Friday, 6 June 2008

Too many churches?

This week, the local Catholic Church (St Peter’s) is expecting the delayed announcement of its closure. This is part of a radical recasting of the Catholic Community in North East Lincolnshire. Ten years ago the number of Catholic priests in North East Lincolnshire was reduced from four to three. Instead of rearranging the four parishes into three, the bold decision was made to create one unit; the Sunday Mass times in the six churches were arranged so that two priests could cover all six services if the third priest was ill or away. But things have moved on in the short time since. Now it seems the Catholic diocese will only be able to deploy two priests and St Peter’s may not be the only one of the six churches to close.

So here is a picture of St Peter (who I greatly enjoyed finding on a door post when on holiday in Ireland).

And here is a version of the sheet I shared with our Anglican Deanery Synod a few months ago about our own need to face a similar situation.
  • The physical landscape around us changes gradually until it becomes unrecognisable. Some change we hardly notice, such as the slow silting up of a harbour. Some change is observable over a few years, such as the rapid retreat of a cliff. Some change is instant, such as the result of levies breaking or land slipping.
  • In the past, change in the Church of England has been of the first hardly noticeable sort. In the 150 years before I was confirmed in 1974 the pattern of clergy deployment, relating to society, theology and worship changed fundamentally without any of the individual increments being revolutionary.
  • In the present, change in the Church of England is of the second rapid observable sort. The Alternative Service Book came and went in just twenty years, and the number of clergy deployed in most of the parishes in Grimsby & Cleethorpes today is half the number in the Pastoral Plan of the early 1990s.
  • What is hardly grasped by anyone involved is that change in the Church of England immediate future will be of the third instant sort. The ground beneath us is moving. The pressures created by the demography of our congregations, the tightening our finances and shifts in society have been building inexorably.
  • The demography of our congregations is such that the presence of those who were formed as present and future members of the Church of England in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s has masked the startlingly smaller number so formed in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, but as the former begin to die a huge gap is exposed.
  • The tightening of our finances has reached the point where it costs over £100 a day to deploy a stipendiary priest before we even begin to finance our church activities and buildings; this will continue to increase in real terms.
  • The shifts in society include everything from most people’s use of Sunday, the proportion of split families, a step change in individual consumerist expectations, and a sharp decline in active participation in everything from political parties to voluntary work, all of which work against traditional patterns of church commitment.
  • A very significant financial subsidy from the historic resources of the diocese and the deployment of some full time Curates has helped shore things up, but very soon the combination of these pressures will mean that we suddenly cease to be able to operate as we are.
  • Some people of all ages will continue to make Christian commitment, and many people will continue to look to the established church for varieties of Christian ministry, but the numbers of those committed will simply not be able to sustain anything like our present provision of buildings or stipendiary ministry.
  • Some small parts of this deanery continue to operate as if change is still very gradual; the presence of a priest with security of tenure paid by someone else next door to a single church in a parish means that change doesn’t have to be faced at the moment at all.
  • The majority of the deanery operates as if rapid change is enough: most places where ten years ago a priest lived next door a church in a parish which was his or her sole responsibility have ceased to operate in this way; systematic development of authorised lay ministry and alternative worship is quiet common.
  • Hardly anyone operates as if the major crisis is coming, and the ugly experiences of our Methodist neighbours when seeking to bring together three small churches in the centre of our deanery is one indication of why we have shied away from seeking to propose anything bold.
  • But if we were to be bold we would be doing things like uniting every pair our churches now to create single sustainable congregations in seven or eight places across the deanery which could each be resourced by just one stipendiary priest and together serve a wider area, and we would be deploying some priests directly in community engagement and mission posts.
  • However we know (as the Methodists do) that the personal investment of most of us in the particular congregation of which we are part means that even coming to a common mind about which places to identify and then willingly ceasing regular worship in some others is a task which is beyond us.
  • So are we more likely to wait until the levies break or the land slips, until further specific congregations become unviable or until the provision of stipendiary ministry across particular parts of the deanery becomes impossible, and make emergency plans in the new landscape only when we are confronted by it?

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