The future of the English parish

Nick Spencer, March 2004

The Jubilee Centre recommends Nick’s book Parochial Vision, the Future of the English Parish published by Paternoster (March 2004) as an important contribution to debate within Anglicanism about how to reach a post-Christian society.

Crushed by our own heritage

The English parish, one of the oldest and best-loved institutions in England, is in a state of crisis. Apart from a short period in the late nineteenth century, the ideal of one priest per parish has never really existed. Parishes have always been understaffed and often neglected.

Yet today’s shortfall is exceptional: around 8,700 clergy staff, 13,000 parishes and 16,000 churches. Recent financial losses have compounded the problems: the Church of England could not afford one vicar per parish, even if there were ordinands to fill the vacancies.

Parish churches themselves cost around £120 million per year just to maintain, a price that the average congregation, of around 50 adults and 10 children, cannot afford. As Bob Jackson has observed, this simply cannot go on: ‘An ever-dwindling number of Anglicans cannot keep the same number of buildings going indefinitely. Eventually, fewer and fewer Anglicans will have no time left for anything else – we will be crushed by our own heritage.’ [i]

Going back for the future

The answer to these future problems may, however, lie in the past. The parish was a comparatively late ecclesiastical development in England, emerging from the ad hoc network of ‘minster’ churches that covered the country in the seventh and eighth centuries.

These ‘minsters’ – the word is simply the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Latin monasterium – were localised, collegiate churches, staffed by a team of peripatetic clergy who travelled into their ‘parochiae’ (larger precursors of the parish) to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.

England was theoretically Christian by AD 686, yet the top-down nature of the conversion meant that the average man and woman had only the slenderest grasp of the faith. It was in the century and a half following this date that the real conversion of England was effected, primarily by Celtic monks (though the term Celtic is much misunderstood today) who travelled, preached and evangelised from their minster bases.

The return of the minster church

Strange as it may seem, these minsters are well suited to modern England. Firstly, for the first time in 1,300 years the population has little or no grasp of the Christian story. The country is a mission field again and evangelism the dominant need. Minster churches were evangelistic foundations, their task being to take the word to a people who lived in a distinctly sub-Christian culture. Modern minsters need to have the same basic outlook.

Second, minsters were collegiate churches. Our modern parish system is wonderfully suited to the static, agricultural society of the Middle Ages but singularly inappropriate for the fluid, post-industrial society in which we live today. Parish boundaries are simply arcane, administrative niceties, their only function being to divide and isolate incumbents, and encourage a spirit of competition rather than co-operation. Minster churches, on the other hand, pooled people in such a way as to foster fellowship and teamwork. Modern minsters would do the same, countering the parish’s isolationism, encouraging specialisation and offering greater opportunity for lay participation.

Third, minster churches were localised affairs, eschewing the traditional one-size-fits-all approach in favour of local circumstance. They varied from tiny buildings to massive complexes, such as the one Bede lived in at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. The modern minster needs to reflect this localisation if it is to reach a nation which varies from inner city Manchester, through suburban Southampton and semi-rural Kent, to wholly rural Cumbria.

Fourth, the minster’s collegiate nature allowed it to pool resources as well as people. Archaeologists have located on minster sites evidence of cooking, eating, reading, writing, praying, sleeping, teaching, guesthouses and workshops. Modern minsters would pool a locality’s congregations and resources in such a way as to provide the services (in all senses of the word) that, through no fault of their own, current parish churches are unable to deliver.

Finally, minsters worked in tandem with local, village congregations, which they visited and taught over the years. Residents occasionally travelled to their local minster church for feast days but otherwise lived as the local presence of that church. Modern minsters would thus dovetail their ministry with suitable local parish and cell churches, equipping and helping them to be the presence of Christ in their localities. In this way, the modern minster system would reshape rather than replace the existing parish structure.

Conclusion

Demanding as this may sound, the idea is not entirely new. As long ago as 1900, one anonymous pamphleteer could write:

Instead of the poor and sickly churches in out-of-the-way corners, we sorely want a few large Basilicas which will show up well in open spaces, capable of holding 2,000 with a strong staff of five or six clergy, each carefully selected, not to be a sort of jack of all trades, but for his particular vocation and ministry. [ii]

In reality, many larger churches are already assuming precisely this minster model across the country today. The future of the English Parish lies in the past.

[i] Bob Jackson, Hope for the Church, London: Church House Publishing, 2002.

[ii] Anon., The Organisation of the Church in Large Centres of Population, with Special Reference to the Church in St Pancras, London (1900), quoted in Lloyd, The Church of England 1900–1965.

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2004

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