Has the Parish System had its day?

This was the title of an evening conference, ‘Moral Maze’ style, held in London on 23rd October with a very distinguished panel and set of experts and written up in full in the Church Times (13th October 2017).

Why might I have anything to say?

Well in the famous words of Max Boyce, “I was there!”

If you read the article, I am the anonymous Durham vicar who asked how we might “envision” (nice word) the young families who by-pass our village churches to worship in Durham City centre churches? Having worked in one for 9 years, I know several folk who have to drive past our St Mary’s to get to Durham. (NB this was not always about church-person-ship…folk travel in to different styles of church.)

But as a hard-pressed vicar, I wondered what more we could do in their village if only a few of them stayed local. And I ask that because the young families who have got stuck in to our parish church make a huge difference.

Interestingly the parish church is one of the few places in our village where old-timers and new-comers really live and work together.

I wonder if one of the ways in which our village churches will be (are being) renewed is as old-timers and in-comers learn to live and work together as Christ’s visible Body in their places.

I think this is potentially important but it is only a small and local part of the much bigger question: “Has the parish system had its day?”

Frankly it feels like it. Let’s list (again) some of the problems:

  • the CofE can’t sustain its parishes in many places…
  • the clergy are stretched over too many parishes to be present, visible and effective;
  • in some places we cannot find the lay leaders to actually run the churches;
  • in some places the congregations are too small, tired, defeated, inward-looking and elderly to be a basis for renewal;
  • in some places we cannot afford to maintain the buildings so they become off-putting eyesores.
  • the geographical parish boundaries make less and less sense. (In one of my former parishes, the boundary as well as running – invisibly – down the middle of roads, ran through the middle of new houses. Imagine people in the same house living in two different parishes J)
  • some people travel more than they did. The more urban a parish, the more likely it is that its electoral roll will be drawn from beyond the parish boundary
  • they are cumbersome organisationally and legally.
  • they are not very flexible ecumenically.

st cuthberts shadforth

Ok so we could ditch our parish system.

When I started as a vicar, including of four Durham villages, I cringe to remember a couple of early church councils when I asked the “Tesco’s Question”. “Why don’t we close most of our churches and either use or build two or three with big car parks? We mostly leave our geographical parishes to work, shop, go to school, go to the doctor. Why not our churches too?” Apart from the fact that Tesco’s has changed its strategy – other local convenience stores are available too – I went through a 180° conversion.

In our villages, if the church building is closed it would be a sign and instrument of the withdrawal of the Church. Along with many of the other local services. Even the pubs aren’t surviving! And whilst the committed and the mobile will find their way to another Christian community, others will not. Especially those on the fringe or beyond.

And our church buildings are used. Not as much as we would like. Not sustainably. But they are used for great community gatherings like funerals, weddings and christenings; Christmas and Harvest; and increasingly for welcoming social events. They carry real and symbolic weight as community hubs. Their closure, like the loss of the visible local priest and Christian congregation, diminishes our villages.

One of the tragedies of our society is that people seem not to notice the good things they are losing by choosing to stay indoors glued to a screen…

But if we (Church) are thought to have pulled out of a community, then it will be a generation or two before the community forgives us. In our pit villages, doing the funeral well is the basis for all other ministry. No Fresh Expression will flourish if we don’t care for the dead. (Having said that, in some of our communities the local church has all but died – it just hasn’t fallen over yet. In those circumstances we have to do something Fresh.)

So I am committed to visible local congregations. I am committed to representative persons who will be holy enough and skilled enough to be the public institutional face of the Church.

But that may not be our current institutional parishes.

I think we need another list:

  • Local communities of Christians who are up for being kind to each other and welcoming to newcomers;
  • Representative Persons (ordained and lay) – nb they will mostly be volunteers supported by an odd full-timer (come back Tiller, all is forgiven…);
  • Simplicity of governance and organization;
  • Fit for purpose multi-purpose buildings (and fewer of them – no more Christian duplication).

giles interior

Suddenly this doesn’t sound quite so impossible. The parish church system – but not quite as we know it. Being Christ’s hands and face in our villages. We can do this, can’t we?


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