The first of the new series of Westminster Faith Debates took place in St Mary’s University Church, Oxford on 9 October – the day on which the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales celebrates one of St Mary’s former vicars, the Bl John Henry Newman. This series of five debates on The Future of the Church of England commenced with: Parishes – what future for the parochial system? at which speakers included: Revd Dr Andrew Davison, Anna Norman-Walker, Professor Robin Gill and Lord Andrew Mawson, with further evidence from provocateurs/expert witnesses: Prudence Dailey, (Chairman of the Prayer Book Society); Dr Michael Moynagh, (Director, Fresh Expressions, Wycliffe College); and Rev’d Dr John Reader, (Rector of the Ironstone Benefice and Associate Research Fellow, William Temple Foundation).
In Christian Today, Ruth Gledhill quoted Professor Linda Woodhead as saying that the Church of England is still one of Britain’s great cultural institutions, but her recent research shows that it is at a crisis point: in the UK as a whole, just one in ten of those aged under 20 now identify as “CofE”, compared with a majority of over-70s. More younger people now identify as having “no religion”. As if further proof of the CofE demographics were needed, one only had to cast an eye around St Mary’s; however, many parishes would probably welcome such a full church, regardless of age profile.
The debate was provided with a timely sneak preview of a YouGov survey of Anglican clergy, conducted in August 2014 and completed by 1,500 clergy from a random sample, and representative of all shades of churchmanship. Despite the acknowledged shortcomings of the existing parish system, the survey indicated “massive support amongst clergy of all kinds”:
“When asked how important it is to maintain the parish system 83% say it is important, 12% not important, and 5% have no strong feelings either way. There is no other topic in the survey (which asked 29 questions in total) on which there is such uniformity of opinion – except the belief that there is a ‘personal God’ (83%).
On the related topic of providing clergy housing there is greater variety of opinion. Clergy are almost evenly split over whether to retain the current system or pursue a range of alternatives which allow choice over accommodation.”
It was suggested that one reason for the high level of support for the parish system may be clergy’s belief that the CofE exists to serve the whole nation: when asked who the Church should prioritise 2/3 say ‘England as a whole’ and only 5% say regular churchgoers.
The Rev’d Dr Andrew Davison put the case for retaining the present basis of the parish system: the other speakers suggested how this could, and must, be modified, through adopting a more entrepreneurial approach, adoption of the model of the Exeter diocese and the creation of “festival churches”, and an increased reliance on non-stipendiary minister. A podcast of the presentations and the subsequent general discussion is available here.
Recurring themes during the discussions included: the expense of training clergy; the “critical mass” of small congregations; “capacity” issues in funding the maintenance of the buildings and the difficulties in a single priest serving several parishes; the requirements and expectations of the many who are nominally Anglican but do not attend church on a regular basis. The adequacy of clergy training to meet present and future demands on an incumbent, the extent to which the present parish system could be unpicked, or the issue of Establishment were not raised, although these will no doubt feature in subsequent considerations.
The Church in Wales faces similar problems to the CofE, and we will review the progress to date in a future post. Two recent posts by Philip Jones are also of relevance: The English Parish; and Pastoral Reorganisation: Canon Law, Statute Law and Common Law.
The next Westminster Faith Debate in this series is on 23 October, and will consider Heritage – how can buildings, endowments and pensions become assets not burdens? Speakers will include: Andrew Mackie, the Third Church Estates Commissioner; Sir Barney White-Spunner is Executive Chairman of The Countryside Alliance; Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE, Master of Emmanuel College; and the Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, who retires at the end of the month.
 The full survey will be made available on the Westminster Faith Debates site on 23 October.