Martin Lewes argues that categorising church and clergy activity as maintenance or mission is unrealistic for most parishes

Recently the Bishop Elect of Truro was quoted as saying ‘there are two types of clergy, maintenance-minded who try to keep the show on the road or mission-minded’.

This kind of sound-bite distinction is meant, of course, to denigrate those who sit on their heels and do nothing, as opposed to those who are energetic and constantly outreaching. But perhaps this over-simplistic, knock-down analysis needs to be addressed more profoundly.

Take the parish which is trying to install a new central heating system. Of course that is maintenance in the most obvious form. On the other hand it is clearly mission because people won’t come and spend time in a church if they are freezing.

Recently we were told of an initiative in which a group set out to be the ‘Church in a pub’. I wonder how many dogged parish priests have visited their pubs with their church members after PCCs or various other events and have listened to the drunken conversations of various enquirers, some of which have led to profitable encounters and others of which have just merely been grist to the mill of being an incarnational pastor among their people.

A priest was told a while ago that they were part of the local scene on the road. How far is that mission and how far is that maintenance?

Attracting new members

So much of what is now put down as challenge in the Church of England is based round ‘are you paying your diocesan contribution and are you looking to grow’?

Many of the parishes that are in fact growing are enlarging via the addition of young families, but it is an obvious fact that young families are strapped for cash at a time of inflation. They are also, for all sorts of children and family reasons, not likely to be in church absolutely every Sunday. There is also a limit to the amount that the golden oldies’ can offload in the direction of their parish because they too are feeling the pinch. Do we seriously think that mission is helped if an old person sits at home freezing while they are giving generously to their parish church?

Too often the official response to a failure to raise quota is that you should get more numbers in but this misses the point that you will not attract new members if the first part of your gospel is ‘cough up in order to join this club’. Yes, proper giving is part of our response to a God who gives himself utterly to us but the financial response to God’s love is not at the heart of the Gospel.

The danger with the kind of thinking that the Bishop espouses is that we will end up with a Church of England which is only thriving in certain kinds of eclectic, probably evangelical parishes, quite often filled with the descendants of the yuppies or in affluent parts of the suburbs.

Forgotten role

But there is something more important here as well. The straightforward incarnational role of the church on the street corner and the priest who faithfully goes to it to say the Offices and from it to visit the sick, prepare those for baptism and confirmation, and minister in the schools, is being forgotten, as clergy are assessed on the number of courses they have attended or organized, most especially ‘enabling the laity’.

Again this favours the kind of parishes where there are liberal numbers of semi-retired people, or those with leisure time to do this kind of activity. In many parishes those who are employed work extremely long hours, and struggle to maintain a successful family life because of it, let alone their commitment to the church and its work.

None of this is an excuse for sitting on our laurels, but is rather a plea for realism in relation to the work of the church. The provision of sensitive, welcoming, God-centred, challenging worship is in itself part of mission, for we need to remember that the mission is Christ’s and not ours. Perhaps we should remember the quote of a former bishop noted for his mission-mindedness: ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son – he did not form a committee’.