I have just been reading a blog post by the Secretary of the organisation called Modern Church on the topic of the parochial system in the Church of England. The reason that I refer to this blog post by Jonathan Clatworthy is because it has got me thinking about the question of the future of the parochial system in the Church of England. My original comment can be read on the link that I shall give at the end, but my present blog post is an extension of my reply to Jonathan.
Among the many problems of the Church of England is the question of finance. The most expensive part of financing the church is the provision of clergy and paying for them and their housing and pensions. One existing solution to the expense of stipendiary clergy is to employ ‘self-supporting’ clergy who earn a living elsewhere and provide support for churches at week-ends. This system is in part a response to a need, and we can say that it is thanks to these non-stipendiary clergy that the parish has just managed to limp along and survive. But there is one great draw-back to any dependency on not paying an increasing percentage of the clergy in the Church of England. The draw-back is that it will never be possible to reproduce the educational standard that was required of clergy in the past and to provide it for this army of part-time unpaid clergy. In my generation the State paid for my undergraduate theological studies and my two years in residential training. They even agreed to pay for a four month sojourn studying in Switzerland. Such largesse is no longer to be found and the fact that ordinands are to be found in an older age group, means that few of them would, in any case, have the time to take the training that those of us in our twenties could once enjoy.
For a whole number of reasons the ordinands of today, particularly the non-stipendiary ones, have to enter ordination with less time for study under their belt. This does not make them second-class clergy but it does mean that many of them will find the teaching and preaching role something hard to sustain. Jonathan Clatworthy’s solution is to face this situation head-on and suggest that teaching and preaching should be a specialised ministry, undertaken by a few specially trained people. This would mean that the parish churches would be places where people gathered for worship and prayer. The teaching role would a parallel but less frequent occurrence, either taking place in particular centres or as an itinerant ministry. I mentioned in my response to Jonathan’s post the existence of preaching crosses in many villages, which is where people gather to listen to a passing Dominican friar in the mediaeval period.
I don’t want this blog post to be too critical of the sermons I have heard since retirement, but some have been dire. My criticism of many of the sermons I have heard is two-fold. Some have been poor because of a simple lack of understanding at any depth of the Bible or Christian theology. Others have been below standard because the preacher is operating out of a theological perspective that is narrow and deeply partisan. There is an evangelical-type sermon that has a few endlessly repeated motifs and too many clergy are repeating this litany of appeals over and over again. For me, and this is a controversial criticism of the evangelical conservative position, there is a type of preaching that finds its appeal only because it is simplistic, banal and without subtlety. For anyone who likes to be taught something in the experience of listening to sermons, these appeals are irritating at best. They potentially destroy any sense of adventure or growth in the activity of going to church.
What might church be like if the attempts at preaching were removed? For a start the services would be shorter. Instead of sermons there could be times of reflection when the leader invited the congregation members to offer their own take on scriptural passages. There could also be times of silence and an attempt to experience what it is like when words stop. There could be a dynamic closer to a social meeting but interspersed with prayer and reflection. The church building might not necessarily be the best place for this kind of gathering. However it takes place, it would not require an expensively trained clergyman to lead it. To make up for the lack of sermons at these gathering there would be a monthly occasion when there would offer a first-rate professional teaching event at a near-by town. This would be led by someone who understood communication and teaching. Alternatively/additionally the same teacher/preacher would come, say, once a quarter to each church to deliver a memorable address which could be chewed over in the following weeks.
Moving preaching from being an ordeal to something exciting and worth waiting and travelling for, could inject a new energy into the Church of England. The small often demoralised churches in the countryside could be places of gathering and prayer, led by local people, while the teaching and challenging aspect of church life would be done by those who knew what they were doing. From my personal position, there would be an escape from the bondage of an ever-increasing dominance of conservative dogmatic preaching. If the Anglican Church stands for breadth, it would never hand the task of teaching only to those who advocate a partisan and narrow point of view. The level of theological learning required of these diocesan teachers and preachers means that that the vast majority anyway would come from a liberal perspective. In this case liberal is not about a party line but about taking a perspective that is grounded of an in-depth broad non-partisan view of theology. All that would of course have to worked out in detail by the powers that be in the future, But meanwhile it is an idea that possibly may represent the future, a future where there is genuine hope for the Church in England.