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.

Tom Frame, A House Divided: The Quest for Unity within Anglicanism

(Acorn Press: Melbourne: 2010)

Love this book or hate it, agree or disagree, you have to give Tom Frame credit for bravely putting his own life on the line – for that is how it feels when you read A House Divided.   I myself am profoundly grateful, for Tom Frame’s book is inviting the reader into a conversation the Australian Anglican Church desperately needs to have.  Most dioceses recognise the need for change and across Australia Bishops are calling Anglicans to renewed prayer and mission.  Many parishes are heeding the call and trying new things and re-engaging with their community.  There is life in local gatherings where Jesus is honoured in all they do.  Institutionally however, it seems a different matter.

Clergy depression and poor health is common.  Bishop’s are burdened with untenable workloads which prevents them from having appropriate knowledge and care of their clergy.  There is mistrust of the Diocese from individual parishes and agencies and Synods have become a political playing field for church parties that most Anglicans do not relate to or care for.  Surely it is time to work out how to do things differently so that the new life in the parishes can flourish.

Tom Frame argues that if the Anglican Church is to growth into the challenges of Mission and Ministry in the twenty-first century, it needs to “re-imagine” it’s Synods, Episcopate and Dioceses and revive it’s intellectual life.  He outlines suggested reforms for each of these in a thoughtful and thought provoking way.  Frame’s particular reforms may end up being a ‘straw man’ but if that is the case, we are still indebted to him for it.  They are real options which deserve consideration, though it is difficult to see enough people willing to concede enough personal power for them to win support.

As a Gen-X Anglican, Frame’s suggestions resonate with my concerns for dismantling the tower of power which the episcopate has come to represent; rescuing spirituality from the grips of institutional religion; and rejecting the narrow approaches to theology which undergirds the evangelical verses liberal dichotomies pulling the worldwide Anglican Communion apart.  If you care about these things, it is worth the time and effort to read A House Divided yourself.

Ian Mobsby, Emerging and Fresh Expressions of Church

(2007: Moot Community Publishing: London)

Can ‘Fresh Expressions’ be described as genuinely church and authentically Anglican?  Answer: Yes and Yes!  This little book comes out of Ian’s masters research in which he interviewed some key leaders of four different Anglican Fresh Expressions: Church of the Apostles (USA), Santus 1, B1 and Moot (all UK).

All four examples demonstrate strong, theologically articulate, self-understandings of ecclesiology within the context of the immediate world in which they live and have their being.  There were emphases on Trinitarian Theology, Church as mystical communion, Church as sacrament and Church as holistic spiritual community.  Using  There was less clarity around theological understandings of leadership and a complex picture of catholic leaning (apostolic authority) and reformed leaning (priesthood of all believers) concepts of leadership and authority emerge. When considered in light of a variety of scholarly and traditional definitions of church these emerging christian communities all ‘pass the test’.

In relation to Anglicanism, all four Emerging Communities placed a certain amount of importance on their Anglican heritage even when relationships with the Diocese were unclear or problematic.  In particular these communities drew strongly on the liturgical and spiritual resources from the breadth of the church’s history.  Ian also makes a good argument for Fresh Expressions within a Mixed Economy of Church to be considered as a contemporary interpretation of the writings of Richard Hooker.

What I appreciated most about this book was the clear and concise descriptions of the various streams of Fresh Expressions (ch 2) as determined by their interplay with the philosophical and cultural issues of (post)modernity, which clearly differentiates Emerging Anglicans as those who are engaging the more post-modern elements of our fragmenting western world.  This helped me to be much more articulate about the Australian Anglican Scene and it’s fragmented relationship to the cultural shifts in our time and place.