I recently read a piece over on Unherd by the Journalist/Priest Giles Fraser on ‘The neoliberal revolution within the Church’ which I’d normally have passed over but something in this has made me want to dig deeper into the claims it makes. I normally like some of the stuff Fraser writes, but in this instance maybe it’s because the arguments are about systems, success, and performance it dance’s dangerously close to what I do for a living and so I feel compelled to comment.
The piece, to me, makes several claims which can be broken into several areas:
Issue one: Parish Decline
- ‘Parishes are close to collapse, exhausted by financial worries and increasingly by a shortage of suitable clergy’
- ‘Many parishes in the countryside are being forced together into ever greater economies of scale’
- This is a product of the centralisation of diocesan parishes away from the parish level in the 70s and with that came an expanding bureaucracy.
- The decline of the parish is seen as a part of a neoliberal strategy to hollow out the frontline whilst building up the bureaucratic centre based on the views of the Professor and Revd Michael Northcott. Where large sums are being borrowed by some dioceses to fund non-parish ministries namely…
Issue two: Pioneer Ministry
- Yet other parts of the Church seem to be growing fast … Recently Ministry Division has set an ambitious goal to double and double again the number of pioneers by 2027’
- Pioneers: ‘work from a blank canvas, in unreached places, released from inherited incumbency obligations’
- Pioneers operate: ‘alongside the traditional structures of the parish church but not necessarily a part of them’ … ‘this new church is developing its own structures alongside the old’
- According to Fraser: ‘the traditional structures of the Church of England emphasise stability and subsidiarity, but not necessarily the energy and dynamism required for missionary zeal. And given that these structures are lodged in the law of the land, it is almost impossible to change them.’ which has resulted in those with ‘energy and dynamism’ being driven out by the laws and culture.
- Fraser now sees the centralisation of diocesan funds as an ‘ingenious’ opportunity seized by the missionary inclined to do evangelism in a way that doesn’t stifle them in the old structures.
- Fraser believes: ‘The parish church will limp along, but eventually it will wither on the vine and FX will be there to pick up the baton’.
Issue three: Defining Mission and the Church
- Revd Fraser believes that the difference between parish ministry and pioneer ministry is ‘an important choice is offered to the Church of England: to embrace her historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or to decline into a sect’.
- There is a belief present amongst non-pioneer clergy that ‘Some bishops and church bureaucrats are now quite open about their contempt for the parish church’.
- Because church decline has continued (15% in a decade) pioneer ministry is seen as a loss-leader for the Church of England.
To me, at a glance, there are multiple issues with this format. Revd Fraser has structured his essay slightly differently to how I present it here but I think this ordering makes clearer what I see as the central points in his argument. I think its important to break out where I think he’s off-base and what this does potentially say about the place many clergy are coming from when in parish ministry.
I think the least controversial aspect of Revd Fraser’s points is the issues facing Parish ministry currently. It’s really difficult and I do believe in parish ministry, I attend my parish church and when I was in discernment for ordination to the priesthood made it clear that I wished to serve in a parish context. I do and did this because I believe in the parish as a model. This is a legitimate issue that yes has been exacerbated by the growing centralisation of diocesan bureaucracy.
Yet I think when it comes to Revd Fraser’s description of ‘old church’ vs ‘new church’ as a revolution is hagiographic. There have been ‘revolutions’ in the Church of England who haven’t been driven out, most notably the Oxford Movement. Indeed they were furnished and accommodated even if they didn’t get everything they originally set out to do. This, and the changes since then, have fundamentally redefined what it means to ‘evangelise and serve the whole people of this country’. Fraser’s claims that those euphemistically described as possessing missionary zeal (aka evangelicals aka enthusiasts) pillaged the CoE historically as they ‘would like its money, its embeddedness, its position in the heart of the nation’ can equally be said of other parties like the Oxford Movement and Progressive Parties who weren’t driven out like the Methodists he describes. To say nothing of the fact that Wesley himself remained an Anglican all his life.
