on 22 January 2007
This is essentially a sympathetic and worthwhile restatement of the case "for" the parish system, that has been under attack ever since "Mission-shaped Church", Nick Spencer's "Parochial Vision" and the like. Undergirding it is an argument that in essence goes like this:
1. assume the nation is made up of 10% in church, 60% or so "unchurched" (i.e. never been) and 30% "dechurched" (i.e. have been before, just not at the moment).
2. the "unchurched" is the growth area, but parishes are unable to deal with this: this is where the "fresh expressions" must come in, to meet people at this juncture
3. the parish system should be better at calling back and reinvigorating the section of "dechurched" who are still open to the call.
As Tim Sledge puts it "In 1900, 609 out of 100 children were baptized in the Church of England. by 2000, that number was 211 out of every 1,000. That is 21% - nowhere near as many, but still not a bad pond to fish in!"
Core to this idea, Sledge suggests, are the occasional offices, and Chapter 6, "The chores of grace?" is a substantive contribution to this, filled with useful ideas and fleshing out the new orthodoxy that funerals, baptisms and weddings can be effective mission opportunities, so long as they are done with strong follow-up.
All this is fine (and certainly worth stating), but what worries me is that, as numbers of baptisms and weddings decline, it's rather pinning one's hopes on a sinking ship.
And are parishes really entitled ideologically just to abrogate responsibility for the "unchurched"? Bayes' preface, which is short and snappy, only implicitly argues this: but it must underpin what he quotes George Lings as saying: "I hanker after clarity in the wider Church about the different courses that can broadly be set, depending on where we need to travel to."
I would have welcomed an explicit statement of the case to match this, because even if the point is right, it needs to be debated: the traditional justification of the parochial system ("we are here for everyone") pretty much collapses if this is indeed the case.
Moreover, the give-away that this is from a catholic, rather than parish, perspective is the fact that there are also chapters on cathedrals and civic churches. Though different from parishes, guess which constituency they consider they appeal to the most? Yes, it's "the open dechurched". Mark Rylands is perceptive in warning against over-optimism based on the recent 20% increase in attendance in cathedrals: "There is a danger that some cathedrals may be focussing primarily on being centres of worship because it is the traditional worship that currently attacts regular Sunday worshippers. If, however, this growth is really transfer growth and not new disciples, then there will be problems in the long term." (And, after all, 30,000 worshippers a week in all the cathedrals in England put together is hardly going to revitalise the entire Church.) Here he cites initiatives like those of Robin Gamble at Manchester Cathedral as ways to cut past the fringe into the unchurched. This is good stuff, and supplies some of what was absent in John Holbrook's chapter on Civic churches. I got to the end of his chapter not quite sure what his point was, except that they needed more imagination.
But the great gap remains meeting the "unchurched": the cathedrals barely do it, civic churches don't do it, and parish churches don't do it. The only hope to meet the "unchurched" (and again this is never explicitly stated, but all the relevant examples fit this area) is when someone in the traditional instutitions is doing schools-work: if you meet an entire class, you meet everyone, be they on the fringe of church or not. Do parishes need to reaffirm their commitments here? Do training institutions need to acknowledge this more? There's a lot depending on it.
The thing I was looking for that barely featured at all was the eucharist, which is ironic given what I suspect are the sympathies of all involved. The only time it was mentioned in the "worship" section is to claim the practice advocated by Justin Martyr as mission-shaped for its time! And the only other point it came up in the rest of the whole book was tangentially, with regard to the eucharistic overtones of Martin Seeley's dinner parties inviting different stakeholders in his parish to consider the area's development.
Some thinking needs to be done here: how does the eucharist feature in the world of the mission-shaped church if it doesn't feature in the mission-shaped parish, which is doing the eucharist week by week, or day by day? If meeting people on the fringes must inevitably be non-eucharistic, how can these people come to find God in this sacrament, when they don't see it. Or if you think you can meet people on the fringes with the eucharist, let's hear some examples.
In conclusion, this is a friendly, accessible approach that rearticulates parish mission in the light of "mission-shaped church". All those who work hard in their parishes, lay or ordained, will find material to stimulate them here, both with regard to overall thinking and specific examples. It gives great hope for growth among the 30% of the population who are the "open dechurched" and if "mission shaped parish"'s recommendations were followed sensibly, the Church as a whole would undoubtedly grow, both in faith and in number.
But the authors here aren't claiming that parishes offer the whole answer: the 60% of unchurched are still out there, blissfully untouched by the centuries-old parish system. This is where the fresh expressions need to come in.