Geoffrey Kirk distrusts the Commissioners’ understanding of mission and suggests a more robust local approach

In a useful and readable article about clergy pensions (Pay cuts all round, ND June), Luke Pacioli concluded, of the expenditure of the Church Commissioners, that ‘in 2005 this spending was £24-5 million on bishops, £6-6 on cathedrals, £32-4 million on the parishes (with £4-5 million on mission), £5 million on the Commissioners themselves and £l-6million on the support of church buildings.’

The figures, of course, are indisputable, taken as they are from the Commissioners own website. But they do raise an interesting semantic problem.

What precisely is meant here by ‘mission? Do the Commissioners, for example, suppose that neither the bishops nor the parishes are engaged in mission’? Are our glorious cathedrals and our rich variety of parish churches merely so many venues on the heritage trail? Do they contribute nothing to the Church’s mission? Is mission, in the cant old phrase, always to be distinguished from maintenance, and do all these things come on the ‘maintenance’ side of the balance sheet?

These questions are aggravated by the fact that whatever mission means, it has clearly not been happening. During recent decades (one of those the so-called Decade of Evangelism), the Church of England has continued its precipitate numerical decline.

Every innovation in my thirty years of ministry has been sold as either a missionary opportunity or as necessary to facilitate mission (particularly among the young). The Methodist Reunion Scheme of the Sixties was aimed at removing a skandalon to those (particularly young people) who would otherwise flock to the Church. Ecumenism was seen as a tool of mission. The revision of the liturgy, it was said, would attract those (especially young people) alienated by a linguistic register to which they could not relate. Modern language was the key to mission. The ordination of women was said to be a necessary development in a world which saw the traditional restriction of the ministerial priesthood to men as sexist and unjust. People (especially young people) would recover confidence in the Church once it made the necessary changes. There is, we are told, a compelling missio-logical argument for the consecration of women bishops. None of this is true.

Could this be, as the Commissioner’s figures suggest, because mission has been left to missioners? There was Springboard (who remembers that?) and there are the diocesan missioners. But who asks searching questions about the efficacy of such strategies? Who writes the job descriptions of the missioners, and who assesses their effectiveness? I suspect that no one does. Like youth work and ‘pastoral care and counselling’ the mere existence of agencies is thought to be sufficient.

It is considered almost impertinent to ask what precisely they do and whether it has any effect. Is there, for example, evidence to suggest that growing parishes have received more input from diocesan missioners than declining ones? I doubt it. Nor (to exonerate the missioners somewhat) does anyone seem to notice how thin on the ground most of these agencies are – a tiny proportion of the total ecclesiastical budget, as Luke Pacioli pointed out. Yet does anyone ask the basic and obvious question: if the butter is to be spread so thinly on the bread, why have butter?

Now that former colonial churches are seriously asking whether or not they should set up missionary agencies in the West (Nigeria has already done so in the United States) we need also to question the assumptions which have for too long lain behind our own strategies of mission. A few things are obvious.

The first is that if current mission policies of accommodation to the spirit of the age, and to the Western fashion for mul-ticulturalism had infected, say, Francis Xavier or David Livingstone, there would now be no Global South Christianity to affect or infect the West. The Anglican Communion would be a tired club of religiously indifferent Anglo-Saxons, awaiting their own almost certain demise.

The second is that mission is essentially and necessarily based locally, at the parish level, not the diocesan. Parish priests are (or should be) the front line troops of Christian mission. They have access to people locally, and they head up an existing missionary community (the parish). The homily at the Sunday Mass is a unique opportunity to fire others to proclaim the Gospel – in their places of work and in their daily lives. Talk of the diocese led by its bishop as the missionary unit, is incomprehensible to most ordinary worshippers, and more so to the great unchurched.

The third is that, consequentially, we need to encourage and expect stability and continuity among our parish priests. The current average tenure of office for an incumbent is around seven and a half years. I suspect that that of diocesan missioners is even less (their eyes being set, as they so often are, on a suffragan bishopric or other preferment). As a Vicar who is looking forward to his thirtieth anniversary you will expect me to say this; but a man can only begin to know the people and area to which he ministers at the end of five years. And only after twelve or so will he have gained in wisdom and humility from having to live with his own mistakes.

The last and most important thing is that we need therefore to spend as much as we possibly can on the training and formation of parish priests. That is the missionary imperative. We need not crash courses but residential structures. We would be wise, in our selection of ordinands, to prefer cradle Christians to neophytes. We should be careful to see that they are trained by men who themselves have a sound parochial experience: failed or aspiring academics need not apply. And we should expect of our ordinands both prayer and learning: a discipline of prayer based on the liturgy of the Church and the example of the Fathers; a knowledge of the Scriptures and the tradition, not for its own sake, but to inform that life of prayer.

I have no idea what the Commissioners £4-5 million for mission is spent on, or how much they (or rather we) spend on the training of clergy. But any rational person, in the present crisis, would willingly sacrifice sixty or so bishops to the cause of better formation for the parochial clergy. After all, we would then get better missioners, and ultimately, better bishops.