Terence Grigg on decline in the Church of England and how we can turn it around

It is obvious that the Church of England is going through a period of great and at times dramatic change. This is particularly true in regard to the parish system. We still claim that every part of England is in a parish, and has a parish priest to serve there and to care for the people in that parish.

Just a few weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury was declaring this on the ‘Today’ program on radio 4, pointing out that no other organisation has an official representative in every part of England, able to see what is going on and to speak on its behalf; someone who actually lives there. As he spoke I spoke to him, not so that he could hear me, but asking does he not know what is actually going on in the Church today and has been moving that was for many years? Does the Canterbury diocese not join up parishes? It all begins with two small country villages, then another one two will be added and in some places it can get to ten parishes, with ten churches, plus schools and frequently church halls as well. Yes, it is true that we used to have a Vicar in each parish in England; but that time has long since passed.

An impossible task

We like the image of one priest in each parish with their church, their people, their vicarage and maybe their own church school; but realistically how can one person manage to perform a proper ministry with eight or ten churches, a large number of buildings to oversee, plus churchyards when they are probably living in another place ten miles away? How can they know their people, visit them, care for them and keep an active, worshipping and preaching ministry functioning in their churches? How do they perform a proper pastoral ministry? How can they get around their numerous churches to lead worship and to feed their people with the Body and Blood of Christ in a regular pattern? How do we pass on our faith and our ministry to a future generation? One deanery in the York diocese has had two clergy leave due to the strain put upon them and the impossible task. You cannot do a job like that of a Superintendent Methodist Minister but be expected to act and perform as a parish priest of the Church of England. We do not have Chapel Stewards, a vast army of local preachers or even lay celebration of the sacraments. In the Exeter diocese they are now having great difficulty in electing even two churchwardens in some parishes.

Urban problems

If this is how it is in the country then in some towns it seems to be worse. One town in Yorkshire has linked up

two parishes, separated by a third. This was considered to be the best solution to them being of different styles of worship and theology. Sometimes we try to join parishes together, ignoring the fact that they have different ideas and beliefs about faith. This is not just about being high or low, charismatic or conservative, simple worship with no vestments or full worship with catholic privileges: rather, this is very often about an understanding about the fundamentals of faith. We have a severe shortage of clergy and to fill the gaps we have introduced non-stipendiary clergy, often trained on courses and in a short space of time. We have sought out lay readers, lay ministers, pastoral assistants and retired clergy; without these the whole system would collapse.

How often have you heard some poor rural dean announce that the deanery has to lose one full time post or maybe that the number of clergy is to be reduced by losing half a post? The diocese here is passing on the problem to a local group, who, if asked would no doubt say there should be no reduction at all. The rural dean cannot suggest that perhaps if some reduction is needed then it would be better to lose an Archdeacon or a clerical advisor. Deaneries have been told they need to reduce the number of stipendiary clergy at the same time as there has been an increase in clergy advisors and Archdeacons. The Diocese of Chelmsford has increased to six Archdeacons and the diocese of Durham to three. All of these increases have to be paid for by each parish when they themselves produce no quota payments at all.

Turning it around

Is there any hope, or way out of this mess? Yes, there is. Firstly we must believe that God is in charge. It is his Church and he has a purpose for it. We must seek his will and his guidance. The task is enormous but it is not impossible. I believe that where God leads he also provides and I am convinced that when people see a new vision in the Church and that vision is beginning to happen, funding will flow in and so will the people to do the job.

A parochial example

I know a parish in the North of England that is a credit to the Church of England. They have never been held back by a lack of funds even though it has no wealthy benefactors and the parish is in a former mining village. They have a strong and dedicated leadership. Over the years they have established a daily mass and offices said publicly in church and these are well attended. They have restored the church to a place of beauty and prayer. When it was decided that they should reach out to more young people they prayed and worked towards getting their own youth worker. The parish had a ruined church hall, the local council could not afford to run a local community centre, they worked to raise money and now have a very good and useful parish centre. The parish needed a curate to help in the work, they prayed and gave, and now they have a curate and the parish owns the house he lives in. They also now have a pastoral assistant, in addition they have someone in reader training and there are already men considering the call to ordination.

They have learnt and they are still learning that God leads and he does provide, and all of this has to be undergirded in prayer. The parish has also learnt something else: they cannot live for themselves and so they are also generous in giving to overseas missions.

Not decline but growth
If this kind of change can happen in one parish, why can it not happen in a diocese or province or the whole national church? We do not need bishops consecrated to manage decline but bishops and leaders who want to see the church grow and who pray, preach and teach to that effect. It can and it does happen. When Archbishop Coggan was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury he used his enthronement sermon to call for more vocations to the priesthood. Many people thought he was mad, but the result was that the Church of England saw a marked increase in men considering the call to priesthood. Where God leads, he also provides. Our parish system is creaking dreadfully, but it is not finished. There is hope for our part of the Christian church. May our leaders see this, preach about this and pass on that hope to all of us. ND