John Tomlinson introduces an important new study

During the summer and autumn of last year I had the privilege and the pleasure of visiting several parish priests and congregations of the Catholic Tradition across the north of England. The experience was both moving and at times disturbing. It was moving, because I came across several hard-working and dedicated priests, whose commitment to parish ministry and mission was extraordinary. Eager to talk about their faithful people and excited to be involved in the life of their local communities, with a deep love for all the souls in the parish, they were very keen to speak of the ways, primarily through worship, that bring people closer to God. All of them were convinced that growth, in its different aspects, is the sign of a faithful and healthy Church. However, at times my visits left me disturbed. I came across priests who work so hard that their own wellbeing might be affected, who struggle in parishes that although socially rich are economically deprived, and who often minister with depleted resources and worst of all, a sense that their vocation might be unrecognised or seen as unfruitful.

My journey was across the broad sweep of the Catholic Tradition in the Church of England and included those I chose to categorise as traditional Catholics or liberal Catholics. I am aware that such terminology is imprecise and limited, but it helped me to differentiate between views on the role of women in ministry. Interestingly, this was about the only major issue that might have divided the priests I visited, for there was much agreement and common ground on the catholic theological approaches to parish ministry. Principally, this is founded on the believe in the Incarnation of the love of God as the model for all ministry. Such is expressed in the solid commitment to all the people of the parish, and to the regular and sustaining round of the liturgy, usually in the form of the daily Mass. They could all draw on the rich heritage of the Catholic Tradition characterised in part by some successful and growing churches in very challenging parishes over the last 150 years. 

The results of my study are published in the report Time to Sow in the North. It is not a scientific survey of priests and parishes carefully selected as a representative sample. I simply began by asking one or two key people who I might visit, and then at every place along the way asking for more suggestions. The only qualification was a parish priest, male or female, in the Catholic Tradition, who focused on mission as a key part of their ministry. This did not necessarily mean visiting ‘successful’ priests, whatever that term might mean, but rather those who in their experience of parish ministry had a useful contribution to share about church growth. I travelled within seven of the twelve dioceses of the Province of York and would have liked to have visited many more parishes, but time and opportunity determined that only 23 could be included in the final analysis. It is in some sense a random selection, but nevertheless one that highlights some important themes and conclusions. 

Furthermore, I was able to include in some places a survey of the views of the congregation on one particular Sunday morning. These snap-shot anonymous questionnaires, although again not necessarily representative, were nevertheless the collated opinions and ideas of over 370 people. Common themes emerged from the congregational surveys and these are detailed in the report: an overwhelming desire to see the Church grow, the belief that worship draws people into faith and sustains them in discipleship, a solid commitment to serve the local community, strong support for their parish priest, and a hope that their church could be more involved in paid work with children and young people. 

The report draws attention to the inspiring examples of the faithful parish ministry of parish priests, who every day express how the Catholic Tradition provides the basis for a sustained and growing local church. Furthermore, it is important to note how many of these priests work in economically deprived communities. Well over half of the visits were to parishes in the top 10% of deprivation scores, confirming the impression that the Catholic Tradition has a particular ministry in such areas, maintaining the presence of the Church of England in places where other churches have long since withdrawn. If we have regard for all in society as we should then this is an important contribution to the national mission that needs to be both recognised and actively supported. 

On a personal level as well, parish priests need support. A theme of the report is the need for support networks which empower priests in their role and strengthen their resilience in some very challenging contexts. We would all recognise the need for this in terms of mental health and spiritual well-being. Parish ministry can be a lonely and draining experience without others, perhaps particularly other parish priests, to offer companionship. I discovered that such networks are generally stronger amongst the traditional Catholics where The Society and the SSC provide a framework for fellowship and a degree of informal mentoring. At a time when clergy numbers are reducing a feeling of isolation amongst priests may be increasing. Priests, of whatever tradition, need to be supported if they are going to effective leaders in mission.

