There is a series of debates taking place in Oxford on the future of the parish system in the Church of England, organised by the Westminster Faith Debates network. The working thesis behind this seems to be that the Church of England is struggling to sustain the traditional ministry of being present in every community, for every community. Some churches are just collapsing and with a demographic that indicates those under 50 years old are dramatically less likely to associate with the Church of England than those over, the prognosis is not good.
Focussing on the parish system is to look at effect rather than cause. The parish system is a modus operandi, but behind it there has to be vibrant churches which are sustainable and engaging. In short the challenge is the same that it has always been. Unless we are missionary and draw people into the worshipping and faith life of the church there will be no church to engage in the myriad of activities that it has up to this point fulfilled.
After the Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted as saying good vicars grow churches, I wrote in December about some of the elements necessary for churches to grow. Behind these there needs to be a congregation who will be the sales force for the gospel. That may sound a glib way to put it, but without boots on the ground - to mix metaphors - there will be no growth. The best draw for the church is those who try to live its message. They are the ones who will show that the life and teaching of Jesus is relevant to today, that the faith inspires, and that worship enlivens with hope.
It is my fundamental belief that the survival of the church matters enormously because it carries a message that is life transforming, affirming and hope-filled. If I didn't believe this I would give up - the struggle is so hard at times that it would just not be worth it. But it is worth it. It is also my belief that if the Church of England does collapse, and I hope it won't, we would need to reinvent it. And the challenge for us is to reimagine what it would look like if we did reinvent it so that we can make that a reality. Because that is what will ensure its survival. Its survival is not the crucial issue though. The crucial issue is what it serves and stands for, the difference it makes.
There are many people who have got fed up with what they see in churches, particularly when what they see doesn't live up to what they expect. They are broken communities like everywhere else is. But they should be a place where this brokenness is acknowledged, where healing and justice are affirmed and where that is all held so that it becomes a place of honesty. When it becomes dysfunctional it all goes horribly wrong.
I stand by my points on what make a church grow. Sometimes I am more hopeful than at other times with this agenda.
If the church was a business it would set its branches targets and if they didn't measure up they would be shut down or relocated. We are not a business. We are communities of real people, rooted in real places. We don't just show up for an event and then go away again. We are embedded in those communities - that is what the parish system means. That means head office can't just shut down 'failing' places. But if there isn't a turn around in growth, then some places will cease to be viable for the large resources required and they will be forced to reimagine and reinvent if they are to sustain a continued presence.
Behind and sustaining all of this must be a profound faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without that the church has no point beyond whatever music or cultural associations it brings. Those are replicable if wanted. But without the faith, the church is not the church. That spiritual vibrancy is its future, its life-blood and its only source of hope. There is not other reason for it to exist.