Robbie Low unveils plans to be put before the Archbishops’ council which could mean the end of the parochial ministry as we have known it

LAST MONTH our editorial office received a copy of a document entitled, “A further approach to ministry issues”, written by Michael Turnbull, Bishop of Durham. As we were just going to press and the “Sunday Times” was running an article on the leak, there was only time for an editorial comment.

Although it is a brief paper, two sides of A4, I believe it is worth returning to it for a more detailed examination. The paper, prepared for the Archbishop’s Council, calls for radical thinking about the parish structure. It advances the view that “in many areas the parish hinders mission rather than enhancing it”. Turnbull himself believes that “in some areas the parochial system is collapsing” because clergy feel “isolated” and “failures” and suffer from “low morale”. He is troubled by the inability of ” small, elderly, poor congregations” to pay their way and sees them as a deterrent to “lay training” and “lively worship”.

He argues that “parishes are strong” when “teams of clergy work collaboratively with strong, prayerful, visionary leadership” with “clear teaching and well planned worship…giving is close to the tithing requirement” and the congregation is eclectic i.e. people travel in.

He acknowledges that the use of the Pastoral Measure to go on endlessly “bolting parishes together” to “the detriment of pastoral care and evangelism” and with disastrous consequences for “the health and morale of clergy and active lay people” has to stop.

Before analysing any of the above it is perhaps worth raising at least one “hurrah”. It is true that this document was not meant to see the light of day but it does at least reveal that, behind all the spin and haughty denial there is, at least, a private recognition of what many of us have been saying publicly and privately for years, that there is a crisis of severe proportions. But it is only one “hurrah” for the analysis raises more questions than it answers.

It is, I think, unarguable that in many areas clergy morale is low. The often illegal and persistent abuse of the Pastoral Measure by successive diocesan bishops nationwide has asset stripped rural communities, in particular, and bequeathed an intolerable workload on country parsons. Laity in these communities have learnt that the diocese is as careless as it is rapacious and their generosity and enthusiasm have often waned accordingly. Losing parson, parsonage and glebe in 30 years and then being told you are inviable as a Church is scarcely encouraging and is, in reality, little more than institutional theft.

Clergy morale has also suffered on two other counts. The reductionist liberal training programmes at many seminaries and courses has often left clergy gravely under equipped to fulfil their vocations and seriously undermined their confidence in the Word of God. At the same time as they experience the bankruptcy of the liberal position they are obliged to watch its foremost exponents carefully avoid parish life and emerge as their “line managers”.

There is also the small matter of episcopal care. Bishops are so busy doing other things – mainly meeting each other – while farming out their task to rural deans and assessment facilitators that it is possible to pass a whole ministry without a serious pastoral initiative from the man whose ministry you are seeking to carry out. A man who resigned recently told me that in all his time as an ordinand, in training and 18 years ministry the bishop had never contacted him or sought to see him. His resignation was met with a perfunctory letter of acknowledgement. He would have found life under a PEV very different.

Turnbull calls for parish models of strong, prayerful, visionary leadership with clear teaching. But what of the dioceses? No one doubts that bishops say their prayers but it is difficult to see how more than a handful of the current bench and suffragans-in-waiting qualify on the other counts. Indeed the appointments system is designed to ensure that no such strong visionary leadership can emerge.

His assessment of parish strengths is dubious. He asserts “that parishes are strong when teams of clergy work together collaboratively”. You do not need to be a genius to recognise that when the team boss is good you get a better result than when he is not but teams themselves are not the answer – nor is there any evidence that they are. Teams are usually at their most efficient when newly-formed from willing and chosen participants. The changing dynamics of the team with personnel movements absorbs enormous energy into itself – often with unhappy consequences and costly adjustments. Teams often spend far too much time in meeting each other, tripping over each other’s areas and being careful to avoid areas of doctrinal or ethical conflict thereby obscuring rather than clarifying teaching. I have worked in good teams and bad teams and missioned in parishes with both and it seems to me at best wholly simplistic and at worst deliberately misleading to propose them as an answer 30 years after they were first put forward as such and have subsequently failed to deliver anything other than substantial overall decline.

But… this is what Turnbull does. By suggesting that the Archbishop’s Council should use “the current shared ministry language” he believes people can be sold a 60 per cent cut in parishes and the advent of locality Ministry centres, centralised teams and clergy cuts! He believes this would take pressure off diocesan budgets. But even this “benefit” is illusory. Whatever temporary relief may be obtained by such a measure would be more than overtaken by a further decline in membership and giving as the church detached from its communities.

Notice, if you will, that in all of this there is no suggestion of even the smallest cut in bishops, archdeacons, dignitaries and functionaries. The proposal is for yet more centralisation – the very policy that has proved so disastrous is to be pursued more ruthlessly than ever. The paper will be, as last month’s editorial noted, put to a council whose bishops’ total time in charge of parishes averages a mere five years and almost all of that in the 1970s.

The parish churches of England deserve better than yesterday’s failed ideas imposed upon them by those who have chosen not to dwell in them and will not have to live with the consequences.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Albans