As you begin to read these few thoughts, I wonder what is going through your mind? Are you reading this because you wonder what I have to say about The Parish Churches of England, or are you just whiling away a few idle moments? Do you have a specific connection to your parish church or do you just like the fact that your village has one? Are you hoping for some nuggets of historical general knowledge or are you aware of the national debate that is going on about the future of the Church of England?
Despite being ‘asset rich’ the Church of England in a state of financial crisis. Yes, the national Church does own both land and buildings, but they are as much a liability as they are a burden. The upkeep of hundreds of Grade One listed buildings costs a lot of money, that is fluid cash not heavily entailed assets. Many, if not most, of the assets owned by the Church of England cannot be disposed of, as well as carrying much emotional baggage. The bald fact is: local parish churches, just like our grand cathedrals, have to pay for themselves. Their income is primarily raised through the generosity of those who value their existence and the services they offer. There are no grants or ‘magic’ pots of money to keep our parish churches going. They can only exist through the support of those whom they serve.
Since March 2020 the crisis in funding the Church of England has intensified. The plans that were already being discussed amongst those in positions of authority and influence are being unveiled, and they are very scary indeed. Even the national press has noticed that the centuries old parochial system is under threat, and that the Church OF England could soon be reduced to being the Church IN England. Suddenly it is being noticed that the right everyone has to live in a parish and to be served by their parish church may be coming to an end, or at least being changed beyond all recognition.
The ‘Parish System’ predates the Norman Conquest of England. Under this system, every corner of England is in a parish. Those parishes are based around a single building which offers prayer and worship, sanctuary and consolation, counsel and comfort without favour or prejudice to all who live within the ecclesiastical area it serves. It is the legal right of all who live in the parish to have their children baptized, their weddings solemnized and their funerals conducted in the parish church. It is also the right of those same parishioners to be able to congregate to celebrate the great festivals of Christmas, Easter and Harvest, not to mention the many other moments in the year when we gather in our churches.
Every parish is served by at least one member of the clergy. These are men and women who have responded to God’s call to love and serve in his name. Both Church and community have affirmed God’s call in their life and have set them aside to serve wherever their calling may have taken them. As well as needing to support our valuable church buildings, it is the responsibility of the Church, through the generosity of parishioners, to support those clergy who serve as faithfully and as lovingly as they can.
If we believe the national press as it reports the deliberations of the Bishops and others, it is this Parish System and the future of our parish churches that are under threat. Rather than celebrating the small groups of people who, in their turn, work so hard to ensure that the local church might still be there for future generations, we are being encouraged to see a Church membership that is prepared to travel long distances for their collective worship, or to be solely led by members of the laity. Whilst this may sound attractive, sensible and ‘cheap’, it is not the same. No member of the laity can baptize or marry, just as they cannot celebrate Holy Communion or provide any of the other sacramental services that are entrusted to the clergy alone.
We are told that our churches are in decline. This is not so! We are told that the Parish System is not fit for purpose. This is not so! We are told that no one is interested in maintaining a system that is so old, because it does not fit the ways of the modern world. This is not so!
I believe that many would mourn the passing of the parochial system and the reducing of their parish churches to museums rather than places of life and prayer. Let me know what you think!
Revd Stephen Buckman