August 11, 2021

A quiet but unmistakable rebellion is taking place within the Church of England, a groundswell of anger bubbling up from that most British of institutions: the Parish Church. And support for it shows no sign of waning.

“The current trajectory of our church is a huge mistake and the leadership is out of touch with ordinary churchgoers,” George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote yesterday. “It is time to rally the troops.”

He was writing in support of the newly formed Save the Parish movement — a group I have been plotting with from its creation. And yes, that is a staggering thing for a former Archbishop to say about the current leadership.

However, it is not former Archbishops that are at the core of this new movement, but ordinary parishioners and parish priests who believe that the church itself has turned against them. They have witnessed how the centre of gravity in church affairs — as well as the funding — has shifted from the local parish towards an increasingly bureaucratic and centralised church structure.

It is ordinary churchgoers and faithful church wardens who have looked after their churches for years, as well as clergy padding about in their parish, visiting the sick, burying the dead and administering the sacraments, who are most angry about this betrayal. It feels like we are in the middle of an aggressive corporate takeover.

If you flick through the jobs section of the Church Times, you can see this effect almost straight away. It used to be full of jobs for the Rector of This and the Vicar of That. But such vacancies have increasingly been replaced by people with unrecognisable and convoluted job descriptions. Now they advertise areas of responsibility that have little to do with parish ministry, answerable directly to a line manager somewhere in Church House.

Jobs that began as a way of supporting the mission of the parish are now being regarded as its cheaper replacement. The parish clergy are “limiting factors” and the people in the pews merely “passengers”, as one senior Anglican clergyman put it last month.

No need for priests, or expensive theological education and the like. 10,000 new churches are imagined, led by lay people, not clergy. Many will not have a building, just a website. Many will meet on Zoom. It’s not really what most of us would call a church. But if “the church is the people not the building”, as goes the oft-heard mantra, then why not? There is certainly no need to worry about a leaky roof when you’re only online.

Of course, there have been times when I have fantasised about my job not involving the maintenance of a crumbing church tower. Even ten years ago, at St Paul’s, when the Occupy movement gathered around the Cathedral, I felt the building had become more important to some than the message it was built to proclaim.

St Paul was a tentmaker, after all. And few parish clergy who have done the job as long as I have can be unfamiliar with the frustration that comes with looking after a large building. But the idea that we would be more entrepreneurial and light of foot if we were to hand the keys over to the National Trust is an absolute fantasy.

“Pioneers” is what the Church’s Head of Evangelism, Canon Dave Male, wants more of. Pioneers must be “freed up”, he says. But the problem here is that the weight of parish commitments, even the building, is what keeps us from floating off into some abstract theological space. The parish is grounded, rooted in place and time.

Yes, the pandemic has left the church feeling the pinch financially — and there is much need for belt-tightening. But we have far too many Bishops for the number of churchgoers that we now have. Probably far too many Dioceses as well, each with its own set of managers and advisors. Save the Parish believes that in times when finances are hard, it is the front-line parishes that should be supported as a priority rather than directing funds away towards another new top-down initiative.

It used to be the case that the parish owned its own vicarages and paid its own clergy. It was almost the very definition of an anti-fragile, localised organisational structure. But those who proclaim subsidiarity as a principle — and it was originally a theological idea — are often the first to betray it.

In 1976, the central Church decided that the parish was an inefficient way of running things and brought the ownership of parish assets under the control of the Diocese, introducing a whole new layer of management to look after the parish’s assets. From here on in, the Diocese began to have its own ideas about how best to spend a parish’s assets. Vicarages were sold off. The clergy were paid from a central pot. And power shifted from the parishes to the Diocesan structures.

Last week, we gathered as Save the Parish for the first time in the ancient St Bartholomew’s church in Smithfield. Alison Millbank, Canon Theologian from Southwell Cathedral, put the matter plainly: “the Church of England has totally capitulated to market values and managerialism… There has been a tendency to view the parish like some inherited embarrassing knick-knack from a great-aunt that you wish were in the attic.”

The fightback, it’s safe to say, has started. At the end of the event, Fr Marcus Walker, the Rector of St Bartholomew’s, described Save the Parish as “the last chance to save the system that has defined Christianity in this country for 1000 years”. He may not have been exaggerating.

These days, our senior clergy do MBAs and spend their lives in committees, devising desk-generated grand plans for the revitalisation of the Church. On the receiving end of these continual initiatives are the poor bloody infantry, the clergy and people of the parishes, slagged off as an impediment to growth and rubbished as some antique hangover from a bygone age.

The senior clergy say they value the parish. And some do. But many on the ground are just not feeling the love.