We are all Visionaries Now

Some thoughts on the Church of England's Vision

We live in an age of visionaries. Organisations have their mission statements and plans, carefully measured against key performance indicators, and all based on values and visions. No institution is without its vision.

The Church of England has just launched its own vision. Something I often say is that Vision begets Provision. It is good therefore to grapple with what a vision for our profoundly devolved organization.

We must get this right, for proper vision will lead us to the provision that we need. That will mean taking our parishes seriously.

At the heart of what has been presented lies a recommitment to the Five Marks of Mission which have long characterised the Anglican understanding of what the church is about, alongside a reaffirmation of the “mixed ecology” of the church. The presentation helpfully recognises that a church which proclaims Good News, makes disciples and nurtures them, serves neighbour and has a heart for the care of God’s creation will take many outward forms. Chaplaincies and particular ministries; churches which reach out to a particular context, whether it be on a deprived housing estate estate or the trading floor of a major bank; churches which seek to engage with particular cultures sub cultures whether it be the famous 59 club for motorcyclists or a church for skateboarders. The rich variety of the church's mission is properly placed at the heart of this new vision.

But, leaving aside an attempt to characterise all this as being “Jesus shaped” which seems not properly to grapple with the riches of trinitarian theology, many have raised the concern that the vision tends towards forgetting the bedrock on which the structure of the Church of England is built: the fundamental unit of the parish. Interviewing a little while ago for a new vicar, one of the candidates divested himself of the opinion that the revival of the church in England when it comes will be a revival in the parishes; I believe that to be absolutely right.

In fact our ability to serve the nation; our ability to fund our work; the development of a mixed ecology church, all depend on our parishes.

Of course, it is right that the parishes themselves developed out of the great missionary monasteries of the 8th and 9th centuries but from the late Anglo Saxon period onwards the parish has been the bedrock of the church in this land. Out of the network of Parishes, organized into Dioceses and Provinces, grows our ability to reach from the hyper local to national level in just one or two steps. This is something that has served us incredibly well during the Covid pandemic when we have been able to articulate the voices of those who are otherwise unheard in the corridors of power. One of my own big themes has been the Covid response in London. One the most senior secular leaders of the Capital’s response has observed that there is a person of faith on every street in the capital; but only the Church of England has the structure that enables their voices to be heard for only we are everywhere. That has been the reason why my voice has been privileged to enable those not usually heard to have something of a say.

I spoke about some of this in the debate on Covid 19 at the General Synod. The ability the established church has to act and speak and to fulfil its duties to those who are not its members is built on the fact that there is no blade of grass in the Kingdom, no street in our cities towns and villages where we do not have contact and connexion. Nowhere that is not in a parish.

The Mixed ecology in the '50s: The 59 Club

Moreover, our economic model is also based on our parishes. We have asked them to contribute through Parish share the funds which enable our mixed ecology. The contributions which have been made from Glebe and other parish resource – all those Old Vicarages now providing gracious homes to the wealthy. More profoundly the noble aspiration to even out resources of parishes in effect disendowed them, throwing them onto the ability or otherwise to raise money from the giving of the congregations, which by a supreme irony privileges those churches in wealthy areas or with wealthy patrons or which managed to retain some form of endowment in the form of property or a church hall to hire.

For all this it remains the case that most income of most dioceses comes from parishes. Most other churches in the mixed ecology contribute only small amounts, funding themselves, but seldom giving significantly to the needs of others through parish share or common fund.

Of course there are other models of funding for non-parochial churches. Hospitals, institutes of higher education and some businesses have recognised that having a chaplain is valuable to them because it reduces the number of grievances, cuts down on the number of sick days and increases the well being of staff, all of which can be straightforwardly recognised at the bottom line of the balance sheet and more than justifies the appointment of the chaplain. But not even all our chaplaincy can be funded this way.

Of course many of our fresh expressions, plants and other forms of church are supported by the significant giving of their members. Many of them are also significantly funded by the generous giving of those parishes from which they have sprung. One of the great benefits of the evangelical revival of modern times has been, as in the 18th and 19th century evangelical revival, the revivification of parishes which, having become strong, are now able to support other forms of work by planting and giving to support those plants.

In fact the mixed ecology at the churches has been built fair and square on parochial foundations.

This is why the asset stripping of our parishes over the last 30 years is so serious and concerning. It inhibits the development of the mixed ecology we need to reach more people and to be genuinely inclusive of the poor as well as the rich; the difficult mission fields as well as the easy ones; the public square as well as the ecclesial bubbles we build for ourselves, enemies as well as neighbours.

As I said in my SheffieldLecture on Catholic Mission, much of the work that has been done to develop the mixed ecology of church has been possible because there has been money. This is recognised in the current major funding programmes from the church commissioners. The concern must be however that without proper mission business plans to enable all new pieces of work to be sustainable this will turn out to be a flash in the pan, throwing thorns on the fire which blazes up and then falls away.

Most parishes for ordinary people in ordinary places cannot manage on giving alone. It has been calculated that to be viable a church needs £200k a year. Outside of wealthy areas with wealthy donors it is those parishes which of have developed other sources of income that have been able to thrive. Much of the strength of the Diocese of London today – a diocese which thirty years ago was selling a vicarage a year to balance the books and would by now have been bankrupt if we had not changed - is founded on the common fund system. By enabling a negotiation about how much is sent to the diocesan centre churches were freed and encouraged to invest in themselves. For instance mending the church Hall roof and appointing an administrator to enabling hiring income to flow and thus providing finance which is independent of the commitment of the individual parishioner.

Of course personal giving is important, but look at any major charity: while they gather their donations and their legacies, (and how woeful our record in achieving legacy giving is), they no that's the model of life membership and study regular giving To a general fund is not sustainable. Their campaigns are based on asking lots of people to give small amounts for specific purposes. a church which wishes to grow younger must recognise how younger people give. Successful charities also have significant trading arms and investments. All of this is developed at a personal level in the parish where people know and are known and the discipleship develops and commitment flourish is. It would be wrong for us to expect skateboard church to give , and if skateboard church is to begin then it needs someone to support it, and that someone will ultimately be a parishioner.

If both reach into society and our ability to sustain the mixed ecology depends ultimately on our parishes and their economic viability, surely the time has come for there to be a massive re endowment. 

Of course there are issues such as sometimes poor individual leadership and the fact that much has rested on too many laurels. Of course we know that people need to get over themselves about parish boundaries and allow 1000 Flowers to flourish , then we also need order to ensure that we do not trip over one another and fall into the trap of competitive rather than complementary activity. But the sense that we have at the moment that “parish is bad” and anything else is good, that inherited church is inherently un missional, and that the parochial patrimony should be swiftly swept away is a generational mistake which we must avoid.

In our time we have the ability to help our parishes to establish themselves on sustainable and secure footings precisely to enable the flourishing of the extraordinary variety and mixed ecology ecology which we all hope to see flourishing all around in order that our nation may be truly evangelised.


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