Yet the reality is, because of the Church of England’s plurality of revolutions, you don’t know necessarily what you will get when you turn up on a Sunday these days at your local parish. Normally this is talked about as the breadth of the church exists to serve the breadth of our nation but the argument that parish ministry is now the sine qua non of serving the nation seems, to me, utterly unconvincing and frankly disingenuous, in light of the abandonment of subscription and uniformity applied to clergy. The Church of England is a body made up of sects whether it likes to admit it or not. All of which are increased funded from the center by the same ‘neoliberal’ bureaucracy he lambests.
There is also, before we move to the next issue, a fundamental contradiction in Revd Fraser’s description of Evangelicals or Charismatics as being a party that simultaneously cannot abide the stability of parish ministry, its conventions and laws, and a body in love with bureaucracy, centralisation, and what is hard to see as anything but bloat in Revd Fraser’s eyes. Not only does this ignore the large numbers of Evangelicals (and Charismatics, as they are not synonymous despite Revd Fraser’s conflation) within parish ministry. It also pays no consideration as to the relative success or solvency of those parishes (however defined) nor to any substantive definition of the term being employed here. They are the Great Other in this piece.
Fraser is right to call out the frustrations of Parish Ministry and its neglect. A better solution, I think, would be to travel in the opposite direction to the centralisation. More bishops in smaller dioceses. I heard that at the Council of Carthage there existed 500 bishoprics in the Eastern Roman Empire for 1,000 cities. Given the relative population density, this implies a much smaller distance between the bishop and the places he represented than exists today.
The other point is about Pioneer Ministry. I’ll be honest and admit that I have attended a pioneer ministry church briefly, I also know people who’ve become pioneer ministers. I have also stopped attending a pioneer ministry in favour of a parish setting.
In my experience the conflation again with Evangelicalism Rev’d Fraser makes is overblown. In my experience there is entryism, but this isn’t from what people would traditionally associate with Evangelicalism. Out of those I know a decent number have socially progressive credentials and have left Evangelical Churches due to becoming theologically progressive, or switched from progressive traditions (think Metropolitan Community Churches) for the reasons Fraser accuses Evangelicals (its money, its embeddedness, its position in the heart of the nation). These have since gone into pioneer ministry. This appeal Revd Fraser mentions appeals to people from all theological backgrounds, not just the ones we don’t like.
There is also another point to Revd Fraser and Northcott’s description of the advent of Pioneer ministry as ‘neoliberal’ because I do think there is a certain anxiety to be sensed about potential competition. If we are to use another market analogy parish ministry has been a monopoly or the equivalent to a government service. The fact that Fraser underscores the fact that its hard to get rid of ineffective clergy or institute reform is comparable to the protections many experience in the public sector and its reluctance to change. Again, a better approach, rather than throwing pioneer ministry under the bus it would have been helpful here to see a better alternative proposed. Revd Fraser diagnosed problems with the status quo, and problems with a proposed solution, but no cure.
If the Church of England is taking massive loans to pay for pioneer ministry that is justifiably concerning. Yet if financial incompetence is the issue here, that is a distinct issue from the various pros and cons of pioneer ministry. In software development there is such a thing as Parallel development which does sound a lot like what the Church of England is trying to do here. Parallel development allows you to diverge from where you are currently and experiment whilst retaining the existing system but, importantly, also keeping the door open to merge the two divergent paths at some point in the future. I have seen this in my own parish that shrank from three churches (a primary and two tertiary led by one minister) to three churches each with their corresponding parish (each with their own minister) with one of those churches being partnered from a pioneer ministry church successfully incorporating people from two distinct congregations. So far from allowing parish ministry to ‘wither on the vine’ pioneer ministry can allow the grafting of the two together. Which is to say this is not as black and white as Revd Fraser makes it out to be. I personally know of 4 successful partnerings or resurrections of parishes that otherwise would be closed that have emerged off the back of pioneer ministries. The relationship can be reciprocal and, in my experience, pioneer ministries do seem to pull numbers from a younger demographic who seem keen to invest time and energy into their churches which can be useful to a flagging parish. I say that as someone who isn’t involved in one anymore.