Another major theme of the report is the lack of resources in parishes in the north, both in terms of people and financial assets, and how this affects the possible growth of churches. This was an issue that most priests wanted to discuss because they could see the impact of this on the mission of the local church. Many parishes in the north do not have property to bring in substantial rents, nor congregations who can give significant amounts from disposable incomes. Good stewardship is essential for all churches, but churches in the more economically deprived parishes can be burdened by their efforts just to meet the parish share. Generally, the poorer the parish the greater the proportion of their income that is sent to the diocese and spent on essential costs such as insurance. Necessary as such payments are, it is self-defeating and ultimately demoralising if as a consequence the focus and effort is drawn away from mission and growth. 

A further theme in the report is the need to look for three-dimensional growth in churches so that success in mission in all forms is fully recognised and celebrated. This is particularly important in those places where growth seems especially challenging or less obvious. Growth in numbers, growth in spiritual depth and growth in engagement in the community are all part of the task of mission. The first is easiest to record and the other two much harder to measure. I found that growth in some parishes was very evident in the deepening of people’s spiritual lives along with a relentless outreach into the local community. However, there was a feeling expressed by some priests that these, in the view of others, do not count as much. Furthermore, there are parishes where the context is so challenging that to survive and maintain the current life of the local church is an achievement, and ought to be a cause for celebration and thanksgiving.

The report calls for action. Firstly, support growth-minded priests who are committed to the parish ministry that expectantly works for growth, providing for their spiritual and human well-being, and meeting their need for on-going theological training. Parish priests can be very effective leaders in mission when they are adequately supported. Secondly, designate the parishes that should be resourced because they are sustainable and have potential for growth in at least one of the dimensions. This will mean difficult decisions need to be made because resources are scarce and cannot be spread too thinly if they are to be effective. This is a call for investment in some key churches of the Catholic Tradition through SDF bids and diocesan policies, though not in all such parishes as that would not be possible. It is good to see that in a few places this is already happening, although some of the criteria for funding need to take fully into account the expression of growth in churches of this tradition. For instance, very few such churches are large and a project may have to stretch across more than one parish. Thirdly, develop the lay theology for the current context, where the whole Church needs to trained and energised to be the evangelistic servant people of God. Local churches will only grow when lay ministry is renewed, and the Catholic Tradition has much to offer in this respect. In the congregations I met it was good to see a diverse group of lay people, young and old, prominently involved in the Sunday service. Fourthly, develop the theology of the liturgy as mission, a distinctive contribution from this tradition, a feature of evangelism too often neglected and yet proven to work, as I found in many of my visits. 

The report was published just as the pandemic was declared and the activities of the Church began to be severely restricted. In the current climate and recent experiences of churches in the lockdown two further conclusions arise. Firstly, it is in the midst of such a crisis that our commitment to mission is tested. We are finding new ways to reach out to our communities to share the love of God, using innovative methods to proclaim the Gospel. This may be a particular challenge for those in the Catholic Tradition with its emphasis on the Incarnation, expressed in churches open for daily Mass and regular involvement in community life. However, there have been good examples of how churches are providing a liturgical presence online and perhaps reaching more people as a consequence. Secondly, dioceses and parish churches will be adversely affected financially by this crisis, and as such it is more important than ever to commit resources to where the need is greatest and the potential for growth most likely to be fulfilled. If it is the case that the economically deprived communities will be most adversely affected by what is happening, then there is a particular role for churches in such parishes to be supported. And if the churches of the Catholic Tradition are more represented in such communities then it would only seem right that this where the resources of the national church should be directed.

This report is the story of faithful people, ordained and lay, committed to enabling the Church to be sustained and to grow, and is testimony to the depth and devotion of ministry in the Church of England in the north as expressed in the Catholic Tradition. Despite the signs of struggle and challenge, there is tangible hope expressed in their dedication and commitment which shows that this is fertile ground, where it is time to sow to the glory of God.

The Revd Dr John W B Tomlinson is Director of Studies, St John’s College, Nottingham. The report Time to Sow in the North can be read at