Thursday, 1 November 2012

Grass-roots from the top-down

An article from Andrew Brown highlights the issues of the Church of England in the countryside. And yet the title: "Wanted: new Archbishop of Canterbury - must have plans to fill the pews" seems to contradict the general tenor of the article that managerialism has failed. If the managerial model has failed, how will central planning help?

Andrew lists a number of problems for the rural church:

  • The inability to afford the necessary number of stipendiary ministers.
  • The inability to pay for the upkeep of ancient, listed buildings - buildings that are, in any event, too big for the congregations.
  • A disconnect between village churches and village communities.
  • The migration of the young to towns

These of course aren't just problems for the rural church. The Post Office, and village shops, are in much the same state. You could list a remarkably similar set of problems for the rural pub:

  • The price of labour.
  • The cost of maintenance of ancient buildings - particularly when compared to the value of their beer gardens for development as "executive housing"
  • People in villages would rather buy their beer and wine at Tescos and watch X-factor.
  • The migration of the young to clubs and super-pubs in towns

As Andrew notes, the logical thing for rural churches to do would be what the pubs are doing. i.e. close down until there are few enough left that they can be supported by the punters available. Yet the resistance to a country church closing is even greater than that to the pub going. And because communities "own" the church in the way they don't the pub, they'll stay open, defying gravity, pretty well until the last member has died. At which point the building will be Somebody Else's Problem. It's incredible how few Church of England church buildings close. And unlike the pubs, you can't sell off the "gardens" for new housing. The church, more than the pub, retains the memory of former members - and the former members as well.

So I don't know what it is that the new bloke (for bloke, of course, it will be) will be able to do about this. A top-down style, as suggested by the title of the article, won't work. A campaign to close the smallest churches would be ignored at the grass-roots. The withdrawal of paid ministers from such parishes will put an unbearable load on the ones that are left - and cause the retired ministers to soldier on, ever older, in order that every parish may have its Sunday Eucharist.

Personally I blame the "Parish and People" movement. By its expectation that the regular form of worship in a Church of England church should be communion, and should be every Sunday, and should be (give or take) 9am, it put an intolerable load on the church just when it definitely wasn't able to bear it. It made sure the church service was too early for the non-committed to think about going (on a Sunday morning, when sleeping off a boozy Saturday at the now-non-existent village pub). It meant vicars tearing around increasingly-large benefices on exhausting Sunday morning circuits. It then made the available service the one that explicitly marks off the "in" from the "out" at the end. It gave the Church the kind of church it wanted - and didn't worry about the effect on the non-Church.

It may be too late for many village churches - the rural C of E may be going the way of the rural Methodists and Congregationalists. The active members may be too old for the change, and for the effort required. But maybe there's still time for some to respond. Move the Mass to a warm house, in the evening, during the week, instead of the house-group or Bright Hour or some such. Move the service to 11 o'clock. Move the service to the pub - if there still is one - it's warm in there. Do something. Do the right thing for the place. But don't add new stuff while refusing to lose old things - that's just making things worse, and wearing everybody out.

Or leave things as they are. Let the church building die with its last parishioner. Maybe that's just the natural way of things. And if it is, in some places, accept it. Old things do die in the end.


  1. Or bring back tithing. I mean church members everywhere give fully 10% of their income to the church (or, perhaps, 5% to church and 5% to other charities)... watch as suddenly there is quite a bit more money floating around (if still not quite enough). Ask people to put their money where their mouth is. Yes, even in the suburbs.

    Maybe that's part of the difficulty: we don't know how to ask people "inside" the church for serious money any more, because we're afraid of scaring them into "outside". And we daren't ask people "outside" for any money either, I mean, why would they join when it's going to be demanding and expensive and require an actual change of lifestyle?

    It'll never catch on. :/

  2. I agree, having Communion every Sunday in small village churches means that the service is seen as boring and exclusive by non church goers and even at services that should be family friendly such as Harvest half the time is taken with liturgy unfamiliar to most there. Also if the proportion of Communion services were reduced more use could be made of lay ministers which would mean that the small village churches wouldn't get either long retired vicars (some excellent, but some beginning to lose the plot) or a shared vicar trying to break the BCP speed record in order to get to the next church in the benefice three quarters of an hour later.

  3. Or non-clergy could be permitted to preside at Communion? [after a suitably exhaustive selection process and interminable theological training of course..)

    1. At the end of which you might as well ordain them?

  4. If I was ever in the position to do so, I suspect Church-in-Pub would be exactly what I would do.

  5. Church is church whatever or wherever it is. Not just in ancient, cold, drafty buildings. Fresh Expressions is taking it to the world in new ways. But some of the old guard are willing to go to enormous lengths to protect their position that traditional church is best, even if it has a finite survival span. Are we waiting for them all to retire or to die?

    In fifty years, we'll probably be popping off to the moon or a space station for our Sabbath bite of the cherry. But until than, we need to learn to adapt and to change not just our liturgy, but the nature, culture and character of how and where what we see church to be.

    I think that many Clergy and Laity are crying out for change, but are held back by the establishment and the commitment to the parochial system - short sightedness in my view.

  6. I've done some research interviews with well-known-non-conformist-denomination officials about declining rural congregations. The reigning idea seems to be to let them linger on until they can't pay their quarterly dues, then withdraw ministry, encouraging them to close up shop and throw in their lot with a more central congregation (ideally in a 'modern' building that's already had the asbestos out).


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