James Walters finds that this new campaign takes us only so far
Three-word slogans have proved powerfully effective in shaping the public imagination in recent years. So the campaign launched at the beginning of August to “Save the Parish” may gain surprising support in the upcoming General Synod elections among those wearied and worried by the current iconoclastic refashioning of the Church of England. But if the campaign’s intention is to “take back control” of a Church that appears to be undervaluing local community and inherited tradition, then we should be wary of the appeal of nostalgia for an unsustainable (and quite often mythical) past. Even in the wealthy Diocese of London, the ‘priest in every parish’ model is on the way out and across the rest of the country adapting the infrastructure of Christendom to the realities of a secularised and multifaith present has been the norm for some time.
In the campaign to leave the European Union, “British Sovereignty” was presented as the rather nebulous solution to a range of social problems from the underfunding of the NHS to the neglect of post-industrial communities. The mistake of the Remainers was not merely to ridicule the proposed solution but more fundamentally to ignore the problems. The mistake of the Leavers was to think that their solution was the right one. There are similar dangers at play in the Church of England where the championing of “The Parish” may be an ill-defined rallying cry in response to other serious problems in our theological and corporate life. Opponents may ridicule the campaign as a paranoid conservatism, but their error is to ignore the problems to which it responds and it is on these that we should focus our attention.
The truth is that, despite high profile denunciations of “limiting factors”, there are very few people in the Church of England hierarchy who despise, and work for the abolition of, the parish system and its hardworking clergy. But there are many who simply have no idea what they are really for. Their ecclesiology is one of an anxious mission agency that must focus exclusively on growth. Many regard the “trappings” of church buildings, holy orders and sacramental ritual as anachronistic obstacles to the goal of evangelism in a secular age. They have embraced what Bishop Richard Chartres recently described as the reduction of “the Christ-given sacramental character of the Church to a thin and insubstantial sociological concept.”1 They instrumentalise the Church for the purpose of spreading the Word. It is not, to them, the mystical Body of Christ so much as an infrastructure of transmission.
So I worry less about an attack on the parish in the Church of England than I do about a loss of the catholic imagination that makes sense of it. Anglo-Catholicism enacts a sacramental shaping of time and space that is the Church orienting the world towards its home in the Kingdom of God. The liturgical year is a rhythm for life that enables us to inhabit God’s time within the material cycles of the created order. It is the opposite of the breathless missional immediacy that is being imposed on us with (as we have seen in the weekly online national service) its relentless demand for innovation and diversity.
And the parish is an exercise in the sacramental shaping of space. A locality, the land itself, Christians and non-Christians are all caught up in the knitting together of a new humanity for the outworking of his purposes in a particular place. It is redemption at work in real lives, families and communities, and – as we are increasingly aware – in creation itself as we make efforts to live in harmony and sustainability with the non-human world. This is a project worthy of defending. But it is not the only sacramental shaping of space. Chaplaincies, religious houses, new worshipping communities, even the ministry of Walsingham, have all been extra-parochial elements of our tradition. Different forms of church life are not missionary alternatives to the parish. For us any expression of the life of the Church will be apostolic in its own way; it should not be instrumentalised for evangelism and numerical growth.
Renewal and Reform led to several proposals to put more explicit emphasis on the evangelistic role of university chaplains, seemingly oblivious to the hostility this would generate in secular institutions, many of whom fund the post. But over my time as chaplain to the London School of Economics I have sought to navigate delicate relationships within the institution while fashioning a ministry consistent with a sacramental worldview. This has taken two directions. The first has been interfaith relations. LSE has students from 150 countries, 60% of whom come to London from outside of Europe. It is therefore an unusually religious student body and one reflecting all strands of Christianity and every other world faith. Many come from countries where religion is a critical dimension of national politics and social conflict. The LSE Faith Centre runs programmes promoting religious literacy and interfaith leadership to form future peacemakers.
This work does not fit within the priorities of the Church of England’s infamous vision diagram, but it sees mission as something more than a marketing campaign for God. Within a sacramental worldview we can see the divine present in other religious traditions and work with them for the flourishing and peace of our world. Our strand of Christianity allows people to adopt a faith that is confident of an encounter with God in the Eucharist and is premised on bold truth claims about the centrality of Jesus. But we can say with generosity and sincerity that people of other faiths are not wasting their time or gambling with their eternal destiny. As we witness to the intensity of Christ in the sacraments we can encounter him in his extensity in the world and we can see both our theologies and our religious practices as starting points for a common journey into the fullness of truth.
The second strand has been the establishing of a new worshipping community, supported with Strategic Development Fund money, that has sought to make worship and Christian formation more accessible to students of an unchurched generation. Working with my colleague at University College London, we learnt a lot from the Bishop of Islington’s church-planting course at the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication but have remained faithful to a catholic understanding of worship and witness. One student who was baptised by the Bishop of Fulham at “The Anchorage” three years ago begins training for ministry at St Stephen’s House this Michaelmas.
So let’s not allow our belief in the gift of parish life and ministry to detract us from the challenge of innovation in our age. The General Synod may need more people willing to speak up in defence of the Church’s historic infrastructure and patterns of worship. But, in my experience, what it needs far more is passionate advocates for a Christian understanding that is deeply rooted in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith and applies that rich heritage and wisdom to our spiritually challenging times.
The Revd Canon Dr James Walters is chaplain to the London School of Economics.
1 From the sermon preached at St Mary’s, Bourne Street on Saturday 17th July 2021, at a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Fr Bill Scott. (see pp 12-13 in this issue)