So where are we going?
The Rectory - November 2004
I suspect everyone is a little sensitive at the moment, in both parishes. I am not surprised! Change is always hard to handle, especially in church life, which for many people ought to be providing security and stability when everything else is changing around them.
It may seem that in St Peter’s & All Saints’, and in St Mary’s, that we are being forced to face a lot of change in a very short time and that is making us all feel uncomfortable. Please believe me, I do understand that. We have moved from a position where both St Peter’s and St Mary’s had two fulltime clergy, both primarily focussed on the lives of two church communities to a place where three churches are sharing three parish clergy, and where the faces leading worship on a Sunday keep on changing; and I think we would all agree we are generally at full stretch.
And let me say, before going any further, that changes will continue. I was invited by the Bishop to become priest-in-charge of St Mary’s specifically to initiate new and wide-ranging thinking about the future. When St Peter’s and All Saints’ united it was clearly stated that this would be the first step towards significant change in how we structured the church in the city centre. Members of the PCC of St Peter’s will know that there are proposals currently being considered to develop the cluster of parishes which includes ourselves, St Stephen’s Hyson Green, All Souls’ Radford and St Peter’s Radford. At the moment we are dealing in discussion documents, but St Peter’s Radford have been in vacancy for three and a half years - and they are pretty fed up about that, as you can imagine. So for their sake if for no other reason, we must think and plan fast.
But I want to disabuse people of a number of things. Firstly, this is not all just random action for the sake of disturbing people! It is all part of a strategy that has been developing over the past two years within our deanery, and also to address specific needs within the city. Secondly, it is not driven by the need to save money, or cut the number of clergy in the deanery. And thirdly, it is not an attempt to create a ‘super parish’ with me or anyone else as a sort of mini-bishop in the city centre.
The fact is that the Church of England has been trying to hold on to a system of church organisation that may have served it well in the nineteenth century but which bears little relevance to the modern world. We have far too many church buildings - fourteen in four miles square in our deanery. We are working with geographical boundaries to our parishes that are quite simply nonsensical. We are holding on to a notion of ‘parish’ when many congregations are made up of people who criss-cross the city in search of a tradition to suit them - they have little or no physical relationship with the parish at all. That is especially true for all three city centre parishes. We are expecting clergy and other ministers to be all things to all people, and to provide a continuing ‘traditional’ parish ministry whilst also pursuing the elusive ‘church growth’ or the ‘mission-shaped church’ in the wide diversity of contexts in which we find ourselves. We want in other words, in our city centre context, to be a city centre church connecting with all that is going on around us and finding opportunities to build up relationships with everyone and everything around us, whilst also retaining all that makes us feel comfortable and warm in our worship and social life. And it is assumed that the clergy will do that. But it is not sustainable.
The Church that we knew thirty, forty, fifty years ago is no longer. Our ministry will not develop simply by saying to people ‘Here we are, come and find out what we do, and we are sure you will love it’. They will not come. What we do in all three of our churches on Sundays is a million miles away from where the majority of the population are. That is not to say that what we do is wrong; it is just that if we are going to connect - and let’s face it we do believe the Gospel is for all, don’t we? - we have got to think differently, laterally perhaps; and we have got to work very hard to understand how we can tap into the fact that 80% of the population believe in God, but only 2 % go to church.
One of the ways we can do that is to liberate churches to operate in ways far more appropriate to their context than they are able to at the moment. That is the aim of the Deanery Strategy. We want finally to do away with parish boundaries. We want all church congregations to understand that they are part of a community of Christians in the city who should be praying, working and planning together, for one another and for the Gospel, not just to retain whatever it is that is nice about their own set up. We want to be able to recruit a team of ministers, both lay and ordained, who will complement one another with their gifts and experience and who will be able to tap the strengths of each community for building the mission of the church. We want to have the courage to explore new ways of being the church.
But that does not just happen. It takes a great deal of thinking, discussion, trust, generosity, and understanding. It means that the stronger churches in the deanery - and we are among the strongest in terms of resources and numbers - must be ready, probably more ready than others, to make the imaginative steps forward.
We know only too well, all of us, what challenges face our city today. I write just a week after the awful murder of Danielle Beccan. There are so many ways in which we could reach into the life of our city with the message of hope, joy, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation that is the lifeblood of the Gospel, and there are so many who would welcome that. But if we are just going to continue to expend our energy on maintaining what we have got, we will disintegrate.
On 17 November there will be a joint meeting of our two PCCs. This I hope will be the substance of our agenda. On 8 December the bishop and the archdeacon and the Diocesan Chief Executive will be coming to meet us to hear how we are getting on in our review of our ministry in the city centre. I hope and pray that we will have something substantial and exciting to tell them, and not just a complaint that we don’t see our rector as much as we want, or we are missing our vicar!