Pioneer Ministry also seems to reflect the fact that Christians tend to live further from Churches they attend now, this is for two reasons. The first is that there are simply less Christians now and less Churches so they must travel further. The second is that people go to the Churches they identify with, and this includes in the Church of England. An Anglo-Catholic would not attend an Evangelical Church even if both were within the Church of England, likewise someone who is an egalitarian would be less likely to attend a church who holds to the catholic position on male priesthood. Pioneer Ministry exists without the trappings of a parish building because, in my experience, they place a premium on being willing to experiment with various ways to meet people, sometimes in a variety of locations. Pioneer ministry isn’t a competition to parish ministry, it reflects the increasingly transitory nature of our lives, especially among young people. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
Again I don’t attend a pioneer ministry church, I have reservations and it’s not my churchmanship, but I do think the future of the Church does need to draw something from pioneer ministry. I know of rural ministers desperate to consolidate buildings so they aren’t spread out over six parish churches at great distances. Spread amongst communities of people who want the buildings open for weddings but never attend. It also doesn’t take a genius to note that pioneer ministry can clearly be seen as an attempt by the Church of England to imitate the missiology of Evangelicals from outside their walls and tap into those they are converting and potentially get Christians outside the Church of England to join it.
I’ve written elsewhere that I think the idea of resourcing churches within a parish system has a lot going for it and parallels the old Minster model. However, I think Priests turning their rhetorical guns on pioneer ministry is unbecoming and not addressing the root of the problem which is:
Defining Mission and the Church
The biggest issue with Revd Fraser’s piece is that it seems, at heart, to represent a fundamental disconnect regarding how mission is perceived by various parties. To break this out the following chart might be useful:
This chart was put together by Aaron Ren regarding the different ways people can respond to institutional decline. In Revd Fraser’s piece we see a critique of pioneer ministry and the approach of the bishops and the institutions they represent. It seems fairly safe to say that Revd Fraser is seeking to ‘Destroy or Delegitimise’ what he sees as a ‘Capture or Replacement’ or a ‘Revolution’ by an alien or even parasitic party. This is evident when he repeats a choice offered by a critic of pioneer ministry to the Church of England regarding the two parties: ‘to embrace her historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or to decline into a sect.’
Now I think to some degree the only people who still see the Church of England as evangelising and serving the whole people of this country are some of the clergy and a subset of the laity. Most people outside really don’t think about the Church of England in those terms. It’s a one way relationship. I also don’t think this is a historically supportable position in that the Church needs to be confessional, dare I say exclusionary to be universal as has been traditionally understood. Realistically more and more people have no knowledge of Christianity or the role the Church has played in our national history. The Church has utterly failed in this area when something like 1% of all people aged 18-24 associate with the Church of England. Whether we want to be or not the Church of England is seen as a sect by many, one with incredibly privileged position in society. Again, it’s to this problem that pioneer ministry has been established to try and address. By Revd Fraser getting the knives out for it he isn’t actually helping anyone by speaking out against a plan that seeks:
To attract young people, in part by going to the city centres, where young people can be found. The next round of grants from the church’s Strategic Development Fund, part of the Renewal and Reform programme, will be explicitly devoted to projects that “are targeted on promoting church growth within the largest urban areas; and one or both of younger generations and poorer communities”. In effect, though everyone insists that the church has not forgotten the countryside, it means a focus for the future on the UK’s 75 largest cities and towns.Leo Benedictus, Churches in nightclubs and Anglican gyms: can the C of E win back city dwellers? The Guardian October 2019
Yet I think this critique offered in this piece is not actually about any evangelism or mission. Revd Fraser finishes by saying:
The importance of the parish goes way beyond Church of England attendees. Some parishes date to the time of St Augustine, the oldest and deepest social structure in the land, and their decline and bankruptcy — aggravated now by Covid — will have an immense impact on the country’s wider social structure.Giles Fraser, The neoliberal revolution within the Church, Unherd
To me this is putting the cart before the horse. Our social structures have already collapsed, are collapsing, and this is why our parishes in places are dead and dying. It presumes that the Church infrastructure is in part providing life support to the nation when it is the spiritual state of the nation that gives life support to the Church. Covid is, to be crass, just an accelerant in this regard. Part of me can’t help but think that if we wanted to save our parishes en masse we should have done that 30-40 years ago. Revd Fraser’s perspective here can’t help but come across as institutional navel gazing.
