Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The future of Anglican ministry: liberty or inhibition?

Yesterday I posted about the new expectations apparently emerging for Anglican clergy. As I said then, there are potentially good aspects to this as well as bad. The real question, as far as I am concerned, is whether the existing administration of the Church of England can deliver on the good, rather than simply multiply the bad —and I think readers will know which I suspect is the case.
Roland Allen’s ‘three selfs’
Amongst the potentially good things are the possibilities for allowing local clergy to become real team leaders, especially in recruiting, training, authorising and deploying people in local ministry. If clergy really were given the independence, authority and financial clout this required it would undoubtedly be to the long term good of the gospel. It all goes back to the principles advocated by Roland Allen, the great missionary writer of the early twentieth century, that indigenous churches should be ‘self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating’.
When I first came across Allen’s work, I found it truly inspiring, not for what it said about overseas mission —those days were long past, and indeed most of Allen’s had, of necessity, been applied insofar as former ‘missionary’ churches are now running themselves.
What really struck me was the exciting possibilities for mission at home. Substitute ‘the vicar’ for Allen’s missionary, ‘the vicarage’ for the mission station, and ‘the diocese’ for the sending and supporting missionary agency, and it seemed to me then (and now) that much of what was inhibiting overseas mission in Allen’s time is inhibiting church growth in England today.
The diocese as financial inhibitor
Let us begin with the second point. Allen believed that, in order to grow, mission churches had to become self-funding. This, however, was not because he believed that the locals should pay more towards ‘mission’. Rather, he believed that the existing financial arrangement inhibited mission by creating a dependency culture, based on a fixed and rigid approach to mission funding.
On the one hand, the ‘sending’ missionary organization insisted on certain ‘standards’ for its (white, western) missionaries —a standard far higher than could be afforded by the ‘natives’. On the other hand, the local Christians knew that ‘mission’ was something paid for by the notionally rich home-country of the missionaries. Mission was thereby inhibited, but in a way it suited everyone! The locals remained in reliance on the mission society and the mission society remained in control.
Compare that with the arrangement pertaining in most dioceses in England, and the picture is depressingly familiar. Most churches are used to having clergy ‘provided’ by the diocese, which, rather than making the parish fund the ministry, ‘tops up’ what the parish ‘can’t afford’ from sources which remain a practical mystery to most parishioners. On the other hand, there is a refusal to allow parishes which could afford it to fund their local ministry because all sorts of dire consequences would follow leading ultimately, it is often alleged, to ‘congregationalism’.
Sometimes it seems diocesan management would rather do without money than lose control. Thus in our own context, where our vicarage could do with upgrading before the arrival of the new vicar, the diocese have actually refused to allow us to pay for the work, but told us that the work cannot be done.
In short, the present financial arrangements between dioceses and parishes are mission inhibitors, just as much as the arrangements between mission societies and indigenous churches were in the nineteenth century.
The episcopate as ministry inhibitor
But if the diocese is an inhibiting mechanism, so, often, is the bishop. Allen complained about the way that the lack of ordained clergy (usually white and therefore expensive to maintain) meant that many of the local Christian communities established by missionary organizations were only ‘half churches’, lacking a sacramental ministry of baptism and holy communion.
Compare that with what is increasingly the case in English rural ministry. I have written before about the minister I met from Norfolk to whom I jokingly remarked that in her diocese you weren’t pulling your weight if you didn’t look after fifteen parishes. “How many have you got?” I asked her. “Fifteen,” she replied.
In our Benefice, we have four morning congregations, and if they all wanted communion every week it would be impossible. But of course it is not just a matter of the sacraments. Ministry needs to be exercised at many levels and in many areas. The local ‘team leader’ minister of the future therefore needs to be able to identify and authorise people to carry out these ministries. And the last thing he or she needs is ‘diocesan central’ re-allocating these people, once they have been picked and equipped.
The reality is that the erstwhile ‘vicar’ is increasingly exercising an ‘episcopal’ role. But that being the case, the vicar needs episcopal authority. In short, we need to get back to something nearer what is generally acknowledged by scholars (and was recognized by the English Reformers), namely seeing the local presbyter as also the local bishop.
Indeed, if the need is for more ministers and ministry, why shouldn’t there be more bishops? I would guess that a typical rural dean today probably overseas a population as large as that of some medieval bishops. Why not go the whole way and make them into bishops who can ordain local ministers accordingly? In that way, the first and last of Allen’s criteria — self-governing and self-propagating —would also have some chance of being fulfilled.
The answer, I suspect is twofold. First, there would be a fear of the unknown. But the second would be jealousy of the office. I well remember Colin Buchanan, in his own pre-episcopal days, saying that one of the reasons bishops were regarded as so important was their rarity value. In other words, if there were more of them, people would regard them with rather less awe.
But which is more important —the reverence in which an office is held or the needs of the gospel? True, they might become ‘as common as muck’, but they might also become as effective as muck does when it is properly spread around.
Undoubtedly there are changes ahead, and undoubtedly there is a need for change. However, there is also the opportunity for radical new thinking. The worst thing would be to try to fit new models of ministry into the ‘old wineskins’ of the past and present. Sadly, though, I suspect this is still what will be attempted.
Revd John P Richardson
26 January 2010
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  1. Dominic Stockford26 January 2010 at 16:06

    The Free Church of England taught (via its Parliamentary Deed Poll of 1863) that every incumbent was indeed a "congregational bishop" This caused no problems then and does not now for the Evangelical Connexion of the FCE. In fact, as bishop of that body, I welcome the practical and spiritual responsibility it forces them to take for themselves.

