William Nye continues his discussion of how we might play our part in mission
What resources do Society parishes have for this task? I would just make two practical points. First, the great gift that most Society parishes have (not all, but most) is people. If attendance at the average Society parish is higher in absolute terms than in the average Church of England parish, then you have the gift of people. It may not always feel like that. They may need encouragement and energizing and galvanizing and confidence building. So do people in all parishes, of all traditions. But you have people. Think of them positively, and what you can do with them as a gift. And secondly, we are here to support you. Renewal and Reform is intended to support every parish and every tradition, including all your Society parishes.
We are increasingly looking at how we can help support and resource those ‘average-sized’ parishes, the parishes in the middle third of the country with congregations of between 20 and 60 or 70. We are not just helping, as sometimes people think, large and very large parishes, but we are seeking to support evangelization and discipleship in every type of church.
And how are your parishes responding? You will have heard already about the Society’s document on a vision for evangelization, ‘Forming Missionary Disciples.’ I was very encouraged to see the Society developing this vision, and I was fascinated to read Fr Damian Feeney’s account of it in his lecture earlier this year at Wakefield, which was published in New Directions. Your vision has, of course, distinctively catholic elements, and rightly so: ‘excellence in worship’, as we experienced this morning, and ‘celebrating sacramental priesthood.’ But it also meshes completely with the national church’s overall vision, as expressed in the ‘quinquennial goals’ which underlie Renewal and Reform. It’s all there. Numerical growth—yes. Spiritual growth—yes. Reimagining ministry—well, that means both priesthood and formation, so—yes. Serving the common good—absolutely, yes. Your vision for evangelization is a vision that chimes with the mission of the church nationally, and which the church nationally should encourage. That still means, of course, working with and alongside other non-Society parishes, as part of diocesan strategies for growth, in the spirit of mutual flourishing. But it also means making the most of your own Society network, and encouraging growth all across it.
I promised a little while ago a few words of hope. What has been the impact of Renewal and Reform so far? First, there are some areas where we are definitely seeing fruits, and the prospect of a plentiful harvest. In highlighting some of these areas I would encourage you to think in each case: how does this bear on Society parishes? How can it help my parish? How can I make use of this development in my parish? How can I join in? How can I reach out for support to help participate in this contribution to growth?
I mentioned already that this year no fewer than 585 people are starting training for the priesthood, up 22% in only two years. I am so thankful that the church had the courage to set an aspiration of increasing vocations to ordained ministries of 50%, with the result that we have achieved 22%. Had we set a target of, let us say, 20%, we might have achieved 10% and been pleased about it. Vocations is, I imagine, an area where your parishes should be quite strong, given your commitment to priesthood. And the national church wants your parishes to be strong in this area, to be encouraging more people to hear a possible call to priesthood or the diaconate. Keep doing all you can.
The second area I want to highlight is digital. We have had a number of digital campaigns, both for discipleship and for raising awareness and helping encourage people to church. Last year’s Advent and Christmas campaign, #GodWithUs, reached 6 million people digitally. This year’s campaign, #FollowTheStar, will, we hope, do even better. Every church, of whatever tradition, can join in and make use of these resources and campaigns.
Messy Churches is not per se a part of Renewal and Reform, but is very important. There are 2,000 across Britain and 1,400 across the Church of England. They can be adapted for every tradition. As it happens, I sometimes take my daughter to a Messy Church, when I am occasionally able to get away from work on a weekday afternoon to do so. It happens to be in a parish that is partly Society-affiliated, and it works very well indeed there. I recently visited two tiny village churches in Herefordshire, each with an electoral roll of under 20. Yet each of those two churches had also reached out to the families in their village by starting Messy Churches.
Perhaps the most obvious headline for Renewal and Reform is the Strategic Development Fund, which has awarded £44 million of grants for 23 projects. The vast bulk of this is rightly for diocesan projects. But dioceses, in the spirit of mutual flourishing, should engage all traditions in their strategies for growth, and Society parishes—if they have the will and the intention—have as much chance as any of participating in initiatives funded through SDF.