Rev’d Fraser is right to raise the issues with Parish Ministry but I found this piece so frustrating in that his very obvious prejudices leave him unable to articulate the means by which he might articulate any reform. In that absence what we find is a piece seeking to delegitimise an attempt at mission reflecting the financial constraints of the church and the increasingly transitory nature of peoples lives in the UK today. Personally I chose the parish over pioneer ministry because I’ve seen how the two can complement each other and if the latter were to disappear tomorrow, along with all its trappings, the fundamental issues plaguing the parishes would still be there.
Spending any extended period of time thinking about why the Church of England does what it does and the backbiting between one subset of clergy against another can’t help but feel like an exercise in self-flagellation. Whilst Revd Fraser is talking about money, resources, governance I can’t help but feel all of this is downstream of where the real conversations need to be taking place. There are competing understandings of how the Church of England defines its goals. The leadership has failed to communicate its goals either by failing to convince, compel adoption, or clearly define them. I’ve been raised in the Church of England, and have an idea of how other traditions operate, I’ve also worked for companies at both the startup and enterprise level and the Church of England is easily one of the worst run I’ve ever encountered. That problem, however, is cultural, all the issues subsequently created, debated, and discussed are downstream of this. The cultural issues, I think, are in turn downstream of real spiritual issues within the organisation.
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.Revelation 2:4,5
2 thoughts on “Parish decline and pioneer ministry”
Thank you, Gildas.
I too have read Giles Fraser’s article in Unherd. I wanted to comment there, but felt there were too many issues I wanted to raise in connection with Rev Fraser’s analysis for such a comment to be effective. So thank you SO much for this analysis, for it corresponds closely to the points that I would have liked to raise; and most of your conclusions are pretty close too.
I am pretty certain that if I start going into detail, I”ll end up writing a full-length essay. So I’ll just say this about your general conclusions, and especially about issues cultural and spiritual. You so rightly say:
“That problem, however, is cultural, all the issues subsequently created, debated, and discussed are downstream of this. The cultural issues, I think, are in turn downstream of real spiritual issues within the organisation.”
The quotation from Revelation 2:4–5 is so relevant. But so too, I think is what the Lord says about the church in Laodicea — neither cold nor hot, complacent, an absence of “gold tried in the fire”, and so forth.
As a Reader in a Cornish parish that has a reputation — rightly, I think — for being orthodox, evangelical (in the traditional sense) and quite community-oriented, I am very aware of just how well the parish system can work. But I’m equally aware that many other parishes in Cornwall are struggling far more than we are. I’m not sure what I think of the pioneer ministry that Rev Fraser writes about. I know of one case in my area (not in my parish) where that ministry seems to work reasonably closely with the parish — and it seems to be reasonably effective, even though the parish is fairly high up the candle in styles of worship, and the new ministry is quite the opposite. I know of another, in another part of Cornwall, where the pioneers seem to have set up as a distinct group presenting an alternative to the parish.
All this reinforces one fundamental thing — that the church is the people.
Thanks again. I enjoy reading your blogs, and remember you in prayer.
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Thanks for your comment. I think the tricky thing with pioneer ministry is that, relatively speaking, it is still quite new and many of us aren’t in a position to have the whole picture and the subject is so partisan that any conclusions drawn by those who do have a fuller picture will inevitably be partially rooted in their presuppositions.
I can think of positive and negative examples of pioneer ministry but given the diversity of it, and the diversity of parish churches in the UK any comparison seems hard to make unilaterally. The result is, as you point out, lukewarm at best and any success or failure is based on how the individuals involved manage to relate to one another. Which is, as you say, both a cultural and spiritual issue.
I hope this finds you well!