Scott Anderson argues that the game is up for the traditional parish model and that the Church of England faces a radical overhaul if it is to face the challenge of evangelization in the coming decades

The late Bishop Brian Masters was asked what strategy he thought should be adopted to rationalise the number of churches. ‘We’ll start by closing the ugly ones,’ he replied.

The Church of England has too many – far too many – churches and many of its congregations are too small to be viable. England has changed from a country in which the Christian population needs pastoring, to a country where the pagan population needs evangelizing. So we must ask whether the parish system is a suitable structure for re-evangelizing England.

Catholic heritage

The Anglo-Catholic objection to any tampering with the present arrangements is obvious. It was the parson’s freehold, and the inviolability of the parish boundaries, which enabled the Catholic Revival to take hold in the nineteenth century. Now, it is believed, the parish is the only thing that prevents unsympathetic bishops and wealthy neighbours from dismantling the Catholic network. In fact, that is happening already, and in places like Birmingham, London and Manchester, dozens of once famous Catholic churches have closed their doors.

Is there, then, an alternative to the parish as we have it? If there is, can it provide mission and pastoral care for the poorest areas of our country? This aspect of the Catholic Revival must surely be something to fight for.

Some would say that the Church of England is now less capable of change than any other denomination in England. In the Roman Catholic Church the responsibility for closing a church and regrouping the parishes lies with the bishop. He does it according to simple criteria of having enough churches to provide Sunday Mass for the Catholic population, with the need for each parish to be self-supporting. The responsibility in the Free Churches lies with the congregation. If a church fails to attract enough people to finance and run it, it closes.

Until the 1970s the mission of the Church of England was driven by the need to provide pastoral care for all the people of England. So a parish was created, a priest installed and a church built wherever new houses were built. This was possible for the CofE because the Church Commissioners paid the clergy from the inherited wealth (not from the current income) and benefactors (not the local people) built the churches. So it did not matter if the congregations were small. Indeed, the CofE gloried in not counting ‘bums on seats’ because it was the Church for all English people, and not just those who came.

Then the central money dwindled, and the benefactors died, and the Church of England discovered evangelism.

Now we have to make a colossal shift, from being the national church of the Christian people of England, embedded at the heart of the nation’s life, to a missionary church, converting unbelievers, on the margins of society. The problem is that we do not have the mechanism to make this change, and may not even have the will to do it.

Mobility of population means that there is little time to build up relationships, to teach, and to get people into habits of Mass attendance. With every move it becomes less likely that families will establish themselves in a new congregation. People travel to a church where they feel comfortable. Long working hours mean that such things as the daily Mass, societies and weekday festivals are much harder to maintain. As church buildings age, and administration grows (just think of Child Protection, for example), so the call on the time and energy of the priest and a small number of lay people becomes ever more burdensome.

Changing demographics

Until the sixties, Anglo-Catholic congregations were often made up of the white working classes, and included two or three generations of the same families. Many parishes now have a considerable proportion of their people born outside the UK – in the Caribbean or Africa. Their background culture and their experience of Anglicanism is different, and their expectations of the church life are different, too.

The knowledge and culture of Christianity which had been passed on for centuries until the 1960s is almost nonexistent in anyone under forty. The celebration of Sunday Mass is a spectacle with which many younger people can simply make no connections. The categories of the Scriptures and the words of the preacher are like a foreign language. The generation gap is greater than it ever was, and young people find it difficult to relate to a congregation where they are few people of their own age.

From the top down the Church of England needs to retrench and to create viable and adequately resourced structures, with a limited and focused mission directed towards the conversion of England. We need a maximum of ten dioceses and within each diocese many fewer parishes.

The buildings problem

The main reason for not restructuring is the buildings problem. It is probably now harder to close a church, especially one which attracts the attention of the conservationists. While clergy are often criticised for hanging on in post using the freehold, the many years it takes to close and dispose of a church building are much more damaging to the mission of the parish.

The state has come to rely on the CofE to maintain many of its historic buildings. The Church should give notice that it intends to withdraw from many of them over the next ten years. The Church must stand firm, and some form of National Trust for churches and cathedrals will need to be set up. Such a radical plan would provoke a torrent of abuse from the media, many of them secretly delighted at the ‘failure’ of the Church, and others shocked at the spirit of radical revival in the CofE.

Such a plan would be painful for many clergy and laity, and some would leave. But that is happening at the moment. Surely better the swift amputation of the withered branches than the slow process of attrition which has been going on for the past fifty years. It is time to be brave and clear-sighted. It is time for mission, not conservation.