilege of receiving and the blessings of knowing a truly pastoral and more authentic apostolic ministry than has been seen in England for a long time. We also have in our bishops important advocates to support our distinctive place and independent position which is what one would have thought every parish that has any zeal for the faith would strive to retain when weakened and demoralized congregations are being grouped and merged all around them. The advantages and freedoms our parishes posses through resolution ‘C’ are precious indeed.

There are still on the one hand priests and on the other hand parishes who think that life in the A & B streams of the Cof E mixed comprehensive is the best the school can offer. It’s not. In the ‘C’ stream the work is the same and the subjects are similar but the teachers are better and the morale and solidarity of the class very high.

Paul Noble is parish priest of St Nicholas, Skirbeck, Boston, in the diocese of Lincoln.