St Francis’ (one of the small churches in Cleethorpes, built in the 1960s) is about to lose its half-time Vicar, is not likely to see her replaced, and has a major fund raising task to sort out aspects of its building (including securing proper disabled access if it is to go on being used as a significant local community resource). But the lay leadership of the church doesn’t seem to be as down beat about all this as one might imagine; at the most recent Church Council meeting one member gave me a fillip by saying he remembered what I’d said at a Vision Day for the church a few years ago and now they were going to put it into practice.
At such days I often talk about the parish in which I was baptised. When I was last there it had one significant church with substantial congregations and a good clergy staff. But when I mention that the parish also has something like thirteen ‘out stations’ it quickly dawns on people that I’m not talking about a parish in England - it is the parish of Zomba in the diocese of the Upper Shire in Malawi. The average out station church there would only expect to see a priest for a day or two once every few months. He would celebrate the only Eucharist for those months, consult the lay leadership about which particular bits of teaching or pastoral care are most urgent, do those, and go away again.
‘How would you operate if you only saw a priest that often?’, I ask. ‘If the bishop actually offered you a visiting priest much more often - several hours most weeks - how would you then most constructively use him or her?’, I continue. Usually everything the Bishop’s latest paper would want people to say is then said without any difficulty: the local church can provide its own leadership and sustain its own life; the expensive resource of stipendiary clergy can be used in a way which adds value and provides oversight for this.
The remark that St Francis now thinks it can put this fully into practice does qualify one of the lines I wrote for the diocese in response to the Bishop’s paper: ‘the idea of a more episcopal style incumbency has been worked on creatively and systematically in parish days and Deanery Synod meetings without any discernable impact’.
Meanwhile, the new weeping ash at St Michael’s has taken well and is beginning to come into leaf.