THE thousands of parish churches dotted around the landscape are testament to this country’s Christian heritage. The impact of Covid-19 made the social value of these buildings even more vital to local communities. Yet the Church of England went AWOL, the bishops deciding to dissociate themselves from the nation and the people they serve in the parishes.
In spite of this, up popped the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, to claim in a recent article for the Daily Telegraph that the Church of England ‘is one of the only institutions left in our nation with a local branch’ and ‘remains committed to this local and national vision: a church for England’, maintaining, ‘as we have seen during the pandemic, as it has been for centuries, the parish is the beating heart of community life in England’.
The Church chose to lock its doors during the pandemic, failing lamentably to respond to those who needed it most, seemingly more interested in restrictions, rules, sanitisers and social distancing rather than remaining a united and inclusive force for the nation. It beggars belief that that the archbishop should offer these belated assurances when evidence proved the contrary. Then post-pandemic, just as parishes were staggering to their feet, he announces a scheme to have 10,000 lay-led churches in living rooms. This would be funded inevitably by an increase in parish share, milking them still further whilst being crushed by top-heavy, bureaucratic and unaccountable management.
Undoubtedly the church has major problems. Data points to the declining importance of the Anglican church in this country, with or only 12 per cent of the population identifying as members, falling to as few as 1 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds.
The diocese of Bath and Wells has appointed a ‘Chaplain to the hedgerows, to pilgrims and pilgrimage’ because potential parishioners ‘aren’t too sure about going into the church buildings for services’. If only they could find any church buildings open. Meanwhile, some parishes in the diocese are deprived of a vicar because of a recruitment freeze which doesn’t apply to employees at the diocesan offices. We are entitled to ask where is the pastoral care for those damaged by isolation and fear during lockdown, those seeking spiritual comfort, solace and connection with our heritage, history and culture? (The church owns far more listed buildings than the National Trust). Yet the church insists in centralising.
For good measure the church has chosen this moment to push this centralisation agenda, which since 1976 has sucked assets and power away from the parishes to the diocese. Behold Document GS2222. This paper proposes changes to the ‘Mission and Pastoral Measure of 2011’, which set out the legal procedure for parish reorganisation, the closing of consecrated church buildings and settling their future. In this document, we learn that the Church wants to be ‘Simpler, Humbler and Bolder’ which would mean that the dioceses would be able to erase the centuries-old English parish system. Many dioceses in its ‘Pastoral Reorganisation’ are completing reviews: 12 were planning a ‘light number of church closures’, nine were planning 6- 12, but five dioceses were planning up to 40 church closures within the next two to five years. It was felt that the dioceses should pursue ‘more autonomy’ in an ‘agile and flexible manner’ as they seek to manage ‘outcomes of the pandemic’ which accordingly has ‘accelerated some of the structural issues and pressures which were already present especially on finance’.
More worrying, the document includes a proposition to block public representations for church closures together with proposals for a ‘super-benefice or super-parish type’ model whilst others will move towards a deanery structure with administrators ‘to take the burden of compliance and others off hard-pressed PCCs’. This is despite anecdotal evidence that this ‘super parish model’ has ‘not worked well in Wales’. In addition, GS 2222 proposes that appeals about what happens to parish property and the parish church if a closure occurs should only go to the diocese that proposes to close or dispose of that property, rendering itself judge, executioner and the recipient of any financial benefit. If the Archbishop of York really loved the parishes, he would tear this document up immediately. It signals the death knell for the parochial church system in this country.
Surveys in the past have revealed that the British public back churches being available for community use in addition to being places of worship. Moreover, the majority of British adults agree that churches, chapels and meeting houses are an important part of the UK heritage and history despite the best of efforts of the far-left, including some of the absurd Anglican clerics who wish to destroy it.
It appears to have escaped the hierarchy’s notice that the parish church doesn’t belong to them to rebrand as they see fit or to flog off and pocket the proceeds. The people have not been consulted and their rights to spiritual and heritage access are being totally ignored by an arrogant elite at the top. The parish church is a symbol of England and of those who built them, prayed in them and are buried in their churchyards; additionally, they were built with local funds. There is a strong argument for adaptation but not destruction, as once again the parish church could be used for the community as well as Christian worship. Apart from being a visual presence they are a constant reminder of what is good about this country and the communities they serve. If this measure is passed by the General Synod, we are in danger of being left with but a fragmentary vision of a bygone age which will be lost for ever.
The deadline is September 30.