What we reap, we will sow…

First published 21st October 2014
The Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson, a contemporary of mine at Ridley Hall, made the national news recently by seeking to define some reality for his diocese.

He warned that the Church of England must make wholesale changes to halt the slide in attendance, or wither away in the 21st century. Bishop Julian said he feared unless the Church reinvented itself in that diocese, it would disappear like the regions textile industry. He made the warning as he launched a 12-year-plan to attract younger people to the Church.

At one level this is potentially depressing stuff. But sometimes, reality is depressing. However unless reality is defined and described, the danger is that we simply drift into oblivion.

The Church of England is rightly proud of its parish system. It has many strengths, but in dioceses up and down the country it is now clearly under threat. This is for a number of reasons:

Predicated on the belief that a parish must have a paid person or part of one to exist, it is a very expensive system to maintain. On the basis of current financial and numerical trends across the country it looks to be obviously and increasingly unaffordable. Without some improvements, I reckon on the basis of present trends that this Diocese has a six to ten year window of opportunity to think and act again before we reach that point where our infrastructure is so degraded that we would find it difficult to stop inevitable and terminal decline. This means we have to act now.

The advent of dormitory suburbs in post-industrial Britain means that we have many parishes where people do very little but sleep. Our incarnational commitment to local and indigenous ministry is obviously undermined in parishes where no-one is at home.

Our strapline as a national church is a Christian presence in every community'. This is laudable, other than the fact that our culture interprets this as being a neo-Gothic building with a paid clergyperson (or a piece of one) living in a largish house.

This would lead us to two possible solutions. One, we scrap the parish system and think of something else. Two, we seek to re-imagine how we deliver parochial ministry in a way which is affordable, serves every community and provides a structure for the kind of holistic growth which is the focus of our strategy.

Let me be very clear about my choice. I am not advocating the scrapping of the parochial system. I am very clearly asking the question as to whether we can re-imagine it along the lines of the paragraph above.

I have said many times that the evangelization of this Diocese and this nation, will in my view, inevitable rely on us releasing the energy of volunteers, ie fewerpaid people. I am not naive about the challenges this creates:

Were all busy people, who has the time?

We only value what we pay for in our wider culture

The more you spread authority for ministry across the Church, the more complex the issues of structure and accountability become.

These are all issues with many others that we need to do further consultation and thinking about.

However, there is a further issue that has to be flagged and this is yet more difficult for us to own. Its the issue of what we are doing. I think this is very hard

The first issue is that the kind of worship we put on offer in certain sociological contexts is so far removed from the culture of those contexts, it will only ever appeal to a certain kind of person within a certain age group. At the same time, we have a core of faithful and devoted worshippers, many of whom have been attending and supporting the Church for years who like and value what they experience. This fact and these people cannot and should not be ignored.

This would argue for maintaining what we have, but adding to the mix more accessible and culture specific services to seek to reach the unchurched hundreds of thousands in our midst.

Messy Church is a start and I applaud those who have taken this initiative seriously, but there are other initiatives that can and, in my view, must be explored.

I appreciate that such a postmight be viewed as negative. But surely our faith, of all faiths, is able to face the whole truth. In some ways that is what the Cross is about. This is the reality that we struggle with and I would like every parish to have full permission to ask themselves this question.

What do we need to do locally, in a post-Christian mission world to seek to engage, challenge and disciple those unchurched people within our sphere of influence?

Paul once wrote, I sowed the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gives the growth."

I think we need new ways to sow and to water and we need them soon.


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