One promising area for growth has been the spread of ‘resource churches’: churches that aim to grow in order to help other churches, to plant further churches, and to give themselves away rather than just growing in one site. Many of these so far have been in city centres, often in areas of student population, and rightly so: we need to reach out much more effectively to students and young people. But in many dioceses we are also seeing candidates for resource churches for rather less glamorous towns, not just the obvious main cities. I mean no offence to the inhabitants of any of these places when I say it is tremendous that the church is now reinforcing its efforts in places like Swindon, Crawley, Grimsby, Dudley, Mansfield, and so on. But are there thriving Society churches which could take on this role, as part of a diocese’s contribution to growth? Are there Society parishes in areas close to universities and colleges—and there are almost 200 university campuses across England now, many of them almost completely unreached by the Church—who can reinvent themselves, or create new parallel congregations designed to appeal to students and young people, while still being true to your catholic traditions?
There are other areas of work at an earlier stage, where the prospects are looking good. ‘Setting God’s People Free’ is a real effort to improve discipleship or faithfulness, or confidence in the Faith amongst the laity. And surely that is as relevant in catholic parishes as in any other? And what about planting churches? The House of Bishops has issued a policy statement saying that it favours planting in general, and making clear that this is something for all traditions to do. If planting churches is working well as a way of bringing more people to faith in the evangelical tradition, why not in the catholic tradition as well? And then there are the digital efforts.
We are developing networks across the country, to try and bring together parishes in similar contexts so that they can learn from each other and share ideas. The strongest of these so far is Bishop Philip’s Estates network, which is inspiring hope for our mission in previously neglected outer estates. But we are also looking at developing networks for rural areas, for coastal towns, and for other groupings that might benefit from working together.
These are, I hope, all ways in which the initiatives of Renewal and Reform can support and complement the vision of ‘Forming Missionary Disciples’ and vice versa. Please make use of these initiatives, draw on these resources, and demand support from diocesan and national sources for your vision and commitment to growth.
Can I end with one further thought? The vision for growth needs to be a vision for everyone to participate in, for everyone to contribute to. ‘Forming Missionary Disciples’ rightly talks about being intentional in evangelism: being intentional, being deliberate, making the effort to reach out. It is about having the confidence in our faith to reach out—and to overcome our English, Anglican, often middle-class scruples and reservations about talking about Christianity—and invite people to come to church and experience our faith.
I mentioned 1 in 50 (the proportion of the population in our churches) as a number that burns in my mind. Here’s another way that it should burn in your minds. Imagine that we became more intentional. Imagine that we became more invitational. Imagine, just for a moment, that many more people in our congregations had the confidence to invite people they know to come to church. Imagine that most of our congregations had the confidence to do that. Well, we would like as many as possible to do that, but here’s the thing: from all the people who might invite their friends to come to church, it only takes 1 in 50 of the people in our congregations successfully to do so once a year, and for that person to stay, for the decline in our churches to stop. If, in each year, you can have the confidence to ask enough people to church such that just 1 in 50 of the congregation successfully asks an extra person who stays, then our churches will stop shrinking. Surely that’s doable? And if we could have more than 1 in 50 people successfully ask people to come, then our churches would start growing. Trust me, I know how hard, how counter-cultural this can be. Speaking for myself, I have only very recently got over my inhibitions about inviting some of our non-churchgoing friends to our carol services and family masses, and they haven’t all started coming, so I do understand the challenge. But it is so worth doing. Remember, it will make a difference even if only 1 in 50 invitations leads to someone coming to faith.
I want to end with a prayer. And I trust you won’t mind that it’s Lutheran, rather than catholic: Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
William Nye is Secretary General of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council. This paper was delivered to the 2018 Forward in Faith National Assembly.