The ancient English parish church. Photo by Sam Mellish / In Pictures via Getty Images

August 6, 2020   6 mins

On the ground, many of us parish clergy are getting increasingly cheesed off. In The Church Times this week there is yet another advertisement for a non-parish job loaded full of vacuous HR devised buzzwords. Sheffield Diocese are looking for an Associate Archdeacon — which is a new one on me — to be a “transition enabler”.

Their job will be to “grow teams of lay and ordained leaders shaping a mission-focused church fit for the challenges of the 21stcentury.” This is the new church-speak, a strange combination of woke-ish managerialism and charismatic Christianity, and which represents an almost unreported revolution within the Church of England.

It is one of the biggest changes in the Church’s history, although a revolution more Thatcher than Tudor in nature. It is the story of how the parish church was stripped of its treasure, its talent and its energy — and the most miserable part of the story is that it was an inside job.

The parish church is the oldest institution in the country, predating the Church of England itself by several hundred years, and the cornerstone of the historic relationship between Christianity and the land. The existence of a parish church in every community is the main reason that the C of E is given a seat at the high table of the establishment.

These days, however, many parishes are close to collapse, exhausted by financial worries and increasingly by a shortage of suitable clergy. Many parishes in the countryside are being forced together into ever greater economies of scale; just recently Chelmsford Diocese announced that it will lose 60 clergy posts over the next 18 months. The squeeze is on.

Yet other parts of the Church seem to be growing fast. Last year a report to the General Synod of the Church of England (GS 2142) spoke of the rapid expansion of what it calls “Pioneer Ministry”. “Recently Ministry Division has set an ambitious goal to double and double again the number of pioneers by 2027,” it stated: “If achieved this would see approximately 6,000 pioneers.” Such pioneers can be what are called “fresh start” pioneers, which means they “work from a blank canvass, in unreached places, released from inherited incumbency obligations”.

This new Church movement, known collectively as “Fresh Expressions” (or FX) has developed into a kind of para-church, operating alongside the traditional structures of the parish church but not necessarily a part of them. There are no reliable and recent figures for the growth is this new movement: officially, there were 1,109 fresh expressions chapters in 2014: a report from 2016 suggested that, by then, there was over 2,000 across the country. And big claims are made for the future of the group: “Fresh Expressions do twice as well as parish churches in attracting those under 16”, the General Synod report explains.

The leadership of Fresh Expressions is keen to insist that they want to take nothing away from the traditional structures of the Church of England, but as per the sentence above, comparisons are always being made between the new and the old. And this new church is developing its own structures alongside the old, with the 2016 report mentioning a whole network of bureaucratic structures.

One interpretation of what is going on is this: for years, perhaps even for centuries, the wider evangelical movement has looked on the Church of England with a certain amount of envy as a very convenient perch from which to fish for souls. It would like its money, its embeddedness, its position in the heart of the nation, but it doesn’t like the very ancient church structures that locate a great deal of power at local level.

The parish priest, protected by the rules of incumbency, is the very model of subsidiarity — the bishop has lots of moral authority within a parish, but much less actual authority than many imagine. This means that a bishop is not able to sack clergy with whom he disagrees with theologically. These ancient terms of employment were historically the basis for academic tenure, and exist for the same reason: to maintain a diversity of thought, highly necessary in such a broad theological coalition as the Church of England.

But the downside of these structures is that ineffective clergy are often impossible to remove. Changes in some parishes can only come about through death or retirement. In other words, the traditional structures of the Church of England emphasise stability and subsidiarity, but not necessarily the energy and dynamism required for missionary zeal. And given that these structures are lodged in the law of the land, it is almost impossible to change them. That is why those who want to start a theological revolution from within the Church of England often find they have to leave it to bring about their vision — see Methodism.

But FX has found a more ingenious way. In the seventies the wealth of parishes was taken into diocesan control, done for the perfectly noble reason of wanting to level out what the clergy were paid and stop richer parishes paying their clergy more and poorer ones not much at all.

But the effect of centralising the church’s finances in the Diocese Board of Finance was, for the first time in history, to shift power away from the parish and towards the Diocese. And as a consequence, the Diocese grew with ever greater numbers of staff, and the development of greater bureaucratic control.

So somebody came up with an ingenious plan. Perhaps it was the now retired Bishop Graham Cray who published what was the founding document of the FX movement, called Mission-Shaped Church, back in 2004. The plan was this: ignore the impossible-to-change structures of the Church of England, especially those lodged in the parish. Simply by-pass them. Build a para church structure, alongside the parish, and then divert resourses into that. The parish church will limp along, but eventually it will wither on the vine and FX will be there to pick up the baton. It was essential that FX was not positioned as any sort of threat to the parish or the plan would be rumbled; that’s why there was lots of talk of the “need for a mixed economy”, room for everyone etc.

But it’s not working out like that. The Rev’d Professor Michael Northcott, who has spent much of his academic life studying the organisational structures of the Church of England, described what he believed is going on in a series of tweets this week. The “neoliberal destruction of parishes is a corporate strategy,” he wrote: “to hollow out an organisation with managerialism by dissolving its historic procedures.”

And he explains how this is done: “one of the oldest Sees — Winchester Diocese — borrowed £3 million from Church Commissioners to invest in what it calls pioneer missions outside of parish ministry. That diocese is borrowing to create a para-church to compete with parishes.” The Rev’d Stephen Trott, a Vicar in Peterborough Diocese, puts it even more strongly: the parish is “being asset-stripped.”

The most extensive study of the theology of FX is a book now ten years old, and looking back, highly prophetic. In For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison opened with an ominous warning:

“This book is written in the belief that an important choice is offered to the Church of England: to embrace her historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or to decline into a sect. What is new about these Fresh Expressions initiatives as officially conceived is that they are not intended to be out-workings of the mission of the local church but independent entities without any relation to the parish in which they operate.”

Milbank and Davison are unsparing in their critique. And, at the time, many dismissed them as over-reacting. But the Covid crisis has shone a light on the attitude of many in the hierarchy of the Church of England towards the crumbly old parish church and its boring old vicar. “Some bishops and church bureaucrats are now quite open about their contempt for the parish church,” writes Canon Angela Tilby.

And, a decade on, Andrew Davison has not had a change of heart about his warning. Talking to me this week he noted that since he wrote the book church attendance has declined by 15% which “suggests that Fresh Expressions has not offered the turnaround that their early proponents hoped for.” Indeed FX is an “extraordinarily expensive experiment”.

What’s happened in the national church is the perfect heist, one where the victim does not even realise they had even been robbed, only vaguely aware that something is missing. In terms of its long-term cultural consequences, this could be the heist of the century. And yet most people don’t even know it’s happening.

The importance of the parish goes way beyond Church of England attendees. Some parishes date to the time of St Augustine, the oldest and deepest social structure in the land, and their decline and bankruptcy — aggravated now by Covid — will have an immense impact on the country’s wider social structure.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.