    The people who hated the concept were some of the bishops between about 1970 and today who remain in the FCE/REC - they really didn't like congregations having control over themselves and as a result sought to centralise power.

    However, practically speaking, some extent of congregationalism is a valuable tool in encouraging faithful Christians to be active and to participate in the growth of the Church of Christ.

  2. John, I agree with you. But surely what you are calling for is indeed ‘congregationalism’, the autonomy of the local congregation (or at least of a small group of congregations), and so fundamentally opposed to episcopalian Anglicanism.

    So the real question, surely, is whether Anglicanism is viable, in rural England in the 21st century. Personally I would not be sad if it is not, because I see biblical principles of leadership (on which I touched in a recent post) as also fundamentally opposed to episcopalian Anglicanism.

  3. John - thanks for this and the last post, really interesting stuff.
    Peter - I don't think we need to abandon episcopal oversight in order to see these sorts of changes, we just need a greater degree of imagination and flexibility. As I see it episcopacy is about authority (and therefore obedience) and is wholly independent of monetary questions, so there is nothing to stop parishes being autonomous financially whilst still being under the direction of the Bishop.

  4. Peter, in many Anglican minds today, the diocese is the local church. That, I think, both was the view held by John Gladwin and is the view held by the current Bishop of Bradwell, following Paul Avis.

    I don't agree with that view, but one reason is simply that 'the diocese' on this scale never meets or functions as an actual congregation. What I am suggesting is, in essence, to turn this round, and to see the local, functioning and congregationally visible, groups of churches as the unit overseen by the bishop, designated as their functional minister of word and sacrament.

    This is not to avoid episcopal oversight in favour of congregational autonomy, but simply to multiply the number of bishops in accordance with the new understanding of ordained ministry.

  5. Well, John, I suppose if we reduce dioceses to the size of parishes, or groups of parishes (up to 15 of them?), then your model isn't completely abandoning Anglican principles. But that's not going to happen.

    Sam, the one who pays the piper calls the tune. Yes, parishes could be financially independent while under the nominal authority of a bishop, but somehow I can't see this happening any more than John's model.

    The problem is that power corrupts. The church is not immune to that, especially as it long ago abandoned Jesus' teaching on servant leadership.

  6. Hi John,

    From the viewpoint of an Australian Anglican, your suggestion of parishes funding themselves is the norm, and hardly radical. Individual parishes are responsible for raising their own funding, and can employ as many clergy as they can fund.

    So what happens with churches who can't fund themselves? In Sydney, the Diocese provides top-up funding. In return, the parish has only one lay representative at Synod, and loses the right to choose their own Rector. The regional bishops tends to either appoint young up & comers, or plant ethnic ministries, which they believe can grow the parish to financial independence. A parish graduating from provisional status is always one of the highlights of Synod.

    In the bush, things are more difficult. With less financial resources than Sydney, such support isn't possible, and, given the distances between towns, merging parishes isn't really an option. Sydney supports North-West Australia, and, to a less extent, Armidale, and the Bush Church Aid Society supports bush parishes, with a preference for those in the outback. But otherwise, parishes are forced to take holidays between clergy in order to build up their financial reserves.

    Roger Gallagher

  7. I really appreciated reading your thoughts this subject, John. And, whilst I agree with your sentiments, I think a note of caution would be appropriate.

    The Church of England is very different to all other churches. There is no other faith group that has authority to minister to everyone. And that responsibility lies not with the local vicar alone: the cure of souls in each parish is a shared responsibility between the Diocesan Bishop and the Incumbent. In my view this arrangement brings significant advantages over the wholly-devolved model that I understand you to be advocating. As such, might I please suggest that it is entirely appropriate for the Diocese to appoint (and bear the costs of) the Incumbent. But, beyond that, I think the responsibility for authorising, appointing and (where appropriate) employing additional ministers should lie with the local congregation.

    In this respect, I think the Lincoln model (where the Rural Dean is responsible for licensing Lay Parish Ministers) has much to commend it. Perhaps the next step will be for the Rural Dean to be formally given the incumbency of all the parishes within the deanery? That would then allow the Deanery Synod to take complete control of the finances (except for the Rural Dean's salary and overheads), so they could decide how many stipendiary and house for duty posts they wished to fund and, most importantly, where those ministers should be based. I suspect one welcome result of this would be for richer deaneries to sponsor ministers in other places according to need. But this is all pie in the sky stuff...