CofE’s ‘transformation’ with 10,000 lay-led communities angers clergy fearing the end of the parish

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Image credit: Brandon's desk

By Catherine Pepinster

Proposals for a new era of 10,000 lay-led church communities by 2030 to transform the Church of England by attracting new, younger members to services without vicars or church buildings have incensed priests who say that it will be the death-knell of the parish.

The plans, in a strategy document presented by the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, will be discussed at General Synod, the Church of England’s parliament, on Monday.

The document “Simpler, Humbler, Bolder”, says the church needs to undergo renewal and rethink how it relates to an increasingly secular world. It urges a reappraisal of how it goes about “evangelising a culture which knows little of the gospel and has only very limited experience of the church”. To do this, it has to become a “church of missionary disciples”, to “become younger and more diverse”, and to become a church “where a mixed ecology is the norm”.

The insistence that the parish system “is good for serving more settled geographic communities. It is less effective in the networks of contemporary life”, has led many clergy to fear that the proposals signal a huge change in the way the CofE functions, leading to church closures and cuts to clergy numbers.

The Rev Marcus Walker, rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, says the proposals show that the parish is under threat. “The parish system works because the parish is local. It responds to local needs. The comment about key limiting factors indicates that people of influence think the problems are clergy, their stipends and their old buildings,” he said.  

He and others who vented on social media, found their anger was further fuelled by remarks made by Canon John McGinley, who runs a project to set up new forms of church, to a conference on church “planting” endorsed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Canon McGinley said lay-led communities released the church “from key limiting factors” — referring to “when you don’t need a building and a stipend [salary] and long, costly college-based training for every leader of a church”.

The outraged reaction forced the Church of England’s director of evangelism and discipleship, the Canon Dave Male, to issue a rebuttal saying the criticism had confused a plan for parishes to start 10,000 new groups, with another plan from a project called Myriad, to set up 10,000 lay led communities..

In his statement, Canon Dave Male said: “It has been claimed in some places that there is a plan to dissolve the parish system, sideline or even replace trained clergy, especially paid clergy, or to get rid of our beautiful, historic church buildings. I want to make it abundantly clear that the Church of England is committed, now as always, to the ministry of the whole people of God including to ordained ministry in our parishes.”

He added that the strategic vision for the Church of England was a spiritual renewal including a revitalised parish system.

For many members of the Church of England, the strategy document and Canon McGinley’s comments, at the MultiplyX 2021 conference — where church planting was supported by the Archbishops — signal the increasing influence of evangelicals in the Church of England.

MultiplyX 2021 was organised by the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, which is part of the Church of England, overseen by the Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe. One of its projects is “Myriad”, run by Canon John McGinley, who is a priest in the diocese of Leicester and head of church-planting in the New Wine evangelical organisation.

Anglicanism has always involved a balancing act between a more Catholic, sacramental approach which perceives the eucharist as central to the life of a worshipping community — which therefore needs a priest — and an evangelical idea of church that focuses more on scripture and lay leadership. Influenced by American evangelism, the English version has become more vocal in recent years.

The Rev Andrew Lightbown, rector of Winslow, Buckinghamshire, said: “Within the reformed Catholic tradition of the Church of England we are a sacramental church. And it is also incredibly important that at the end of every service people are blessed and sent out to do God’s work. You don’t do that with a lay-led church. This plan could be rolling back hundreds of years of theology and changing the Church of England.”

And Mr Lightbown pointed out the importance of the Anglican parish church to the whole community — something that a lay-led group of 20 could not have.

“The parish church must have a congregation but the parish church is not limited to the worshipping community. It is there for everyone. Will these new lay-led groups carry out baptisms, weddings and funerals?”

He has written to the Archbishop of York to complain about the Synod paper, saying that the suggestion of 10,000 new communities has been plucked from the air and is not realistic. “In that sense I am not concerned about it but I am concerned about its impact on people’s morale and wellbeing, especially after all we have done working with people affected by the pandemic, including the bereaved. After that, this language is just cruel,” he said.

Another rector who thinks the project is impractical is the Rev Barnaby Perkins, of St Peter and Paul, West Clandon, Surrey, given the commitment needed from large numbers of people to make it work. A house group of 20 would need at least five core members, he said, requiring 50,000 people to drive creation of 10,000 lay-led groups. “Where would they find all the houses that are big enough for 20-30 people. How would they ensure they are accessible and how would they deal with safeguarding issues?” he asked.

“This is part of a broader narrative,” he added. “There has been a change in the way the hierarchy views the clergy but there is a need for them to teach the faith and order the life of the church.”

Proposals for lay-led worshipping communities come after the Church of England has been hit by a financial crisis in the wake of the Covid pandemic, which led to a fall of 8.1 per cent in the church’s income in the year to November 2020, as churches were locked, collections not taken and services moved online.

An internal report, Perspectives on People, Money and Buildings, highlighted that church attendance had declined by 40 per cent in 30 years and warned that stipendiary clergy numbers would have to be pruned. In Chelmsford diocese — where Stephen Cottrell was bishop before moving to York — 61 stipendiary posts are being cut by the end of this year.

The report was part of the work of the vision and strategy group, led by Archbishop Stephen Cottrell, whose work also includes the paper to be discussed at Synod.

At the MultiplyX 2021 conference last month, both archbishops urged that church planting was the future. Stephen Cottrell said: “We stopped doing it, and, in recent years, it has been reawakened in us as absolutely central and fundamental to the commission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people and in all places”, while Archbishop Welby acknowledged that planting had not been part of contemporary Anglican culture.

“It’s a new discipline for quite a lot of people, Anglicans, that we are meant to witness,” he said. “That we are not meant to leave Jesus inside the church when we go out, and pick him up again when we come back in the following Sunday but to go with him.”

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