The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st Century by Steven Croft (ed)

(Church House Publishing; UK, 2006)

This is a book (and a post) primarily relevant to Anglicans reforming the Anglican Church.  It’s a book that I would recommend to Bishops, Archdeacons, Area Deans and Theological Educators wanting to grapple with the challenges of a ‘mixed economy’ church.  The UK context does not always directly translate to Australia but in terms of institutional reform I found it incredibly helpful, practical and inspiring!  The very structure of the book:  context – theology – ways forward, offer a helpful framework for unpacking institutional questions in pursuit of a post-Christendom Anglicanism.  Below are some selected highlights based on what was most relevant to me. I suggest you browse for what  interests you, happy to take questions if you wanna know more without reading the book yourself!

PART ONE:   UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT

Interesting choice here – reflections from an historian, a psychologist and a sociologist!

chapter 1:  ‘Many rooms in my Father’s house:  The changing identity of the English parish church’ by Martyn Percy

Tracks the impact of cultural secularization.  Really interesting comment on the politics of secularisation:

“Another problem with secularization is that, after sociologists and the media; those who believe in this thesis most passionately are the churches themselves.  Many, if not most, have bought the idea that modernity leads to the gradual and incremental loss of faith.  Correspondingly, various interest groups emerge, hoping to make some capital out of the perceived crisis.  Liberals propose stripping the faith to its bare essentials in order to make religion more credible.  Evangelicals also strip the faith to its essentials, and promote ‘the basics’ of religion through courses like Alpha.  But most Christians (though it is never easy to say who these people are, nor exactly what their faith consists of) who are in the middle ground are rather bewildered by these approaches to faith and society.  For in their day-to-day Christian existence, no matter how intense or nominal, they do not encounter a ‘secular’ world at all, but, rather, one in which spirituality, religion and questions of faith remain public and widespread.  In short, they do not believe in the modern ‘disease’ of secularization, and consequently, they are unpersuaded by those groups that seek to promote their panaceas.” (pp.6-7)

chapter 2:  ‘On the analyst’s couch:  Psychological perspectives on congregations and clergy’ by Sara Savage

Psychological positives of the parish system:

  • sacred space ‘owned’ by attenders and non-attenders alike
  • woven into the fabric of life
  • encourages social stability
  • cultural richness and complexity
  • suited to privacy-loving English culture
  • checks and balances

Psychological negatives of the parish system:

  • clergy carry the bulk of the burden of maintaining the system
  • hierarchy
  • norm of niceness/conflict avoidance
  • difficult people (particularly narcissistic personalities) are attracted to the parish system
  • unpredictable variety and disunity
  • unconscious processes
  • clergy and lay pastors vulnerable to the difficulties of ‘duel role relationships’
  • clergy vulnerable to role conflict, role overload and role ambiguity.

chapter 3:  ‘From obligation to consumption:  Understanding the patterns of religion in Northern Europe by Grace Davie

Davie has become well known for introducing the concept of ‘vicarious religion’ which she argues operates broadly across Northern Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries.  Religion can operate vicariously by:

  • “Churches and church leaders perform ritual on behalf of others (for example, at the time of a birth, a marriage, a divorce even, and above all at the time of a death)…
  • Church leaders and churchgoers believe on behalf of others… Church leaders should not doubt in public…
  • Church leaders and churchgoers embody moral codes on behalf of others.  Religious professionals are expected to maintain moral standards in their private as well as public lives…
  • …churches can offer space for the vicarious debate of unresolved issues in modern societies.  the current debate about homosexuality in the Anglican Communion offers a good example.  Without such an explanation, it would be harder to discover why the secular press pays such close attention to the discussion about senior appointments in a supposedly marginal institution.”  (pp. 36-37)

PART TWO:  THEOLOGICAL RESOURCES

chapter 4:  ‘Theological resources for re-examining church’ by Rowan Williams

“the substance of the Church’s life is the lived encounter with Jesus in the company of unexpected and unchosen others, and that the historical actuality of this always involves structures by which believers try to keep themselves alert and responsible to the act of God.” (p.56)

chapter 5:  ‘Focusing church life on a theology of mission’ by Graham Cray

A missionary church is:

  • focused on the Trinity
  • incarnational
  • transformational
  • one that makes disciples
  • relational

chapter 6:  ‘Serving, sustaining, connecting:  Patterns of ministry in the mixed economy Church’ by Steven Croft

application of his earlier threefold patterns of ministry (bishops, presbyters, deacons) to mixed economy models.

