The most profound call towards ‘local church’ that I know is: The word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. For generations the Church of England has been committed to the land and its people in the parish system. To be ‘a church near you’ is a profound calling. But I have to tell you it’s not working. We are flying into terrain at a frightening rate. Solidarity as the people of God is threatened as larger parish churches function as network churches, resource churches land in nearby cities like aliens from the planet #WeHaveBudget, and pastoral reorganisations put duty upon duty.
Down here in the weeds of the local parishes it feels a very long way away from Church House in London from Synod, from Renewal and Reform, even from the Diocese. In a lot of places we are out of choices and local church is quietly ejecting itself into the river and drowning. Increasingly it doesn’t matter whether the parish is a well functioning unit or a multi headed nightmare who’ve needed six ‘services of reconciliation’ in four years, like our friends in the Benefice of Maple Syrup and Cracked Eggs, with Peculiar Mill and Leaky Churn, commonly known as the Benefice of the Pancakes
The revitalisation of the A Church Near You service is amazing. It Just Works™ It hits the spot for users and meets the web needs of many parishes outright. A Church Near You is a blessing firstly because the service reflects popular understanding that the Church of England is a church near you, whatever you think that means. Literally and metaphorically that’s what people are searching for. The hitch is that too many rounds of pastoral reorganisation have left communities too often with a church near you every third Tuesday in the afternoon. Oops.
A Church Near You is orientated by parish. That might be the greatest gift to the missions of God through the Church of England for years. It says: look local, be local, love locally. Be a church near the people that your bishop and vicar share ‘the cure for souls’ of. It might be inconvenient if you run a multi-headed benefice. But understanding of these larger groups is poor among irregular churchgoers, non-christians, and those exploring faith. We haven’t shared the full facts about what these re-organisations mean into our communities. So why not take this opportunity to use the best of technology to mesh with the understanding that people already have of our church.
As a communicator everything about the A Church Near You approach seems right. It’s research led, has ‘meeting user needs’ as the first priority, and speaks to specific constituencies. I’m a church communications volunteer in a reasonable well functioning benefice of three parishes. Our communications reflect how we the church are organised: as a shared team across three parishes. I suddenly shudder, and wonder if my practice is being shaped as much by the structure I inherit as the Victorians’ were by their lovely impractical and expensive buildings. Because that would be a bad thing right?
It’s painfully evident that a lot of vulnerable people have been abused sexually, or otherwise by churches or while in the orbit of churches. I confess that, as a junior bod in the regional church, I didn’t take this nightmare seriously enough. Neither did I make an adequate linkage of the prevalence of abuse with the number of people who had been execrably treated on account of their mental health, differences in physicality or sexuality. The linkages between the behaviour that permits spiritual abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are disturbingly clear. I worry about this because I don’t think it’s fixed. Too many churches seem to be in denial that ‘people can get spiritually hurt here’ and live with an unspoken understanding that so long as leavers = joiners-1% then things are ok. I’m still persistently shocked by number of people who I speak to whose mental health, physical differences or sexuality has been cause for deliberate exclusion and discrimination by churches
The problem is the urgent need for the re-evangelisation of England. This isn’t a few churches here or there not doing so well. I don’t think this will come from from large planting operations – whoever sponsors them. Looking around the world I don’t know any other way to do that than hard labour and possibly martyrdom, in it’s many forms, for many evangelists, priests, missionaries, prophets and teachers – working in chaplaincies; in prisons; among those grieving badly; in schools and in every place where people spend money, take leisure, and do work. Improving our communications, digitally and in the flesh is critical to understanding how people in our parishes see the world. Understanding that worldview is key to truthful performance of gospel speaking and gospel acting. What truthful performance means in a postmodern world is tricky. But it is only in the love and truth of God that the holy community can be holy and safe for all.
In a time of national and regional church projects with big budgets, uncertain outcomes, and variable approval or consent between different sectors of the church, The fact A Church Near You and the regular national seasonal campaigns are effective, freely given and tangibly working so short a time after they were first mooted gives them importance beyond their immediate purpose. Look: ‘it says, here are resources, services, and facilities that respect the theological width of the church’. These national things truly gifts given for the common good at local level. They recognise, like the Bishop’s Commission for Mission in the Diocese of Winchester that the time is now, the need is now, and the recent past can be no template for the near future.