Letter to parishioners, 20 August 2021

Friday, 20 August 2021

Dear Friends in Christ,

As the world is struggling to find the best path out of the strange times we have been living through, the Church is also going through a time of turmoil. At national, diocesan and local level there are plans afoot to re-imagine the ways in which the Church of England might best fulfil its calling to be a Church for everyone in every corner of the United Kingdom. The plans that are being formulated revolve around the financial crisis that has been brewing in the Church of England over many years. As with so many other aspects of our national life, there is great inequality where there should be a coherent universal response to Christ’s call to love and serve in his name. We can see this inequality in our own diocese. North of Lincoln there is a desperate shortage of men and women serving as parish priests, whilst south of Lincoln this has not been a problem. That may sound strange to anyone whose parish has been in vacancy for a prolonged period of time, but it is the case. As we emerge from the pandemic and as the Church leaders struggle to find a viable way forward, there is a need for us all to re-evaluate the Church and what legacy we are hoping to leave for future generations.

Having given that very general pen-picture of where we are as a national, diocesan and local Church, we need to reflect upon our response to the crisis we are facing. Every parish is being asked to undertake a vocational conversation. These ‘conversations’ are meant to be a time of prayerful reflection on the current situation. They are also meant to be a time of aspiration and hope. The basic question being asked is: What is the true state of our parish churches now, and what are we going to do to ensure their future?

At present there seem to be two contrasting options being presented to us, with the argument heavily weighted in favour of that preferred by the current House of Bishops.

You may have heard that there is a plot to abolish the parish system, a system which pre-dates the Norman Conquest. According to this age-old system, every person in this country lives in a parish and has a right to the ministrations of both Church and priest on a day-by-day basis as well as during significant moments of birth, life and death. To abolish or dilute this system would be to undermine the core mission of our Church.

But … there is another model being proposed. According to that model the Church of England would be served by fewer clergy and more laity. Parish churches would be defined as Key or Local Mission Churches (those which can attract large congregations and greater local funding), Community or Festival Churches (which will have fewer services and a greater level of lay leadership), or churches which have decided to petition for closure. This change in how we view our churches is at the heart of the plan that has been adopted and that is being rolled out in our Diocese.

At the moment nothing is set in stone. Diocesan Synod has adopted the Bishops’ Plan, but it is still in an embryonic phase. We can make a difference if we truly collaborate. Our Deanery has, for the moment, been named as one of the Local Mission Partnerships of the future. This means that we can pray together, talk together, assess together and plan together. Through all of these collaborative functions we can make a difference. But, it will entail collaboration!

Collaboration does not mean that those who shout loudest are right. It does not mean that those who sulk the longest must win. It does not mean that our own personal agenda must be the one everyone else agrees with. Collaboration, true collaboration, is about journeying in Christ-like love, unity and peace together. It demands humility. It demands an open heart and an open mind. It demands that we move as one, and not as isolated groups and individuals who want to keep everything rooted in a past that cannot be sustained. Let us pray for the strength of will and faith to move forward in Christ’s name.

In the last few days I have written and issued a document entitled The Parish Churches of England. In this document I have written in further detail and I have invited everyone to send me their thoughts on the future of our parish churches. If you have not received this document, either at an earlier time or with this letter, please contact me directly and I will send it to you. I am inviting everyone who has an interest in the future of our churches to contribute to the debate. This is not a decision that should be taken by one or two more vocal people because it does affect every community.

Just one other point … some of the responses I have received already have been in the form of personal attacks. I did not put together the Bishops’ Plan! I am working for the future of the parish system in which I was called to serve. Writing a letter or email which ‘blames’ me for the problem is a waste of time and effort – we need to work together. We need to collaborate in the sense of listening to each other and formulating a future of which we can be proud.

Please think and pray about the future of our churches. Resist the temptation to ‘give up’ because there is a future in which our churches will continue to love and serve in the name of our risen Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is for us to make that future happen.

With every blessing to you all,

Revd Stephen