PART THREE:  WAYS FORWARD

chapter 7:  ‘Doing traditional church really well’ by Robin Gamble

“‘Inherited’ and ’emerging’ belong together, overlapping, interweaving and mutually supporting.  In this loving relationship traditional church is not in fading away mode; she is both older sister and parent to the newly born.  As such she needs to be a generous sister/parent, sharing experience, wisdom and resources while also being open to receive back freshness and youthful vigour.” (p.93)

chapter 8: ‘Good practice is not what it used to be:  Accumulating wisdom for fresh expressions of church’ by Michael Moynagh

Some practical systems and suggestions for developing good practice in an ever changing environment.

chapter 9: ‘Mapping the mixed economy’ by Ann Morisy

Morisy argues that mixed economy expressions of mission can be mapped by the 3 ‘domains’ or perhaps I would say, areas of theological/spiritual experience.  The three domains must needs interact, but perhaps not all in the same missional endeavour.

  • the explicit domain – “God is with us in Jesus”
  • the foundational domain – “a sense of the possibility of God”
  • the vocational or invitational domain – “the human desire to become a better self”

chapter 10: ‘Fresh expressions growing to maturity’ by George Lings

How will maturity be measured in emerging and inherited communities?

chapter 11: ‘Reconfiguring a diocese towards mission’ by Ian Cundy

Some interesting suggestions here, including suggestions for missional leadership by Deaneries.  Cundy spent a sabbatical looking at diverse strategies for mission and ministry that a number of diocese had developed.  The common themes were:

  • “the need to structure the Church to fulfill its God-given mission;
  • to develop and encourage the gifts for ministry of God’s people;
  • to work collaboratively across parochial and denominational boundaries;
  • to promote ministry teams;
  • to face the challenge of changing resources.” (p.153)

chapter 12:  ‘Legal matters – what you need to know’ by John Rees

The important boring stuff that absolutely has to be done if we are to move forward!

Conclusion by Steven Croft

How will the Anglican church hold together in a mixed economy?  “increasingly it is a commitment to a common mission that holds us together” (p.179)  Steven suggests 5 marks of Mission-Shaped Anglicanism:

  1. a commitment to Scripture;
  2. a commitment to the dominical sacraments of baptism and Eucharist;
  3. a commitment to listening to the whole of Christian tradition and seeing that tradition expressed in the historic creeds;
  4. a commitment to the ministry and mission of the whole people of God and to the ordering of ministry through the threefold order of deacons, priests and bishops;
  5. a commitment to the mission of God to the whole of creation and to the whole of our society as defined and described in the Anglican communion’s five marks of mission*.” (p.182)

*The five marks of mission are:  To proclaim the good news of the kingdom; to teach, nurture and baptize new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society; to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth.

2 thoughts on “The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st Century by Steven Croft (ed)

  1. Chelle do you think Percy is fair in his comments about Evangelicals wanting to strip the faith to its bare essentials through things like Alpha? Having read his contributing in ‘Evaluating Fresh Expressions’ I think he misses the boat about both post-Christendom England and CoE, and what Evangelicalism actually is. Granted their are parts of Evangelicalism that have a reductionist tendency, but it’s not universal. I also think he fails to distinguish between classic Evangelicalism and low-church Pentecostalism (from which Alpha actually comes).

    • Hi Guerin,
      The context of Percy’s quote here is about cultural politics. In a volatile environment marginal groups are ready to take the opportunity to push their agenda. I think it’s fair to say that there are marginal elements in catholic, evangelical, charismatic and liberal anglicanism! In other words, promoting the story of secularization has suited some christian groups who set themselves up as a contrast to either/or/both traditional anglicanism and the secular culture of the west. For example, there is sometimes a willingness to embrace the notion of secularism because church is boring and we want to change it so that it is more fun and meaningful. However, the cultural theory of secularization is now being reviewed, including by Peter Berger who was one of the first sociologists to write on it. Western Culture is not emerging out of Enlightenment Modernism in quite the same way as we might have expected. Yes, there is a decline in religious attendance, but there is not a corresponding embrace of scientific rationalism. (I’m about to post some research on this kind of thing – stay tuned).
      So, is Percy’s comment fair to evangelicals? I don’t think that Alpha has been a reductionist politic ploy which has aimed to make use of a vulnerable anglican institution! I think it has served as a useful basic Christianity introduction that enables it’s participants to step into faith and keep going. I can think of better examples that he could have used if he is making the point I think he is making!
      Chelle

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