Rodney Schofield considers the future of the isolated Catholic Parish

IN THE EARLY 1990’s the Church of England was perceived to be in financial disarray. There was a manifest untidiness about the plethora of corporations and committees which all dipped into the financial pie, without necessarily being fully aware of what others were doing. It was largely because of this mess that the Turnbull Report was on the whole well received: a degree of direction and co-ordination at least in this financial area was seen to be long overdue.

When the Archbishops’ Council finally begins its work, will it however take up other challenges as well? The most recent session of General Synod affords an obvious example of a church struggling along with ad hoc solutions to an issue that has not so far been adequately debated at a national level, and where consensus is obviously far from having been reached. I refer to the separate debates on Extended Communion (or to give it its temporarily preferred title Sunday Worship with Holy Communion in the Absence of a Priest) and Local Non-Stipendiary Ministry (now, for the politically correct, to be termed Ordained Local Ministry). The Business Sub-Committee made no attempt to bring these debates into juxtaposition, nor did any of the background papers help to spell out the connections. But they are transparently different ways of tackling precisely the same problem, viz. the diminishing numbers of available priests.

It is not my purpose to rehearse in detail the arguments about either of these approaches. It should be noted, however, that neither Extended Communion nor Ordained Local Ministry commanded General Synod’s universal support.

1. Of course Catholics are happy to see the Blessed Sacrament reserved for wider use, and perhaps in emergencies such as unforeseen illness. Extended Communion at a main Sunday service is a suitable development of a tradition which has generally been directed to the sick and housebound. To see it as a regular feature of church life, however, for the indefinite future would seem strange for a Christian community called by Our Lord to share with him in the complete eucharistic action.

2. Again, there are no convincing theological arguments against ordained local ministers per se. There would appear to be ample support in the later New Testament writings as well as in the practice of the early Christian centuries. The doubts centre on the terms and conditions of appointment. It is, for example, clear that in many of the dioceses with OLM schemes that the national criteria for selection are waived, as regards “knowledge of the Church of England”, usually also over “leadership qualities” and almost always regarding “academic aptitude”. As a former missionary theologian in Southern Africa I certainly believe that criteria for selection depend very much on the local context, but there’s is a world of difference between allowing these to vary from one part of the world to another and sanctioning discrepancies within a very small geographical area – a benefice, a deanery or a diocese. Given that most attention seems to be focused upon OLMs serving the villages (this was the thrust of the Bishop of Lincoln’s speech), does this not amount to a kind of institutionalised intellectual snobbery, as if anything goes in the country? For the record, there are living within half a mile of my rural church a judge, an ambassador, a business magnate, more than one solicitor, a retired chief constable, naval personnel, authors, teachers, farmers, … even a suffragan bishop.

The unspoken and largely unchallenged assumption in these new provisions is however something different. It is that, come what may, parishes must be supported in their essentially independent existence. Both Extended Communion and Ordained Local Ministry buttress the forces of parochialism, and as yet many bishops have been unwilling to face this catholic aspect of Anglican life in our country, perhaps fearing that any attempt to persuade parishes to co-operate more closely will be seen – as obviously the Bishop of Lincoln sees it – as a threat to the local church building, leading to the disappearance of the smaller Christian communities.

Some years ago the report Faith in the Countryside advocated that there should be a main act of worship in every parish church each Sunday morning. In significant centres of population this is highly desirable, but there are other places where that must surely be an exaggerated aim. Is it appropriate, for example, for a small group of 5 to 10 people to struggle on week by week on their own (even assisted by Extended Communion or an OLM) when within a couple of miles there are other worshipping congregations? Without threatening their church building, available of course for occasional offices, for special feasts, for weekday use, for shared Sunday worship when a priest is available. Should we not be thinking laterally and promoting the linkage of parishes on the basis of faith and “integrity” just as much as on the basis of geography? I fear that if we do not seize the initiative here, outside the strong urban centres of faith Catholicism will be lost by dilution and assimilation as parishes are caught up in ever larger deanery groupings. (Notice how when parishes are brought together in a team ministry, team policies are formed, usually of a permissive nature, which are practically irreversible – no one of a different mind is allowed to join the team.)

Others, I know, may argue that to have their own OLM might preserve a parish’s traditions, more so than any clustering, and that likewise. Extended Communion shared with an orthodox parish might be a blessing. In the short term that might be so. But the longer term reality is that there can be no substitute for the ministry of a properly formed catholic priest, nor can we ourselves be sacramentally one with Christ without regular full participation In the Eucharist at which he himself presides. Vocations to this priesthood must still be sought, and the catholic integrity must insist upon adequate training: but the availability of fewer such priests in the future will also mean, I believe, different structuring of our parochial existence.

Rodney Schofield is Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells